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Are Social Norms a Form of Oppression or a Necessity?IntroductionSocial norms can be defined as a set of unwritten rules of behaviour that are considered acceptable in a group or society. This can range from something as simple as the way you greet a person, to the way you dress.Social norms encompass the behaviours that shape our society. They are quite simply man-made, and yet we find ourselves being led by, as opposed to leading these social conducts of behaviour.
I chose this topic because it resonates with some of the most fundamental aspects of my everyday life. I see it everywhere, and I feel inclined to question it because I never really have. Not only do social norms heavily impact our perception of other individuals, but they also have more of an influence over the way we move through life, than we are willing to admit. When exploring the topic of social norms, the notion of normality must also be questioned.
Some sociologists argue that normal is a social construction, others argue that it is somewhat biological, but ultimately, it cannot be denied as prevalent within any society (regardless of a variation in culture or beyond the bounds of time). So, why is this question important? Well, through it I seek to shine a harsh light on aspects of human conduct and behaviour that a predominant amount of people have become complacent with. It could be said that we hold the power because it is us who define what normal is, but if these norms seep out of the confines of human control can they begin to limit individuality, and restrict social liberation?My chosen question looks at two extreme ends of a spectrum, when stripped back it examines the effect of social norms in societies (cross-culturally and cross-temporally) and delves into the prospect of a society without social norms.
Another element of my question addresses the notion of oppression, in regards to social norms. In order to clarify the areas of argument that I will touch on an initial definition must be given for both aspects of the topic I have chosen. In terms of necessity’ I am referring to the initial universal English dictionary definition as the state or fact of being required’. In relation to the context of my prior question, this notion of social norms being required’ in order to ensure the full function of society will be questioned. In terms of oppression’ I am referring to the employment of the noun as the state of being oppressed’, oppressed being denoted as a verb to burden with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints’ also found in the English dictionary. Oppression in the light of social norms can be explored as a possible consequence that may become more prevalent as social norms develop and continually place restraints’ on human behaviour. Through drawing parallels between social norms prominent in the present and the past, I will be able to assess and evaluate the changing impacts of norms in society, based on the importance and influence they held in the past compared to the notion they now hold in contemporary society. Having Nigerian culture as an additional material of comparison will allow me to explore whether a difference in social norms will also produce a difference in impact. Main BodyThe impact of Social Norms on 18th Century Britain 18th century Britain is an adequate medium of comparison as, based on historical context, it was a time when the line between those of aristocratic lineage and the impoverished was beginning to shift, and even in the midst of the suffering of many, there still remained proper’ modes of behaviour, many of which were employed to restrict any freedom of thought’ that contradicted those in power. The 18th century illustrates an interesting aspect of social norms, and in turn demonstrates the manner in which society, itself can also influence social norms, and so arises the possible argument of whether society is shaped by social norms or whether social norms are created by society. As the industrial revolution began to effect means of production and the distribution of wealth, there began a shift in social mobility. With this came an influx of newly wealthy members of society who found themselves in a quandary about what manners of behaviour were deemed as acceptable within their new positions in the rapidly changing society in which they dwelled. As a method of addressing a series of issues surrounding this, it became common for manuals on modes of behaviour to be made and distributed out. To help negotiate their new lifestyle they could choose from scores of manuals with titles like How to Behave and Hints from a Gentleman. Here they would find everything they needed to know: when to shake hands; how to bring a conversation politely to an end; how to sit and stand gracefully; what was meant by RSVP’; how to deal with dirty nails or bad breath; how to style your beard; or how to conduct yourself at a dinner party, a picture gallery or church. Armed with one of these books, the newly-hatched middle-class gentleman could avoid making any social gaffes in polite society’.