People-watching is the goal of a U of M student groupby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
There are hundreds of student groups at the University of Minnesota. Most of them are the type you might expect, like the chemistry club or the chess club. But one student group is dedicated to the simple act of watching people.
St. Paul, Minn. — Campus People Watchers goes beyond having fun; they're also making cultural, psychological and sociological observations. David Shaffer, a sophomore political science student, formed the group last year.
"People going out and watching people is a daily occurrence," Shaffer said. "Acknowledging the fact that there are subtle nuances between human interaction, funny things that people do, is something that should be shared with other people and not deemed creepy."
Keeping the group's activities fun, and not creepy, is a high priority.
"Going to a store and watching people pick out their clothes, I think that might be kind of creepy," admitted Shaffer. "We would never do that."
Despite its name, Campus People Watchers doesn't limit itself to the University of Minnesota campus. Recently they took in a perfect event for some hardcore people-watching -- this week's St. Patrick's Day parade in St. Paul.
The 10 members on hand -- there are about 15 total in the group -- have some idea of what they hope to see. Group member Elora Turner penned a list and read it to the group.
"Corned beef-eating competition, Irish jig, a person who's not wearing green would be a fun point."
For each item they check off the list, they give themselves "fun points." The more points they end up with, the more fun they've had.
But here's a twist. At the invitation of a friend of one of the members, the People Watchers group ended up marching in the parade.
A group that was formed to watch people, found itself being watched by thousands. The role reversal didn't seem to bother Kathleen Olson.
"We're just strolling by looking at everybody, like window shopping, but for people," said Olson.
The group continued its people-watching from the middle of the parade pack. Katie Beddow, a 20-year old marketing student, spotted characters in the crowd.
"We saw a guy that dyed his beard completely green," said Beddow. "And a lot of dogs that are dressed up and people wearing the most outrageous outfits."
Her people watching goes beyond having fun, Beddow said. The interactions she spied might be helpful in her marketing studies.
"People are selling products on either side of the street and they're yelling out to people, 'Buy me, Buy me!' And people do it...on a whim, it's great product placement," said Beddow.
At the end of the parade, the Campus People Watchers group went through its list to check off what they saw. People in big hats? Check. Babies in child carriers on parents' backs? Check. Bagpipes? Check.
But what about wider social and psychological observations? For one, they saw a strong family bond in the day's events.
In the end though, group leader David Shaffer doesn't want to take it all too seriously.
"We're not social scientists and we don't pretend to be," Shaffer said. "We're more of the fun side of a sociologist. Maybe we strive to act like we have credibility ... but when it comes down to it, it doesn't really matter, we're just a student group ... people watching people."
The group plans to keep up its people-watching ways. So the next time you're out people-watching yourself, the Campus People Watchers could be watching you.
- All Things Considered, 03/20/2009, 5:54 p.m.