Ethical Dimensions of Conflict
Lecture 3

Social Norms

Individuals, groups and cultures choose between different norms. What happens when they come into conflict?
Societies and cultures encourage their members to follow legal, moral or social norms.

But why do we choose to follow them, and how might conflicts emerge from that choice?
"Every society has its norms," says instructor Nalini Ramlakhan, and they serve different functional purposes. And while we might feel immense pressure (internal or external) to follow them, we have the choice to act as we like. Social structures may then decide to reward or punish us for that choice, and these dynamics can lead to conflict.

But there are all sorts of norms out there, and not all of them come with the same penalties (or benefits). It depends on all sorts of factors, like culture, status, justification and, of course, what kind of norm we're talking about. Because not all norms are created equal.

Types of Norm

If a 'norm' can be said to be expected types of group behaviour in a given context, then we can break them down into different classes.

First you have formal norms, often called legal norms. These are formalized and written into law, often with penalties for disobeying them (at least on paper). Speeding on the highway, robbing a bank or committing domestic abuse would all break legal norms in many societies – but just because they break legal norms doesn't necessarily mean that perpetrators will be punished.

This is because there are also informal norms, and they can impact the way legal norms are applied or supported. These can break down into two separate groups: social norms and moral norms. Social norms are more about conventions like wearing black to funerals or giving people their personal space – there can be harsh social penalties, but often even the most serious end in ostracization.

Moral norms can be dicier, because they deal with our concepts of right and wrong. Crossing a moral line might not mean crossing a moral line, but the penalties from the people around us can range from silent judgement all the way to honour killings.

The penalties suffered when breaking a given norm are known as sanctions, and it's a language that's often used in situations where a punishment comes from your peers instead of from a common authority. Like with international law.

Social norms are often divided into different types depending on the sanctions associated with them. Socio-cultural rules that are expected but not enforced have been called folkways, while mores are the ones that, while not always moral in nature, invite more strict judgement. Taboos go further and are often associated with morality.

While violating a folkway might not draw major penalties in North America, other cultures might take a different approach. A number of our students are from Nigeria, and one speaks about gestures of respect among different ethinc groups. The Yoruba greet their elders by kneeling, as a sign of respect. The Igbo do not, and without clarification this can lead to people believing their elders have been disrespected. Things can escalate dramatically from there.
"This is one of the most interesting questions when studying social norms," Nalini says. "What happens when they clash?" And we're not talking only about folkways – there's a huge question about when social norms don't entirely match up with moral or even legal norms.

We list examples: in Egypt, honour killings are against the law but, because they're considered a social (and even a moral) norm it can be hard to get the police to prosecute. In Nigeria, the penalty to breaking a social norm (being shunned by your tribe) sometimes feels worse than paying a fine for breaking a law. Societies can uphold commandments like "thou shalt not kill" while also advocating for the death penalty.

On the international stage, legal norms have largely been set by North America and Western Europe, and their image is still so powerful that even as countries like Russia or China (or the US) flaunt them, they still justify their actions as if they've done nothing wrong. But some countries delegitimize the international system entirely or in part, like Iran. And non-state actors like the Islamic State may stake their claim to territory on their disregard for international norms.

The relationship between social and legal norms is also incredibly complex, as in some cases (like with gay marriage in the US) an emerging social norm eventually gets expressed in law. In other cases, as in Rwanda, laws on gender equality (often imposed as part of aid packages) slowly start to impact traditional gender roles.

We have a whole reading on the relationship between legality and convention, and it describes different approaches to the question.

Law and Custom

Matthias Baier is a legal sociologist who specializes in precisely this. For him, his definition of social norms amounts to "anything that's not codified officially in law," and this is different from the 19th century sociologists who divided norms into those concerning law, order and morality.

But since it's easier to measure legal strictures than social customs, many researchers have gradually been increasing their focus on legal norms and how they impact our behaviour. Baier even goes as far as to ask whether the political system itself might one day constitute the sole social basis for law.

Which asks the question about where the law gains legitimacy from – is it a top-down institution implemented by the state for its own reasons (either for the purposes of control, or to keep us from killing each other?) Or should it rise from the norms enshrined by the people living in a state? And what happens when the people themselves disagree on norms – should the law only honour their common norms, or should it transcend both systems and create something separate?

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas divides law into two features: what he calls institution and medium. Institution is what he refers to as the lifeworld, and that includes the cultural and social backdrop to our lives. The medium is made up of something he calls instrumentality, which means what happens, real life, the messy dynamics of people making their way.

For Habermas, law ultimately should be informed by morality. Baier doesn't explore that side of things so much.

French philosopher Foucault was interested in the intersection between the social and the legal, creating what he called quasi-legal or quasi-social norms. These, for him, focused on hybrid issues like biopolitics, discipline and governmentality. Take the positive regulation of something for which there is no strict law – like how Canadian provinces or cities can decide to add fluoride to municipal water systems.

There are also strategies aimed at replacing criminalization, which include sentencing circles or restorative justice. These have gained popularity in Canada over the past few decades as alternatives to incarceration, as have Truth and Reconciliation commissions concerning post-colonial relations with Indigenous people.

So there are plenty of crossovers, and they're messy crossovers. Which is part of what makes them interesting.

And people have found mechanisms to generate legal or semi-legal norms that comply with social norms, either through grassroots lobbying or by demonstrating that public opinion has undergone a deep shift and are ready to vote for new policies.

