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An Online Journal With Nothing Exciting to Report

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The move this summer from Fullerton to Millersville, Pa., gave Scott Schaffer the opportunity to wax banal. And as one of the founding editors of the Journal of Mundane Behavior, he had just the right forum for it.

“There’s a lot of coordination involved in moving,” Schaffer wrote. “Figuring out where you’re going, where you’re going to live, how you’re going to get your stuff there, what stuff you’re going to take, how you’re going to get yourself there, and all of those associated decisions.”

Yet that veneer of tedium hides a darker reality. When we move, he says, we pack up possessions but often leave behind the people who give human context to our lives.

That gap between the material and the human exposes the fear that impels our sometimes frenetic attempts to fill our waking hours with work, play and chores--attempts, Schaffer wrote, to distract ourselves from the inevitable darkness.

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“The real problem with moving is that it’s a radical form of social change,” Schaffer concluded. “It jars us from the routinized aspects of our daily lives and makes us acutely aware of how tenuous it all is.”

All that, from filling out a change-of-address form.

Yet that’s the Journal of Mundane Behavior’s mission--to explore the roles that routine and the commonplace play in framing human behavior and societies. Founded two years ago at Cal State Fullerton, the free online-only journal (https://www.mundanebehavior.org) is a serious attempt to take a humorous academic look at the superstructure of modern life.

There are times, though, when humor is the wrong tool for enlightenment. So in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the journal posted a short, serious passage that went to the heart of terrorism’s effects on those outside the killing zone. Such attacks, the editors wrote, make us suspicious of our routines, and uneasy within the rhythms of our own lives.

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“Since terrorism’s goal is to destroy everydayness by instilling fear, the only way to combat its effects is by maintaining a sense of normalcy in the face of any threat,” the editors wrote. “The entire definition of ‘normal, routine, everyday life’ will change from here on out, both in the U.S. and abroad.... We will all have to learn how to live normal, routine, boring, ordinary lives once again.”

Where most sociologists study abnormal behavior, the journal began as a merger of the founding editors’ desire to explore the routine in a way that would draw in both academics and general readers.

“We’re taking the stance of the public intellectual,” said co-founder Myron Orleans, a sociology professor at Cal State Fullerton. “We are intellectual but we are also open to the public, where most sociology journals are not gearing themselves to the public. We’re not concerned with the prestige of the journal in academia, but I hasten to point out that it is peer-reviewed and we hold our contributors to considerable standards. And one of the standards is to make it readable.”

In a sense, the journal publishes evidence supporting conclusions already reached by Schaffer and Orleans. Our attention, they believe, is drawn to the flamboyant and the edgy, to issues and events that surf along the fringes of the commonplace. But the core of our lives, and our times, is defined by the commonplace.

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“It is such an odd thing to study,” Orleans acknowledges. “The journal could be such a marvelous vehicle for expanding this kind of discourse on everydayness, and taking it seriously, to an extent.”

Schaffer said the idea clicked to life when he read a paper on sociological theory in which the author wryly urged exploration of the accepted, such as whiteness instead of ethnicity, or masculinity instead of femininity.

“He’d written in there that while he was personally devoted to the study of deviance, no one was devoted to studying conformity,” Schaffer said. “I started laughing out loud. I took the whole idea of approaching this with a sense of humor and being fairly ironic about who it is we are and what we’re doing, while maintaining academic integrity.”

The journal is, in the academic jargon, an interdisciplinary publication. One essay, based on a passing moment in an elevator in Japan, explored how strangers interact more openly when encountering each other in the closed but public arena of an elevator, versus a street or hallway. Other essays analyzed the role of Latino telenovelas in shoring up women’s conceptions of emancipation in Bulgaria, and how people find pleasure, and meaning, in shopping.

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“We do not merely enter a Wal-Mart and buy sponge mop refills and lightbulbs; we become Wal-Mart shoppers,” wrote sociologists Chris Nagel and Jim Williams in the October 2000 issue. To become a Wal-Mart shopper, they went on, is to become a buyer in “the open field of possible purchases.”

Change stores, though, and the meaning of shopping changes.

“You can’t shop Wal-Mart without becoming a Wal-Mart shopper, but that is not to say that you remain a Wal-Mart shopper once you enter the Gap,” they wrote.

Initially based at Fullerton, where Schaffer taught sociology while completing his PhD, the journal now has two homes: Fullerton and Millersville University, in southeastern Pennsylvania, where Schaffer recently began a tenure-track job teaching in the sociology and anthropology department.

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Like any new publication, the journal has struggled for acceptance. Charles Camic, co-editor of the University of Wisconsin-based American Sociological Review, one of the nation’s premier academic sociology journals, said he was vaguely aware of JMB but knew little about it. Susan Allen, managing editor of the American Journal of Sociology, based at the University of Chicago, had never heard of the upstart.

“I don’t know if that says more about them or us,” she said with a laugh.

With a steady readership of up to 4,000 people per issue, the journal can already claim a modicum of success. Nearly 70 libraries, including those at Harvard and Yale Universities, link to the journal on their electronic resources pages, Schaffer said.

Yet some potential readers are put off by the serious overtones, Schaffer said.

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“My department chair here [at Millersville University] told her husband about it, and he was excited because he thought it was going to be completely humorous,” Schaffer said. “He was disappointed that we were serious about the thing.”

Among the journal’s readers--and a contributor--is Gerard J. DeGroot, a San Diego native who chairs the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland.

DeGroot wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor last year about how perceptions of history are skewed by our lurid interest in catastrophic events--wars, assassinations and epidemics--over the less scintillating realities of everyday life.

DeGroot’s argument dovetailed with Schaffer’s interest in exploring the difficulties in combating the inertia of routine in sparking social change, and the editors asked DeGroot to expand on the theme for the journal.

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“I hadn’t heard of it until then,” DeGroot said in a telephone interview from St. Andrews. “To be quite honest about it, I wanted to have on my [resume] the Journal of Mundane Behavior because I think it just has a wonderful title.”

DeGroot said he has since read back issues and has developed a keen interest in its outlook.

“I had to look through it before I submitted to make sure that this wasn’t just a bunch of wackos,” DeGroot said. “I’m impressed by the range of things and the intelligence of the submissions.”

Among his favorites: an excerpt from the book “Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible,” an examination by Southwest State University regional studies professor Joseph A. Amato of “dust’s role as a condition of life and as a measure of the small until the start of this century.”

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“You have to admire the editors--they’re a lot different than most of the academic journal editors I’ve come across,” DeGroot said.

In some ways, the journal has attracted more attention than mainstream academic journals, he said.

Shortly after his essay on mundane history appeared, DeGroot was invited to talk about the subject on a BBC radio program in England--something that had never followed publication of any of his articles in more traditional academic journals.

Orleans said he likes providing an alternative outlet for young scholars, but that bucking the conglomeration of publishing houses isn’t part of the game plan.

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“We’re happy at this point to be online and there’s no fee,” Orleans said. “We’re also not making a profit. This is a labor of love.”

The journal’s volunteer staff has grander plans. The Web site already has a special “outburst” section, described as “a virtual soapbox” where opinion pieces--including one in poem form--are published between issues. The site also sponsors a message group for those who wish to exchange mundane ideas.

Next up: a special issue on mundane sex.

“That issue started as a joke,” Schaffer said. “One of my colleagues at Fullerton had suggested we do an issue on mundane sex and he was going to try to be the poster boy.

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“We told him as long as there are no video products, it would be fine.”


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