- Implies that there is a way not to behaveIt appears that these seemingly essential’ aspects of social etiquette hindered the extent to which social acceptance was fostered or rather even considered. As the wealth related divisions within society that many sought to overcome, were defined by entirely different manners of existing. In many instances it is probable that at the foot of wealth these new members of the upper class (rising middle class) found their previous ways of life compromised possibly in detriment to the previous values they may have held in regards to social position. One interpretation upon encountering this information could be that social norms are depicted in an incriminating light, as those in search of social validation consumed informative content that delved into the minutest of behaviours, as a means of fitting into the protocol of 18th century society. In a way this could also be perceived as a reflection of the gruelling nature of social norms when they begin to alter the way in which individuals live their lives. As when social acceptance begins to infiltrate one’s identity, they may find themselves picking at the aspects of their personality that do not coincide with what is depicted to them as normal’. On the side of oppression’ one might also argue that the aforementioned point was most likely evident in a society ruled by behavioural restrictions, presumably employed by the scarcely sympathetic government of the time period ( The leading political factions of the period being the Whigs and the Tories).In a bid to propose a counter argument the aspects of social norms based on (the purpose of) necessity’ must also be considered. Many structural sociologists believe that individuals are heavily influenced by the structure of society’ on the contrary Personal Life Perspective’ Sociologists argue that everyone is entitled to freedom of choice and that individuals are in fact, not controlled’ by society. In light of this information, the social etiquette promoted in 18th century Britain can be seen in a manner that does not diminish freedom of choice, but rather keeps it within the bounds of propriety. Upon reading further it can be found that despite the largely under representative political parties of the time period, other less powerful’ members of society did not hesitate to make their personal beliefs clear. Although the majority of the British population had no right to vote, the influence of public opinion was extremely strong. It could be said that this offers an alternative perspective of social norms, as those who expressed their opinions in the form of protest and widely read political pamphlets, books, ballads and newspapers, would have been going against the norms, otherwise prompted by the fewer exceptionally privileged members of society. As a result, the implication that social norms are not as instrumental where an individual’s conduct of behaviour is concerned, can be proposed. However, this also offers insight into the aspects of social norms in 18th century Britain that sought to monopolize, arguably negative behaviours (bitterness towards the wealthy), before they developed into disastrous methods of expression (riots, protests, mutiny) at the cost of many lives; as manifested in the event of the French Revolution.Conclusively, it can be said that upon capturing a glimpse of social norms in the context of 18th century Britain, it is evident that they were arguably one of the most important aspects of society at that time. Regardless of whether members of society chose to follow them or rebel, their prominence still managed to have a tangible affect on the perspectives that many may have held of society or, to venture deeper, of other people. An exemplary manifestation of the impact of social norms in this time period, also lies in the position held by women. Following social norms was a vital aspect of being a middle-class woman, as without the opportunity to work they could only prove their value’ through manners of behaviour that would gain them more social acceptance: example In contrast to this, lower-class women may have had more flexibility (in the way they were able to behave) in the light of their lack of social expectations, as a result of their lack in an overlooked’ social position. UltimatelyThe Impact of Social Norms on Nigerian/African Culture (Including findings from interview)In order to gage a well-rounded understanding of social norms, one must explore its varying notions across cultures, as it is probable that a difference in culture may in turn alter the type of influence it has on individuals. To collect information that corelated directly to my topic of discussion I conducted an interview that addressed the extent to which Cultural norms, and the values that drive them shapes an individual’s understanding of social roles and expectations. Within Nigerian culture there is a predominant mentality rooted in an element of respect that must be demonstrated to one’s elders. The behaviours that coincide with this notion of respect vary from the smallest of mannerisms (not making eye contact with elders) to the tone in which an individual may talk to someone older than them. Upon conducting this interview I was exposed to the depth of reasoning attached to cultural norms that I had grown to accept as a part of me. I realised that much of Nigerian culture although greatly rooted in respect, can at times be more damaging for an individual than beneficial. Amidst much of what I discovered were some of the intentions behind certain means of behaviour that held a quality of understanding in relation to life, and also touched on the increasingly predominant ideology of individualisation. 