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Diversity and Seat Position among College Students in America and Israel
by Gilda Haber, PhD
Montgomery College and University of Maryland University College

This paper discusses "natives" and "marginals" in America and Israel, and compares their spatial behavior in formal groups. Natives in America are native-born white, Anglo-Saxon Christians whose first language is English. In Israel, natives are those born in Israel and whose first language is Hebrew. Spatial position in a formal group such as a classroom, business or servicemen's training group is a non-verbal expression of feeling integrated with or "outside" the group.

With rare exceptions, such as Obama, natives hold most, and marginals hold less political power than natives. Natives often excluded or still exclude marginals from the dominant group's territory. As noted by Simmel in Stonequist (1961), the "outsider" "stranger" or marginal man, is often found on the spatial peripheries of a native or dominant group. Outcastes in India lived spatially apart from society, Gypsies were forced by rulers to live Falu Vega, (Beynon) on the outside of the city; rulers forced Jews to live outside the rulers' area in walled ghettoes (Wirth). Nazis confined Jews to ghettoes preparatory to extermination. Muslim societies confined Jews to specific areas (Bat Yeor). Marginals, like Gypsies, Jews, and Africans in non-African societies, are often confined to spatial areas outside those of the ruling ethnic, religious or racial group. Is this hierarchical territorial division of natives and marginals reflected in all countries and at all times, regardless of cultural "advances"? Is it reproduced in social microcosms like the classroom, business, or servicemen's training groups? Is the spatial separation of marginals from natives coincidental? Bodily spatial position and distance are forms of non-verbal behavior and are not accidental, but a psychological-cultural statement of one's perceived status in a particular group.

Most social scientists who study non-verbal behavior concentrate on microkinetic body-language such as smiles or leaning forward as supposed signs of positive response, frowns as negative. Haber and others, (Ardrey) (Goffman) (Morris) study macrokinetic body language in a formal group as a form of non-verbal behavior. Macrokinetic non-verbal behavior refers to where one places the entire body (sits or stands) spatially in relation to the rest of a group, in the center or on the group's outside.

Spatial hierarchical positions exist also among herds. Leaders occupy the spatial front of elephant and deer herds, and protect the elite in the central positions in the herd. Least important travel in the back, and low-ranking unmated animals hold the sidelines and are often run off from the herd. (Side-sitters in Haber's earlier studies more often than others said they used drugs.)

In this author's 1976 and 2008 studies of hierarchy and spatial position, natives significantly more often sat in central positions in a formal group and marginals significantly more often sat on the peripheries, or on the outside of the formal group. By a formal group, the author refers to a group seated in rows (across about eight) and at least four columns (front to back) such as is found in most college classrooms, in business, association, conference, or servicemen's training sessions. Presumed, is free choice of seating and 15-40 participants who focus on some authority or informant.

Peripheral seating was measured by counting natives and marginals sitting in the back row, front row, or last on either side of a row between and excluding front and back rows. Imagine drawing a connecting line around these peripheral people and one has a rough circle: peripherals. Joining the line of all those sitting inside this circle shows us the centrals producing two concentric circles; the "outer" circle constitutes mainly peripherals and marginals and the "inner" circle, mainly native centrals. Even though front, back and side sitters are all considered peripherals, there are differences between those seated front, back and sides.

Comparing identification with authority and peers, front seaters appear to identify with authority, back seaters with peers. Side seaters identify with neither, and centrals appear to identify with both. This theory is based on questionnaires in the author's earlier studies correlated with seat position.

The following table supports the theory that natives, earlier called dominants, sit spatially central to the group, and marginals sit peripherally:

Central Peripherals Total

# % # % # %
Or Natives
16 50 16 50 32 100
(All others)
18 23 60 77 78 100
Totals 34 31 76 69 110 100

Chi Square = 29.4, p < .001

Haber (1984)
This shows a high significance between natives and spatially central seating and marginals' peripheral seating.

The writer's original studies were carried out in 1976, before the entry of significant numbers of Hispanic and Asian students in America. At that time, the main student body in the study was composed of White Anglo-Saxon Americans, and African Americans, with a sprinkling of European Jewish and Catholic immigrants. Extensive research has yielded no similar research by others since the author's earliest studies. Present visual observation of students in college classrooms shows an entrenched tendency for African Americans and Africans to occupy the peripheries of the group. One Asian student often occupies an isolated position between the ending of one ethnic group, i.e. Caucasians and the beginning of another ethnic group such as Africans or Hispanics. The multi-diverse group, in particular, Hispanics, may still be trying to understand its hierarchical position in a group and meanwhile tends to band with like ethnic and racial others. African Americans tend to remain peripheral: their hierarchical status much older, and more entrenched than that of new Hispanic and Asian immigrants.