All this implies a few interesting sociological questions. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar made the famous assertion that we only have a set number of people we can interact with emaningfully (1500, and out of these only 150 can serve as an effective 'tribe' of closer acquaintances. Of these, perhaps 15 can be classified as 'intimates.' There's one idea that, when we still lived in tribal arrangements (as we discussed last week in another seminar) we were able to generate enough social norms with power that stuck. Once we reached past that limit, though, perhaps we needed law to keep us together.

There are plenty of interesting implications when it comes to international law, particularly with the United Nations in the post-WWII period. Before then, a number of Western European and North American cultures had lived in close enough proximity that there was a lot of overlap in their laws, and that overlap generated the idea of the 'international consensus' enshrined in UN law today.

Not every country has ratified all the different pieces of international law, like the Universal Declaration of human Rights or the International Criminal Court, but we're seeing the emergence of suprasociety groupings with different claims to legal traditions and norms. It's a complicated but fascinating time to be alive.

Norms in Conflict

It's one thing to try to classify norms, or figure out how they related to legal structures. But it's another thing altogether trying to figure out why we follow certain norms (or not), or how easy it is to switch between different norm systems. When speaking about how we 'switch' between norms a couple important questions emerge: are we aware of when we start following other moral or behavioural codes? Is it a question of what goes on inside us, or in the world around us? And can we hope to understand certain conflicts by trying to figure out how different norms might be running up against each other?

Untangling some of these questions first means going into a few theories about why we care about norms at all.

The first approach is called socialization and it has to do with how we internalize a given set of norms. This happens first in childhood, with our parents or teachers or other social institutions imparting us a set of principles, rules and behaviors to live by. These are often unconscious at first, and later on we can support or rebel against them – but even if we do rebel, there are probably at least some layers of socialized norms that continue to stick. They can create conflicts inside us when we find ourselves running up against our inhibitions and being unable to make new choices with ease.

Here, the emphasis is on a set of norms coming from inside us. Yes, these norms were originally given (sometimes imposed) from outside, but when we're faced with decisions later in life we'll receive direction (or discomfort) from the norms that are, effectively, programmed in our brains.

Another theory is that of social identity, proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner – we studied their theories on how group identities can lead to conflict in an earlier class this week. According to them, your sense of self comes from the groups (and group roles) you inhabit. You might have a bunch of different norm systems that you follow depending on your social context – you'll act differently as a parent than you will as a teacher or a member of a political party.

There can be tensions here between personal identity and social identity, and we can get sucked into internal conflicts when different norm systems compete for supremacy. Think about having to choose between helping a friend at work and being professionally neutral. But these tensions can have larger consequences: after a terrorist attack we can feel nationalist identities start to emerge, ones that can impact how we see policies on national defense, protectionism, immigration and more. It can be hard to perceive when a switch is pulled within us, and we may need a third party to help us understand when that's happened.

If we're wanting to get involved in resolving armed or cultural conflicts with group dynamics, we might find it helpful to analyze people's behaviour through trying to see what switches have been flipped and when. This goes from emerging civil wars or protest movements or flame wars on social media.
Russell Watkins | wikicommons
The first two theories speak to dynamics that can operate on an unconscious level – we can learn to become aware of how they work, but it's difficult. The third theory, cost-benefit analysis, lends itself a bit more to conscious analysis. It has a lot in common with rational choice theory, which we studied earlier this week, and says that in the end we make our choices over what norms we follow not based on inner standards or group identities so much as on what the payoff is. We look at a norm, according to cost-benefit theorists, and decide to follow depending on what rewards or sanctions we're likely to encounter.

As was mentioned earlier this week, calling this approach rationalist doesn't mean that the choices people make are never irrational. Rational here just means dictated by an inner logic. We might not understand that logic, and perhaps the person making the choice might not either. But on some level it's thought that a given norm will benefit us, so we go for it. Plenty of high-level negotiations work with this model, with different parties trying to convince the other using carrots or sticks to settle on an agreement.

The fourth theory, game theory, takes the rational approach and expands it to a strategic level. For the game theorist, we choose a given norm not only for its benefit or risk, but also keeping in mind what everyone else might choose. So you're going to want to optimize your choices by being cooperative when it's in your interest, but to also go your own way (and perhaps exploit other people) when the odds are in your favour.

No one theory is going to explain everyone's behaviour, or effectively analyze why people choose certain norms over others, but combining them might give you a relatively comprehensive picture. And, if we're trying to understand how norms and conventions impact whether or not people will start fighting each other, then we're going to want to have as many tools in the toolbox as possible.

But while being armed with theory is important, the next step is in trying to make it relevant in the field. And so we're left at the end of the seminar with a few questions: how can we analyze when people start switching between different norm modes? What kind of interventions can we make that might encourage more constructive norms of conflict resolution? What can we do in ourselves to prevent our own choices from being hijacked by any of these processes?

And, of course, what consequences will a given choice of norms have on other people? We're not only talking about what they choose, either – it's about us too. Different people have different answers.The rationalist community develops tools to help us overcome cognitive bias (in ourselves and others). Michael Pollan's book How To Change Your Mind discusses new (and legal) studies of how psychedelics can help give people enough perspective to understand (and perhaps chance) their choice of norms. Social psychologist Jonathan Haid's book The Righteous Mind assembles plenty of evidence on group behaviour and the switching of value systems.

So the next step is up to us.
Nalini Ramlakhan is contract instructor at St. Paul University; her research interests include ethics, philosophy and cognitive science.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied conflict and ethics at St. Paul University in 2020.
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