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Setting Norms

August 1, 2011

We have a mailing list set up for current and former members of the SMC, where some very productive conversations take place. Recently, danah asked for recommendations for academic work about how social norms are created and maintained (preferably involving technology, but not necessarily). “Norms” are the behaviors and standards considered acceptable by a particular social group.

We know that norms get established around certain technologies, which gets complicated when different groups using those technologies have different norms of use. Here’s a quick example. On MySpace, “thanks for the add” graphics were common. When a new person added you, it was expected that you would go to their profile and thank them for adding you. E.g. this beauteous graphic:

tacky animated glitter gif reading thanks for the add

In other social groups, this was considered beyond tacky and irritating. The cacophony of images and sounds on MySpace contributed to people fleeing to Facebook, where “thanks for the add” graphics have never caught on, and posting random images on people’s walls isn’t done much at all. We can assume that many of the same fervent “thanks for the add” graphics enthusiasts are on Facebook today, but haven’t re-established the practice.

So how do these norms get established? Danah’s question brought up some interesting literature. Here’s a sample, with brief snippets of why they were recommended:

Social Norms Suggested Reading
in alphabetical order

Elijah Anderson’s Place on the Corner. [Google Books Preview]
From Amazon: “a study of street corner life at a local barroom/liquor store located in the ghetto on Chicago’s South Side. Anderson returned night after night, month after month, to gain a deeper understanding of the people he met, vividly depicting how they created—and recreated—their local stratification system.”

Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986).
“Presents a comprehensive theory of human motivation and action from a social-cognitive perspective. This insightful text addresses the prominent roles played by cognitive, vicarious, self-regulatory, and self-reflective processes in psychosocial functioning; emphasizes reciprocal causation through the interplay of cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors; and systematically applies the basic principles of this theory to personal and social change.”

Christina Bicchieri studies social norms. Her book, The Grammar of Society: the Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms (Cambridge University Press, 2006), covers “how norms may emerge and become stable, why an established norm may suddenly be abandoned, how is it possible that inefficient or unpopular norms survive, and what motivates people to obey norms. In order to answer some of these questions, I have combined evolutionary and game-theoretic tools with models of decision making drawn from cognitive and social psychology. For example, I use my theory of context-dependent preferences to build more realistic evolutionary models of the emergence of pro-social norms of fairness and reciprocity.”

Bourdieu’s Logic of Practice [Google Books Preview]
Covers “how the practical concerns of daily life condition the transmission and functioning of social or cultural forms.” Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, “the set of socially learnt dispositions, skills and ways of acting, that are often taken for granted, and which are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life” [definition shamefully taken from Wikipedia] is generally very useful. Two other books that I’ve read that take up Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and elaborate on it are Phillipe Bourgois’ “In Search of Respect” [Google Books Preview] (an ethnography of a crack house, basically) and Lois Wacquant’s “Body and Soul” (a boxing gym) [Bootleg version found on Scribd].

Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological. [Summary notes]
It’s a very difficult read, but he talks in detail about how the “normal” and the “deviant” (pathological– he’s focused on medicine & biology) are constructed through the production of knowledge.

Harold Garfinkel’s “Studies in Ethnomethodology” (a 1967 classic). [Google Books Preview]
Several of us are big fans of this work, which focuses on how people produce shared senses of reality (norms, etc.). How do we understand what is “common sense”? How are social norms reinforced? Christian Sandvig wrote a great post on this blog a few days ago where he talked about Garfinkel’s “breaching experiments.” Christian and colleagues have come up with a series of “social media breaching experiments”, or experimenting to figure out what’s taken for granted or expected on different services like Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration [Wikipedia page]. Outlined in “The Constitution of Society,” [Google Books Preview]
Giddens tries to work out the relationship between macro/micro or “structure and agency.” Society is reproduced through repeated micro-actions by individuals.

