The untied-shoelace experiment

Details about the late Norbert Elias’s international untied-shoelace experiments were difficult to track down. But Ingo Mörth found them.

Mörth, a professor at the Johannes Kepler Universität in Linz, Austria, broke the news in an article called “The shoelace breaching experiment”, published in the June 2007 issue of Figurations: Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation.

“Norbert Elias started a series of breaching experiments, beginning ad hoc, and ending in various situations in Spain, France, England, Germany and Switzerland. He strolled around in all these contexts with intentionally untied and trailing shoelaces.”

Elias had an eminent career as a sociologist, beginning in Germany in the 1930s. After retiring as a reader at the University of Leicester in 1964, he went a-wandering, doing sociological research as a byproduct of his tourism.

In the Spanish fishing village of Torremolinos in 1965, giggling girls spurred him to realise that his left shoelace “was untied and trailing”. Mörth describes the magic that resulted…

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.