Tram watching: a sociological case study

photo of people riding on city tram

The aim of this essay is to analyse the sociological significance of observations made at a Melbourne tram stop through the lens of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, arguing that this case study supports notions of embodied capital.

Observations were conducted at a busy Melbourne city tram stop with the bulk of scrutiny conducted during a frenetic weekday lunchtime. Observations focused on specific elements: observing what happens when people alight from a tram; when people board a tram; when people queue for a ticket, and so forth.

Observations are divided into three main areas: the use of technology: social etiquette and behaviour: and the movement of people. First, regarding the use of technology, most people at the stop had a mobile phone in their hand to which they referred either continually or periodically; regardless of which, the item was always close at hand. Second, when people boarded a tram, noise levels of conversation generally dropped to a quieter tone. Finally, the movement of people around the tram stop, whilst seemingly ad hoc in nature, seemed nonetheless conducive to the creation of a perceived sense of calm and order. Even though there were no clear pathways or directions for people to follow, they seemed to move about with a sense of calm, purpose, and quietness. Indeed, on the occasion when an elderly lady reprimanded a tram driver for some perceived ill, it seemed all movement on the station suddenly stopped to observe, then with no overt signals to each other and seemingly in slow motion, everyone resumed moving with the same certainty with which they’d begun.

Regarding the seemingly high instances of people either constantly or regularly referring to their phones whilst both waiting and moving along the tram stop, academic, Richard Hoggart’s (1957, p. 3-14) argument that we must look past just collecting data to discover the meaning behind people’s actions is a useful lens through which to view this behaviour. One interpretation of the sociological significance of this behaviour is that the phone acts as a proxy social being, providing the user with constant interaction and company. In this way, it dissolves them from both having to rouse the effort to converse with others and bear the grim task of having to be alone with private thoughts. The perception of being socially active rather than lonely may also come into play as reasons for users having their phone in constant proximity. In this particular case, Hoggart (1957, p. 3-14) might also lament the intrusion of ‘mass culture’ into even the mundane task of waiting for a tram, at the expense of the social practice of personal interaction.

The famous sociologist, Norbert Elias argues that the act of ‘becoming civilised’ is an “ongoing process or part of a process in which we are ourselves involved” (1978, p. 52). Indeed, using this lens to regard people’s social behaviour at this tram stop, one indeed notices that travellers seem to modify their behaviour depending on their surroundings and according to pre-learned rules of etiquette. Their teachings no doubt emanate from a range of sources, from social observance of others to public campaigns conducted by relevant authorities on correct travelling etiquette. Regardless of the source, however, it seems people have been ‘educated’ in the ‘civilised’ way of travelling, with these rules created, implemented, and dispensed from higher ‘authorities’ to others. That is, processes have been implemented within society, via human relations and social structures (Elias 1978, p. 52), that facilitate people learning the ‘rules’ of social etiquette when travelling. Indeed, whilst the actual breech of these ‘civilising’ rules was not witnessed in this case study, one might well imagine (drawing on culminating experiences of this culture), that sanctions, such as stern looks, gestures, or words, may be imposed upon those who stray from adhering to these ‘rules.’

The unspoken and yet known ways of the movement of people around the tram stop, elicited thoughts of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1986, p. 241-258) concept of ‘fields’ and ‘habitus.’ Through this theory, Bourdieu asserts that when people are in a particular ‘field’ (which comprises its own set of rules) with which they are familiar, these people have knowledge about what type of ‘capital’ is valued, whether it be economic, social, or cultural. That is, they have a ‘feel for the game’; of what type of behaviour is acceptable or not, and which rules to follow. This is seemingly ‘ingrained’ into their habits, skills, and bodily dispositions, or ‘habitus.’ But, Bourdieu argues, (1986, p. 241-258) these ways in which we learn to navigate social environments are in fact culturally developed. In the case of the tram stop, to move around the tram stop in such a way as to not require verbal instruction whilst simultaneously not impeding upon the movement of others, indicates a knowing of the ‘game’ or the ‘rules’ of the tram stop. By adhering to the ‘rules’ of this field, the travellers, in turn, hold valuable capital.

In conclusion, therefore, it seems that even taking the seemingly mundane case study of people boarding and alighting trams, actually provides a rich canvas for analysing the way people embody valuable capital.


Bourdieu, P 1986, ‘The forms of capital’, in J Richardson (ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, Greenwood, New York, pp. 241-258.

Elias, N 1978-82,The history of the concept of civilite, Wiley, London, pp. 47-52.

Hoggart, R 1957 [2006], ‘Who are the working classes?’, in The uses of literacy, Transaction publishers, New York, pp. 3-14.

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