1) When you were growing up, what would you say were one of the most important values taught to you?We had to wake up early to tidy up we would do things like sweeping the front of the house with a special broom. We were taught to keep our environment clean so that we could be proud of it. From the age of 10, my siblings and I were taught how to make breakfast for ourselves. We used charcoal for cooking, and would often prepare the meals outside with sticks and stones. It was a very long process of cooking but it tasted different with the hard work we put into making it, and it gave us joy after a long day. What would you say out of all these little things that you had to do, taught you the most about a value that you hold with you now as you are much older?The value to stand on your own (independence), and as you grow older having that responsibility to carry on that value of how to look after yourself when you are alone. When I was in boarding school, I had no parents there. All these responsibilities that I had gave me loads of confidence that I could do things by myselfA norm that is commonly associated with Nigerian and African culture is the tendency to teach children from a young age how to cook, clean and take care of themselves. When interviewing my participant, it was outlined that this ranged from sweeping the front of the house to a lengthy and natural process of cooking. I was told that from the age of 10 one was expected to prepare their own meals and whilst this seemed extensive for someone of a young age the justification offered provided me with an enlightened perspective. From an external point of view one may not understand the values that are instilled within these norms but within the bounds of experiencing them, they could be appreciated as worthy of following. From this information I was able to derive a better thoughtfulness for many of the domestic tasks that I too had to perform growing up in a Nigerian household, and I was thus presented with a more versatile understanding of the thought behind cultural norms of behaviour. On one hand the extent to which these norms can restrict an individual must also be explored, and this aspect of the argument was exemplified within some of my findings.What would you say out of all these little things that you had to do, taught you the most about a value that you hold with you now as you are much older? Value to stand on your own (independence), and as you grow older having that responsibility to carry on that value of how to look after yourself when you are alone When I was in boarding school, I had no parents there. Gave me loads of confidence that I can do things by myself Upon raising the topic of Nigerian norms in relation to mental health my participant had a vocal reaction and stated that it was a difficult topic. She provided an explanation of how mental health is often perceived in African culture: Because of cultural beliefs [many of which are grounded by religion] most people aren’t ready to speak out about what they are facing, and so they just carry it with them. With further discussion it became evident that there was a darker aspect to the norms prompted by said culture, this was manifested in a painful example of the most prominent treatment of mental health in Nigerian culture, that being the response to issues like post-natal depression. I found that irrespective of a women’s mental state there is an expectation within both Nigerian and African culture, for a woman to get herself up (not long after giving birth) and proceed to care for her child. There is little if any moral support offered as she is expected to continue to cater for her husband, child and any relatives that come to visit, and if she fails to do so she is frowned upon and seen as not performing her duty as a woman’. This circumstance illustrates the negative quality that social norms can adopt when they are used to manipulate individuals to the point of feeling a sense of inadequacy. On the side of necessity one might argue that the level of respect is different between Nigerian and Western cultures due to the standards of respect that seem to be intrinsic within the Nigerian culture. In particular Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an African author) captured the aspect of Nigerian culture that contributes to the disposition of an individual (within her book The Thing Around Your Neck’) and how in the midst of struggle the cultural norms that an individual grows up with can in fact provide them with an internal impression of security. A Conclusive Perspective of Social NormsSocial norms are an inherent part of humanity. They enable a universal level of understanding between individuals, and it is contended by many that they provide order in society’, but beyond these essential purposes that they offer could it be probable that there is a darker aspect to the norms that supposedly offer protection and direction for humanity? It may be said that acceptable behaviours (i.e. shaking hands when you meet someone) are employed, to allow all involved parties to feel comfortable. But when these correct’ ways of behaving begin to affect the filter through which we accept and deny our thoughts, should we not begin to question how they came to be in the first place. Shall we relinquish our freedom to simply be, solely for the sake of propriety? This inquisition not only covers a multitude of ideas and notions offered by many sociologists, but it also proposes the controversial and complex notion of a society without social norms. Such a proposition could either be chaotic and disastrous or arguably, a facilitator of liberation, and in the (unlikely) event in which Humanity ceased to have set modes of behaviour the true nature of humanity would hang in the balance of a world hinged on a lack of spoken or unspoken rules. The notion of what causes people to act out would also come into question; do people rebel against modes of behaviour because they exist or is their rebellion attributed to some other external variable (i.e. personality traits). Ultimately to gage the extent of my topic one must ask themselves whether society and the human race would crumble without the means of communication, security and direction that is offered by social norms.What if normal as a manner of conducting ourselves is actually detrimental to the future of humanity? (The death of creativity- how can it thrive when there are so many rules and regulations that restrict its growth and development).
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