Dave Elder-Vass on Normativity

Although only a single chapter of this book deals explicitly with normativity, it is a credit to Elder-Vass that much of the book either supports or proceeds from his arguments about norms. In this post I will only engage with this one chapter but it’s worth noting that the book as a whole is excellent, articulating and persuasively grounding an account of causally efficacious social structure (with normative institutions being only one such structure) in a rigorously argued meta-theory of relational emergence. Perhaps I’m somewhat biased though, given that Elder-Vass seems to be just as influenced by Margaret Archer’s work as I am.

Elder-Vass’s account of normativity is directed towards the question of social institutions. Within the literature, these are taken to be social structures (though others, including myself, would see them as cultural) invoked to explain regularised social practices. So, for example, there is an institution of marriage which specifies certain rules and expectations (norms) which those seeking to acquire the status of being married must adhere to in order to achieve recognition. Obviously the content of these norms is contested, in so far as that not everyone agrees about what rules and expectations are attached to marriage and that, furthermore, socio-cultural battles are still being thought over the extension of the norm e.g. gay marriage. In fact this contestation is itself a sign of the norm’s objective existence: if norms surrounding marriage were simply an aggregation of individual views then why would it be such a contentious political issue? People don’t fight over each other’s views of marriage, they fight over shared views of the norms involved in marriage.

On this basis there is a whole array of social institutions we can identify, with corresponding norms specifying the rules and expectations surrounding those institutions. However this identification does not, in itself, explain what is going on here: how do social institutions shape behaviour? As Elder-Vass observes, a common strategy in the literature is to  “ascribe the causal roles to norms themselves” and assume that “individuals enact particular practices because of the normative beliefs they hold” (117). So, on such a view, the shared practices observed are explained in terms of shared underlying normative beliefs. In some cases this causal link has been theorised in individualised terms, as a consequence of the particular knowledge(s) or belief(s) of individual agents. However it has been more frequently theorised in collective terms because, as Elder-Vass puts it, “some sort of collective pressure is required if we are to provide an explanation of th.e similarity between the social practices of different people” (119). His own theorisation falls into this latter category but with something of a twist. While recognising the necessity of an external collectivity to causally explain social institutions, Elder-Vass resists the long standing tendency within Sociology to assign this role to the vague and omnipresent entity ‘society’ (with an intriguing nod to Latour & ANT in the process), instead “identifying a different kind of social collectivity as the bearer of structural powers” (121): norm circles.

Elder-Vass argues that norm circles, a concept derived in part from Simmel’s conception of social circles, have “emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them” (122). These powers are founded on the commitment which members of the circle have to endorse and enforce practices which are congruent with the norm in question. Such a circle is centre around the collective intention which members have to support the norm and the individual behaviours which flow from this intention:

They may support the norm by advocating the practice, by praising or rewarding those who enact it, by criticising or punishing those who fail to enact it, or even just by ostentatiously enacting it themselves. The consequence of such endorsement and enforcement is that the members of the circle know they face a systematic incentive to enact the practice.  (124)

As members of the norm circle, the individuals involved act differently than they otherwise would.

These relations, then, when combined with theses sorts of parts, provide a generative mechanism that gives the norm circle an emergent property or causal power: the tendency to increase conformity by its members to the norm. The property is the institution and the causal power is the capability that the group has to affect the behaviour of individuals. That causal power is implement through the members of the group, although it is a power of the group, and when its members act in support of the norm, it is the group (as well as the member concerned) that acts. (124)