Monday, September 01, 2008

norms, the nomos and the antinomian

Sociologists define norms as rules for behavior that are shared by a group of people. Those rules can vary in seriousness from things like "don't kill" or "don't steal" to "keep your elbows off the table" and "cover your mouth when you cough."

Our everyday life activity is governed by thousands of rules, most of which do not rise to the level of consciousness for us, unless some one violates them. While some norms are viewed as sufficiently serious to require coding into laws with formal sanctions (punishments) attached to them, most norms are enforced in ways that are less formal and less visible to us.

As humans we desire the company and approval of others and generally seek to avoid the criticism and lack of approval of people who are important to us (family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, bosses). It is not necessary for some one to actually criticize us for, say not keeping our lawn mown, as long as we are aware that the people we care about say negative things about others who do not mow their lawns. The less serious a norm is, the easier it is to violate it without significant disapproval by those who matter to us, or to pass over the occasional criticism as unimportant.

I've previously discussed how language is used to establish the acceptable order (nomos) and what is outside the acceptable order (antinomian). Norms are another important part of defining the nomos, and the violation of norms can be an indicator of what is antinomian. But people do not judge all violations of norms (regardless of level of seriousness) the same. Much depends upon who is violating the norms, when and where.

In graduate school one of my professors, Dwight Billings (still on the graduate faculty at the University of Kentucky) spoke of the concept of "deviance credits." The idea of deviance credits is that some types of people are given leeway for violating norms that others are not. For example, children and very old people are not held to quite the same standards of politeness and propriety that adults are; artists are often expected to be outrageous and dramatic in their behavior; doctors, police, fire fighters, and others intent on saving lives are excused some of the niceties of politeness.

However, the reverse is also true, some people are held to higher standards than others. This has long been the curse of ministers and their families. College presidents are often held to standards that are not applied to CEO's of corporations. Witness the recent resignation of Robert A. Paxton, president of Iowa Central Community College when a photo of him partying on a boat with his son's friends, was made public; none of the young people in the photo or one the boat were below drinking age, and none except his son were students at his college, however, the standard of behavior for college presidents is higher regarding some types of behavior than for other individuals.

The nomos or social order is often maintained by making an example of those who hold positions that are in the limelight, holding them to a higher level of adherence to norms than one might for one's family, friends or neighbors -- or even oneself. Politicians for high national office are among those individuals generally held to higher standards of norm following.

One of my students posted the following comment in our discussion on norms:
Over the weekend, my family and I attended the rodeo at I---. Toward the end of the show, 4 riders came out on horses, each holding a flag belonging to one of the four branches of the military. Those flags were followed by the American flag being held by a female rider. Though many people stood up out of respect for our flags, others did not. There were people in the crowd who didn't remove their hats either, even during the National Anthem. I thought it to be the norm, to always remove your hat, place your hand on your heart, and stand for our Anthem. I found the behavior of those who didn't to be very disappointing and disrespectful.
Obviously this student was disturbed by the breaking of this norm, but the larger point her story reveals is that many people in the audience did not follow this norm. Either because they do not hold the same understanding of the rules governing flag respect or because they view them as minor norms with no serious repercussions (sanctions) for violation of this norm. Recent public reactions to Obama merely standing in respect but not putting his hand over his heart during the National Anthem, support the contention that higher standards of norm following on this matter is applied to presidential candidates.

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