Kulick, D. and Schieffelin, B. (2007). “Language Socialization.” In A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. Alessandro Duranti. Malden, MA: 349-368. [PDF]
This is great work on how social practices are “framed, keyed, and constituted through speech and other expressive resources” (from Bambi Scheiffelin’s “Acquisition of Cultural Practice” syllabus– I was lucky enough to take a class with her at NYU).

Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation [Google Books Preview]
From this approach, norms exist in the social practices that people learn as they come to participate in a community of practitioners. (Note: I don’t think you can finish graduate school without being assigned this book at some point. It comes up all the time in discussions about learning, teaching, norms, socialization, practice, etc.)

Elinor Ochs. Ochs is a linguistic anthropologist in a similar tradition as Bambi Schieffelin and Don Kulick’s piece above.
A nice recent sample of her work is “The Cultural Structuring of Mealtime Socialization “[PDF link] which looks at how shared mealtimes are used to socialize children. She has a great book with Lisa Capps, “Constructing Panic“, which looks at how one woman continually re-constitutes her identity as an agoraphobe. Links to many of Och’s publications are available at her website.

Ev Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations [Google Book Preview]
The classic B-school book on how new ideas are created & spread through society. Includes a lot of solid Comm theory and popularized the term “early adopter.”

Lucy Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication [Google Books Preview]
Suchman writes, “By situated actions I mean simply actions taken in the context of particular, concrete circumstances.”

Ann Swidler (1986) “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review, 51(2), 273-286.[PDF link found through Google]

Culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a repertoire or “tool kit” of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct “strategies of action.” Two models of cultural influence are developed, for settled and unsettled cultural periods. In settled periods, culture independently influences action, but only by providing resources from which people can construct diverse lines of action. In unsettled cultural periods, explicit ideologies directly govern action, but structural opportunities for action determine which among competing ideologies survive in the long run. This alternative view of culture offers new opportunities for systematic, differentiated arguments about culture’s causal role in shaping action.

Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal [Google Books preview link]. In 1999, Warner argued that establishing gay marriage as the major issue for queer activists risked shaming and pathologizing certain types of sexual behavior while reifying others.

Zerubavel’s “Social Mindscapes: An Introduction to Cognitive Sociology” [Google Books preview link]

Zerubavel illuminates the social foundation of mental actions such as perceiving, attending, classifying, remembering, assigning meaning, and reckoning the time. What takes place inside our heads, he reminds us, is deeply affected by our social environments, which are typically groups that are larger than the individual yet considerably smaller than the human race. Thus, we develop a nonuniversal software for thinking as Americans or Chinese, lawyers or teachers, Catholics or Jews, Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers. Zerubavel explores the fascinating ways in which thought communities carve up and classify reality, assign meanings, and perceive things, “defamiliarizing” in the process many taken-for-granted assumptions.

What did we forget?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. niftyc permalink
    August 1, 2011 5:16 pm

    Wow, what a resource. Thank you so much for writing this up! –Christian

  2. August 2, 2011 11:04 am

    I would add to the list The social system by Talcott Parsons and, for a more dynamic perspective, Social systems by Niklas Luhmann. Social norms are defined by Luhmann as expectations “not disposed toward learning” (e.g. retained even if disappointed). See:

  3. August 10, 2011 9:42 am

    Great list, Alice! Super useful. Related to social norms is also the concept of anomie, which is explored in depth by Émile Durkheim in his classical book ‘Suicide’ (1897). Anomie (and anomic suicide) corresponds to a lack of social norms (normlessness), to a lack of regulation of the individual by society or to a set of strict norms. It is an old sociological work, but I still think Durkheim’s conceptualization of norms and anomie is extremely applicable and pretty much timeless 🙂

  4. August 23, 2011 12:35 pm

    Nice and very interesting article. I really enjoyed the information given here. It’s very useful and informative for me to write a new article on the same topic.

  5. September 5, 2011 6:09 am

    S66fO7 pehiofxkmhlg

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