Against ‘norm circles’

Dave Elder-Vass (2010: 122) argues that normativity should be understood as a result of ‘norm circles’ which “have emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them”. 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 centred 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 criticizing 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.’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 124).

The relations between members of norm circles ‘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’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 124). The advantage of this account is that the extensive causal powers which tend to be attributed in a nebulous manner to ‘social normativity’ are instead unpacked as the causal powers of specific groups, which is of particular importance for research which seeks to work at the biographical level without being restricted to it. However it also poses problems, particularly because Elder-Vass does not, ultimately, take reflexivity very seriously.

This aspect of Elder-Vass’s approach to social ontology may be have been congruent with stably reproductive morphostatic societies but much less so in the chronically transformative setting of an increasingly morphogenetic society. It is in the transition from the former to the latter that the relative analytical significance of the synchronic and the diachronic shifts. Elder-Vass’s method for social ontology, in spite of its invocation of morphogenetic causes (bringing types of entities into existence) and morphostatic causes (sustaining the existence of entities), in practice privileges a synchronic frame of analysis (Elder-Vass 2007b, Elder-Vass 2010). This leaves it with much to say about the designation of norm circles, albeit with inherent difficulties pertaining to its operationalization (Archer and Elder-Vass 2011: 110), however much less about their explanation. It seeks to “explain how normative influences contribute to the production of social actions” (Elder-Vass 2012: 7) however it can only explain norm behaviour in terms of the norm circle. At the level of the individual “repeated exposure of individuals to acts of endorsement and enforcement” (Archer-Vass 2012: 7) of a given norm is generative of a disposition which “encourages the enactment of the practice concerned” (Elder-Vass 2007c: 9). Through life experience we gain a feel for the normative environment, an awareness of the benefits and sanctions attached to particular courses of action by the wider patterns of normative behaviour which characterise our social circumstances. Elder-Vass (2010) attempts to circumnavigate the obviously hydraulic understanding of causality this would lead to by introducing the attribute of intersectionality. Given the normative heterogeneity evident in contemporary society, every individual is embroiled in a whole array of intersecting norm circles such that they must ‘sometimes negotiate a path that balances normative commitments that are in tension with each other’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 143). However it is less clear how individuals might negotiate such a path because endorsement and enforcement are too tightly cleaved together: on what basis do individuals choose which sanctions to confront and which sanctions to avoid when deciding on a course of action which involves choosing between competing norms? Elder-Vass leaves us with a picture of a society characterised by the ubiquity of peer-pressure without a parallel picture of how the individual peers come to collectively exert specific pressures in ways which may indeed then exercise the collective power he argues for:

“To be more specific: our social experience affects our dispositions and beliefs by prompting processes that alter our neurological structure. The consequence is that we act differently, having been influenced socially, but still on the basis of causal mechanisms that are rooted in our physical composition.” (Elder-Vass 2007: 8)

However the addition of the diachronic frame of reference transforms the significance of this mechanism. Unlike Elder-Vass’s account, which only admits reflexivity when it is necessary to adjudicate between the demands of competing norm circles, it now becomes possible to explore the ideational dimensions of cultural life and, through doing so, ‘flesh out’ the relationality of the norm circle. Without this the theory is oddly sterile in its vocabulary of affect: the individual must have a “sense, however vague and minimal, that she is acting of behalf of something wider than herself when acting in support in a norm.” (Elder-Vass 2012: 7) Thus the emergence of the norm circle depends on its apprehension, however vaguely, by subjects of its existence when acting in ways congruent with it. But it is difficult to see how this could be presupposed when the emergent powers of past norm circles (via a neurophysiological mechanism) are also the reason for present normative behaviour. Elder-Vass’s intentional language of groups ‘committed’ to endorsing and enforcing a given norm sits uneasily with his minimalistic theory of how such commitments emerge. The norm circle simultaneously asks too much of subjects yet offers too little to explain what they do. It systematically obscures the causal factors underlying independent variability in norm behaviour, such as the role played by emergent goods and evils in relations (Archer 2012, Donati 2011b) or the norms internal to practice (MacIntyre 1981, Sayer 1999: 63). In essence Elder-Vass offers a social theory of normative behaviour rather than a theory of normativity as such (Turner 2010). He recognises in principle that norm circles may be internally differentiated, in that norm behaviour may be anywhere from self-serving or prudential to committed and moral, however he offers nothing which aids us in the explanation of such internal differentiation. It presumably has its own history of emergence but, on Elder-Vass’s account, it is relegated to the status of a product of past experiences with norm circles and/or the reflexive deliberation that was required to negotiate between the demands of competing norm circles. Reflexivity is introduced solely at points where normative intersectionality interrupts what is otherwise a quasi-automatic process. His account successfully captures an important aspect of our moral experience, namely the manner in which exposure to ‘mixed messages’ invites reflexive deliberation, but it does so at the cost of emptying out moral experience. Our deliberations about moral matters don’t neatly start with the moment of choice and stop afterwards it. In essence Elder-Vass construes moral experience as existing solely in the gaps left by the reproduction of social structure (particularly those elements, norm circles, which shape action) and, in doing so, the intrapersonal dimension of normativity (i.e. moral agency) is thus implied to be exhausted by its interpersonal dimension in a manner which eviscerates the importance of what we care about (Archer 2000, Frankfurt 1998, Taylor 1985a, 1995b).