The writer long wished to replicate her earlier American studies of seat position and marginality in another country, to explore whether in a country with diversity greatly different from that found in America, natives would still sit centrally and marginals, on the outskirts of the group, and also, whether this tendency persisted over time, in 2009.

Invited to speak at an international conference in Beer Sheva, Israel, in 2009, the author received permission to observe two Hebrew University classes in Jerusalem and to give students a very short questionnaire. There was not time, nor were there resources to organize scientifically based observation and research, so that the Israeli observations were merely exploratory case studies. No claim is made to scientific methodology or statistical significance, but simple use of an opportunity to observe spatial seating in another culture and at a later time than the earlier studies.

The author sat in on two classes at Hebrew University, and with the instructor's and administration permission, charted seat positions (and empty spaces). Each square represented a seat in the class. The writer then handed round the seating chart and asked students to enter into squares representing seats, their birthplace, gender, native and second language. Those born in Israel and whose native language was Hebrew, commonly called sabres, were classified as "natives." The word, sabre, is Hebrew for a "cactus," and meant to illustrate Israeli personality; prickly on the outside, soft inside. Marginals in Israel consisted of Jewish students born in Russia, Ethiopia, Asia, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, France and Peru. Included, was one Chinese student, religion unknown; and several Arab students who were either Muslim or Christian. This diversity, as intended, was far different from that of earlier study's mainly WASP and African American students. However, there was a parallel insofar as American natives were WASPS and Israeli natives were "sabres." All others were classified as marginals.

There was a significant time gap of nearly forty years between the studies, so that we could try to explore whether spatial hierarchy continues both across countries and time. Since both Israel and America have been influenced by British occupation, there may be more similarities in hierarchical structure than at first realized.

However, this Israeli mini-study differed from the original. In Haber's earlier study, twenty classes with 15-40 students in them were randomly chosen. In Israel, only two classrooms could be observed; they were not chosen randomly. The Israeli classrooms had barely twenty students each. Seating structure differed. In the US, there were always 40-60 seats available with at least four columns from front to back. In Israel, the second class had only three "columns" from front to back, and the "middle" row had only five seats. The mystery is, why only two of those five "central" seats were occupied. The front and back rows of the two classes were much longer than those observed in America, with respectively 16 and 11 seats in them, and placed in a semi-circle instead of in the US orderly rows and columns.

Because of its informal seat structure, and near absence of a center row of seats, the second class was not included in the chart below. But specifically because it lacks a clear center, this class serendipitously yielded interesting observations, discussed later. Another factor is that Israeli seating might not be as well-defined as American, since the head of the department said that instructors often moved students into small study groups.

This might reduce "territoriality" or adherence to one particular seat as found earlier.

Central and Peripheral Seating by Natives and Marginals in an Israeli Classroom

Centrals Peripherals Total
Native 5 (28%) 9 (72%) 14 100%
Marginal 1 (14%) 6 (86%) 7 100%

6 (100%) 15 (100%) 21

Chi Square= 1.8 n.s. p < .05

The possible number of centrals was diminished due to the fact that there were only two rows for centrals in the first class, and half a row in the second. However, in the first Israeli class as seen above, the majority of centrals were natives. Only one marginal, a Russian Jew sat amongst them. Peripheral natives in both classes sat largely in the front row.

In lacking a good size central seating area, i.e. a class with five or six columns front to back, we may have serendipitously created an experimental situation. If one removed central positions in a formal group, where would natives "migrate" to? In these two Israeli classes, most appear to have migrated to the front row, i.e. near the authority. The instructor most often represents the ruling power and natives, WASPS in Americas, sabres in Israel. However, the main ethnicity of Israeli professors has not been identified by the author, but of the many the author has met, most have been natives. As a case study, the Israeli classes observed suggest that as in America, natives more often than marginals occupy spatially occupy central positions. When natives are deprived of central seating, they may move to the front seats near authority. Authorities in America and Israel are largely natives. With larger and more formal classrooms, as in the original study, more significant results might be obtained in Israel. Possibly, in a more class conscious campus, an Ivy League college, a clearer hierarchy would appear. There is still the suggestion that in a different country with a totally different diversity, at a different time and with the differing seating arrangements, natives are more spatially central than marginals.

Early findings by the author (1984) indicate that after four sessions, hierarchical spatial position is established for the entire semester and that marginals arrive earlier to occupy peripheral spatial positions and leave later than natives, who arrive later and leave earlier than peripherals. Each individual respects others' spatial position in the group, and will not occupy a person's seat even during absence. Seat position is not accidental, but is a non-verbal statement of perceived hierarchical position in the group. America is now, with mass immigration, in a great state of ethnic change and class mobility. When and if American Indians, Africans, Hispanics and Asians rise in status and prestige, one can expect a clearer spatial hierarchy in America.

My thanks to Professor. Rose Pack Pilzer, and Dr. Sharon Hirsch, Hebrew University for permitting me to record spatial position and allow class participation.


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