Researching Stranger Theory

To make sense of the interactions in my photographs I wanted to research the way theorists analyse our communications with strangers.

“A direct consequence of alienation of man from the product of his labour, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men, and that each of the other is likewise alienated from human life.” 
(Marx, 1884, P.17)


Karl Marx suggests that our seemingly hostile interactions with strangers are related to our social class. Our labours alienate us from one another and in time have separated communities in social isolation. However, these interactions are said to be more complex and have a lot to do with underlying physiological issues. Emile Durkheim’s term ‘anomie’ refers to an inability to understand social norms; even a lack of social interactions within our intimate circles, as referred to by Morgan in Passing Acquaintances. From experience and word of mouth we learn about social obligations and how we should respond to strangers. From a young age we are taught to not talk to strangers because of safety and fear of the unknown. But from experience on public transport like the London Underground, we become enclosed and vulnerable in these small spaces, and become obligated to shut out society. Erin Taylor shares her experiences…

‘I catch the eye of the girl sitting next to me and we exchange a few words. Then I notice two young, well-dressed men smirking at us from the other end of the carriage. Have I done something wrong? I realise that I have broken the golden social rule: never talk to strangers, even if out-of-the ordinary events are occurring. It strikes me as quite perverse.’

Taylor, Erin (



Public transport is an example of where we are put in a position where we have the option to interact; being in close proximity surely warrants interaction, but instead we choose not to. Esther Kim sees us all as having these obligations to sit, walk or stand alone, regardless of class or appearance; and society dictates this. She highlights three key behaviours within our interactions with strangers, as summarised in an article about anthropology ( …

1. ‘Firstly, we are all trying to avoid conflict; second or third hand witness to conflict can reinforce and create non-social transient behaviour.’

2. ‘Secondly, we are especially trying to avoid becoming a victim of crime or physical danger.’

3. ‘Thirdly, when travelling in tight spaces (tubes, trains, busses, streets) with potential delays, one becomes irritated and less likely to interact.’

Kim’s analysis shares behaviours that we can all acknowledge, but rarely are aware of it when it is happening, it is a reaction that happens instantaneously.

Theorists from the Industrial Revolution blame changes in technologies and scientific advances for our social alienation. Ferdinand Tonnies (1877) believes it changes how we form our relationships, it gives alternative to traditional methods which provides a juxtaposition for interactions. Tonnies’ ideas transcend to the digital age, and how social media has influenced how we form our relationships, it offers an alternative makes us consider our interactions differently.


In a study about commuters carried out by the University of Chicago, it found that those who interacted with others on their commute had a better experience that those who ‘enjoyed’ the journey in solitude. In response to this study Bradon Thompson for the Huffington Post stated that ‘Comfort is the enemy of happiness and success’ ( A high handed claim, but nevertheless, the study proves it to be the case, and from personal experiences I also believe it to be so; that when we are at our most vulnerable is when we are most likely to connect. Researcher Brene Brown talks about vulnerability and connection. She believes that the one thing that stops us being worthy of connection is our fear that we aren’t worthy of connection. The people who were seen to be worthy of connection were linked by their courage, they were willing to let go of who they should be and become who they were; they fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful.


Brene’s research relates to our relationships with intimates, but also with our possible relationships with strangers. Those who have compassion are more likely to start conversations, or extend conversations with those they don’t know.

‘The stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people.’

Simmel, G. The Stranger (

Simmel suggests that interactions with strangers is what we make it to be. We all have commonalities, but its whether we choose to embrace them.

From researching theories surrounding talking to strangers, I’ve found that there are several different ways of looking at it. We can see technological advances, psychological factors or class differences as reasons. But they all combine to add anxiety to the topic. We all react differently to strangers in different spaces because of anxieties and vulnerabilities, if we embrace these then we might be able build on it.

My project doesn’t act as a solution, it is an observation of our vulnerabilities. Whether that be embracing them or displaying them, it acts as a visual that represents them. It allows people the space to observe the conversation and see, maybe even imagine themselves in that position. But how I communicate this would be within the presentation of these conversations.


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