How Neighbors Settle Disputes
Communities rumble along from day to day and year to year and not much changes and then all of the sudden something a little unusual happens and the community discovers that it contains a lot more variety in terms of behavior and beliefs than it new. When this variety appears in behaviors that are somehow near to how the community defines itself, we sometimes see the playing out of what you might call a "norms contest." Community members debate what is the rule, what is the practice, who are the people who are breaking the rule, what should be done, etc.
Online discussion communities (discussion lists not chat rooms, not blogs, not social network sites) are a ready source of traces of such contests. Although they are certainly different structurally (everyone has access to almost everything that everyone says) and contextually (they tend to be limited to a relatively narrow slice of real life issues) from community life in "the real world," they offer a unique opportunity to attempt to build a theory of the natural history of such contests.
Some sample topics I have seen on neighborhood lists are noise, parking and dogs (picking up after, leash, noise). On all lists you get period outbursts of "boundary testing" (does a particular posting topic belong on the list or not) and various questions of "netiquette."
Project: In this project you will use text of posts from one or more discussion lists or similar that documents a dispute about behavior in the community served by the list (either list behavior or real world behavior). You will attempt to come up with a theory of how these contests play out, looking for what appear to be typical and repeated patterns that reveal how members of a community "do" informal social control and how this shades off into personal control on the one side and more formal control (including, perhaps, law) on the other.