Once we recognise that each has relative autonomy, we can see that endorsement and enforcement is not the synonymous matter Elder-Vass takes it to be. Why people come to endorse norms (ideationally) and when/how they enforce those norms (relationally) are distinguishable questions. There is a gap between what we endorse, encompassing both the reflective and the habitual, and what we enforce, shaped by the particular relational configurations within which different practitioners of reflexivity find themselves entwined and their ensuing orientations towards interlocutors and acquaintances within these webs. Conversely, our reflective responses to the endorsement and enforcement of norms, as well as the degree to which we are situationally subject to their causal powers, varies across different practices of reflexivity. For instance if a subject relies on interlocutors to sustain and confirm reflexive deliberations, it leaves them open to conversational censure in a way in which strong practitioners of autonomous reflexives and meta-reflexives are not. If their interlocutor objects, mocks or fails to understand what they are saying then the possibility of reaching a conclusion, at least in that instance, is foreclosed; this need for conversational confirmation leads individuals to keep their deliberations in conformity with the conventions of the local context. Their internal deliberations are often restricted to gut reactions which are subsequently raised in dialogue with others, rather than coming to provisional conclusions which might later be ‘shot down’ by others. The reflexive deliberations of the communicative reflexive are constrained by the transactional dynamics of the dialogues through which they are enacted. As Archer describes the consequences:

“What the practice of communicative reflexivity does it to privilege the public over the private, shared experience over lone experiences, third-person knowledge over first-person knowledge. Through the tendency for every issues to be reduced to the experiential common denominators of its discussants, communicative reflexivity is inhospitable to the innovative, the imaginative or the idiosyncratic. In short, the speculative realm is severely truncated in favour of common sense, common experience and common knowledge.” (Archer 2007: 273).

While conversely, practitioners of other modes of reflexivity are subject to transactional dynamics of dialogues but not constrained by them because of their distinct characteristics as subjects. The relationality of what Elder-Vass terms a norm circle is more complex than his ontological commitments allow him to recognise (Archer and Elder-Vass 2012). Nonetheless I propose to reformulate the notion in a minimal form as that of a ‘norm group’, such as to understand it as the meso level manifestation of high sociocultural integration within specific interational contexts: if norm behaviour is convergent towards end X in social milieu Y then it will exercise a generative power of constraint and enablement in relation to agential projects which are complementary or contradictory to that end within that setting. ‘Peer pressure’ and the situational tendency it generates towards sanction or support constitutes the ‘ambient axiology’ which characterises any given milieu: the fact this is a setting in which there is convergence towards X is irreducible to the fact of there being individuals whose behaviour underlies this convergence i.e. that I might know that there are different personal reasons for individuals endorsing a certain behaviour does not change the fact that there is nonetheless a convergence in enforcement. Furthermore, relations of complementarity and contradiction obtain between norm groups in a manner which is not reducible to the individual members e.g. political disputes between groups do not go away simply because some of the members of the two groups might be friends. To suggest that norm groups play a causal role does not imply that this is taken to be the only or even a major factor in bringing out behavioural convergences. But it is nonetheless to assert the causal efficacy of convergent norm behaviour.

However to argue that norm groups do anything other than increase ‘peer pressure’, raising expectations of the social sanction likely attached to particular actions within a specific milieu, leaves the concept doing too much explanatory work. Most strikingly, it is unable to explain in its own terms how endorsement and enforcement might be independently variable. Understanding norm groups as complex assemblages of relational configurations, such that internal goods motivate consistent norm behaviour and participation in the norm group can independently strengthen the convergence which emerge from these goods, goes some way to understanding how this might be so. However to understand this fully we need to distinguish normativity in its interpersonal dimensions and its intrapersonal dimensions: the former refers to causal relations between people encountered in a relational setting and the latter refers to the logical relations between normative proposition grappled with in internal dialogue. In doing we are able to unpack the internal dynamics of the norm group: not least of all the question of how a divergently understood norm can nonetheless be convergently enforced by a given group (Holmwood and Kemp 2012).

Interpersonal normativity has, of course, an influence at the intrapersonal level but ‘norm groups’, so defined, are only one mechanism through which this happens: how causal relationships at the socio-cultural level are mediated to the personal level. Another is Sayer’s (2011) argument regarding character, which is seen to be profoundly shaped by the normative environment we encounter in everyday life. Norm groups shape the balance of potential inducements and sanctions which obtain relationally in a given setting, our character shapes how we have come to habitually orientate ourselves to them vis-a-vis our own reflexively defined concerns and commitments in any particular instance: it is shaped by the ambient axiology of past settings but in a manner which is mediated by the choices such settings have posed and how we have reflexively negotiated them. What is missing here is an account of the independent variance of ideas, as well as how this can shape individual psychobiographies on the one hand and the norm groups which emerge from a collection of individual psychobiographies generating a convergence in norm behaviour at the other. Without this, normativity becomes mysterious and our attempts to define it become circular: it is a matter of ideas, as well as power.

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