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prolificus's avatar

Who decides societal norms and what is the criteria for selecting/passing on those norms?

Asked by prolificus (6583points) March 18th, 2010 from iPhone

Yesterday, I participated in a Fluther question that stirred a strong reaction in me. At first I thought my reaction was the result of conflict and the need to defend/prove my college-level studies in social sciences and multi-cultural education.

Later I realized something much more simple. The question tapped at my sentimental attachment to my all-American childhood.  Having been raised in a small town, I have fond memories of various local events and experiences. I remember Arbor Day, watching neighbors pass around and plant tree seedlings.  I remember the Halloween parade and riding on the float dressed as a ghost along with other costume-wearing members of my Girl Scout troup. I remember Christmas and receiving a gift delivered by a man dressed as Santa escorted by the local Sheriff.  I remember Faschnaut Day and other quirky events observed in my hometown.

I cherish these memories, and I thought how sad it is for another child not to experience similar memory-producing events. It seems normal to me for local society to celebrate certain events, experiences, beliefs, and practices. It seems abnormal to me not to be a part of societal happenings.  Yet, I realize that my experiences are personal to me and may not be of value or interest to someone else.  Therefore, I’m not suggesting my experiences are the standard for critiquing others.

Maybe for some, societal norms have nothing to do with holidays or events, but with manners, values, and etiquette.

The question is not about the importance of societal norms.  Based on the discussion in the other Fluther question, it seems agreed that societal norms are important to have and to pass on to subsequent generations.

The question here is about the who and the how.  In the 21st Century, in the age of the Internet and the globalization of just about everything, who in society decides the norms for all to practice? What is the criteria for deciding the norms worth practicing?

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16 Answers

the100thmonkey's avatar

Well, I would argue that in a complex system, behaviours emerge in a non-linear, stochastic fashion.

Social norms are a manifestation of the emergent behaviour of a system composed of people and their environments interacting as part of a complex system. This leads me to a weak-determinist position on social norms. No one is responsible for their existence, although their manifestations are not predictable given knowledge of the constituents of the system. The criteria for determining their worth are less criteria than they are observations of whether they cause the system to attempt to self-correct.

njnyjobs's avatar

Preacher-type individuals or groups of individuals who have great persuasive peresonalities typically excel in propagating their ideologies and beliefs. Whether something becomes norm or fad is all dependent on the audience’s perception or acceptance of such.

CMaz's avatar

“It seems normal to me for local society” You answered your question, in general.

That “local normal”, even when part if the internet. Comes down to one thing. Majority rules.

We always either gravitate to individuals with common beliefs or get worn down by others.
Worn down not necessary a bad thing. When you stick with the facts.

prolificus's avatar

@ChazMaz – Agreed. However, there are times that one individual declares a norm for all to follow (e.g. The mayor of a small town declares it’s ‘Celebrate _______ Day’).

It seems to me that not just majority rule but also a person in a position of authority becomes the “who” deciding societal norms.

Maybe my question should also include: Why follow specific societal norms? Or, how does one decide which norms to follow?

marinelife's avatar

Norms are something that grow up from the grass roots. They are influenced by media and other institutions, but they come from family practices that spread.

CMaz's avatar

“The mayor of a small town declares”
True, but then you vote him out. And it goes back to the way you wanted it.

A norm is a constant.

prolificus's avatar

@ChazMaz – Agreed. Norms are constant. Yet, every norm comes from some starting point. Every norm was new at first. Who decides which norms are worth continuing? What is the criteria for deciding?

Even if it’s majority rule, not everyone in the majority is a leader. Majority rule consists of many followers going along with the flow.

I’m curious to know who the leaders are, why people follow (whether intentionally or mindlessly), and how the majority decides to continue certain norms.

Naked_Homer's avatar

Lately it seems a committee in Texas does.

elenuial's avatar

A norm is not a constant. A norm is normative. Sending your children to school until age 18 is a norm, but it wasn’t 150 years ago. Hell, it’s not even a norm today for the Amish.

Cultural mores come from your culture. They come from other people. There are groups you identify with, and there are activities you engage in to feel a part of that group. Those are the norms, and they are set by group behavior. It’s like a series of self-reinforcing accidents. @the100thmonkey has a fairly good explanation.

Norms are rather hard to change, and slow as well, which is what gives the illusion of constancy, but they are far from it. The idea that they are is something groups of people cling to when they are afraid that their group is threatened. Historically, that attitude tends to either change, or the group actually does go extinct.

wundayatta's avatar

Who decides? There is no “decision.” It’s not the kind of thing that can be decided. What happens is growth and change. The culture changes in response to many things, and eventually we find ourselves with new rituals, or new forms of old rituals, or traditions that have been carried down for centuries or even millenniums.

Technological change has brought significant change in society norms. It is now ok for people to wander around texting or phoning, even if they are with a group of people. This would have been considered extremely rude only a decade ago. It is now ok to start an email with “Hi.” Letters were always started with “Dear,” or some other formal address.

Societal norms change very quickly in response to environmental conditions. A flood happens one year, and the next year people in the town gather to celebrate their fight against the flood. There are murders in a high school, and the next year the even is commemorated in some way. Over the years, these grow to become formalized, and then no one can ever remember a time when this wasn’t done.

So it goes. So it goes.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Some of this seems to be akin to “fashion”. Who decides that this is the year for wide ties or narrow ones? Or Nehru jackets? And more importantly, how do those ideas stick?

YARNLADY's avatar

We have all those things and more in our town, so I would say it depends on where you live. Some people grow up with none of those things, and it has always been so.

So-called society norms are heavily dependent on where you live, the gang mentality is a society norm in some parts of the country, and in other parts, it’s all family and church.

CMaz's avatar

“A norm is not a constant.”
Sure it is. There is no consistency in randomness. Even your example is a constant.

Constancy (normal distribution) can change over time. A gradual process. But that process is always biased on a conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.

elenuial's avatar

@ChazMaz I do not think that word means what you think it means…

CMaz's avatar

I call it how I see it. ;-)

mattbrowne's avatar

No one decides single-handedly. If you believe in memetics it’s variations of existing norms and a cultural selection process. Popular memes survive.

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