Monday, April 16, 2012

Rules, norms, and consensus

As a college student, I took a course on Social Psychology. One of the few things I remember from the class was our discussion of social norms – defined, roughly, as widely accepted but unwritten rules of social conduct, violations of which are punished with various forms of censure. One day, the professor assigned us to violate a social norm and then write about the experience. As I recall, I fulfilled the assignment by blatantly eavesdropping on a couple at an adjacent table in the dining hall. This was a very uncomfortable experience, as it was supposed to be, since the point of the assignment was how powerful norms can be in shaping people’s conduct.

Norms are often more effective in restraining our behavior than laws are. No law says you have to shower regularly, but most people do. On the other hand, going five or ten miles per hour over the speed limit is illegal, but many people do it, because there is no corresponding norm calling down social censure on moderate speeders.

As the speeding example shows, norms cannot be legislated. They depend on consensus.

Norms can be a very good thing; we can all be grateful for the norm against eavesdropping. But some norms serve some people’s interests at the expense of others’. When enough people begin to think that a norm is unfair or dysfunctional, the consensus can break down.

I think we’re seeing that in the way that some parents are reacting to the norms that prevail in the public school system, especially as educational policies become more responsive to the desires of distant politicians and bureaucrats than to those of the parents and kids they serve. The mere existence of this blog is experienced by some people as a norm violation. (Indeed, many establishment institutions – in particular the mainstream media – sometimes seem to think of the blogosphere itself as one big norm violation.) My interactions with the school district about our school’s approach to behavior and discipline have convinced me that some of the prevailing norms serve only to perpetuate the status quo, and do not at all benefit the kids or improve their education. Don’t persist in asking a question when you don’t get an answer. Don’t publicly criticize anything that goes on in your kids’ school. Don’t expect school officials to publicly explain their reasons for their policies. Breaking these norms brings back some of those same feelings I felt during that Social Psychology homework assignment, but, against all my expectations, parenting has turned me into a serial norm violator.

I think something similar is happening in our school’s lunchroom. The school has the power to set rules and enforce them, but it can’t force the kids to buy into them or accept them as norms. Instead of recognizing that fact, the school is overestimating what it can achieve just by asserting authority over the kids. From what I hear, there are kids breaking rules in the lunchroom who seldom break them in their own classrooms, where the teachers have more successfully cultivated environments of cooperation and mutual respect. But creating an environment like that requires at least some consideration of whether your rules, and your efforts to enforce them, are reasonable and necessary. Like it or not, consensus is a two-way street.

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