Last night I was sitting in the front row of a plane from Germany to the UK. The couple next to me opened a half bottle of wine, immediately attracting the attention of the cabin crew. The flight attendant came over and turned to them, observing somewhat apologetically that “you should know that it’s against the rules to bring your own alcohol on to a plane and drink it”. There was an awkward silence. Filling the void, he went on to say that “obviously, it’s fine in this case but don’t be surprised if someone stops you in future”. He smiled and walked away, as they continued to pour their drinks without having spoken a word.
I found this encounter interesting because it represents an example of normativity failing to reproduce itself. There is an expectation inscribed in the role of the passenger (not to consume alcohol that was purchased outside the plane) and an expectation inscribed in the role of the flight attendant (to ensure passengers meet the expectations they are subject to) which entails a relationship between them. However this relationship between social roles is played out in interaction between people and this is where the problem for normativity arises. Normativity relies on human concern for its reproduction. The parties to a normatively relevant interaction have to recognise the norm in question, see it as worth reproducing for whatever reason and be inclined to take action to do so. For avoidance of doubt, I obviously recognise that the reasons why a norm might be enforced or not, in relation to particular others within a specific context are hugely variable, with different contributions to the reproduction of existing inequalities.
This is why I always found the language of endorsement and enforcement used by Dave Elder-Vass problematic. In his account these things run together whereas, it seems to me, they are often separate. Furthermore, it is easy to find countless instances of norms being identified, while neither being endorsed nor enforced. This is why I found the interaction I witnessed so interesting. It was also charming, affable and human. The flight attendant didn’t care, clearly recognising the couple would create no problems and, it seemed, feeling there would be no legitimacy in his enforcing the expectation under these conditions. Likewise the couple would presumably have felt irritated if the expectation had been enforced, in the absence of any harm they were causing with their actions.
But what happens at the macro-social level when these micro-social failures of normativity become pervasive? Are they a constant possibility inherent in human interaction? Or might they become more likely under certain social conditions? Do they tend to spiral? Does a failure to enforce expectations make you less likely to do so in future? How do organisations respond to this if they become cognisant that these norms aren’t enforced? Do they fall back on sanctions to try and correct this? If so, what effect do these punishments have on the perceived legitimacy of the norm in question and whether the parties tasked with enforcing it actually endorse it?
On the outbound leg of the same trip, I saw another interaction which relates to this discussion. The airline in question recently instituted a new baggage policy which has proved controversial with passengers. Again sitting in the front row (it turns out to be a brilliant spot for people watching) I watched person after person board the plane, holding a bag which had been labelled to be put in the hold, explaining to the flight attendant why they needed and/or were entitled to store it on the plane. I had no way to assess the reasons that were cited but we can assume that at least some of them were fabricated. The flight attendant argued in some cases and gave up in others, clearly finding the mechanics of the new policy utterly wearying. When the boarding had finished, one of the baggage handlers came up to confer with her about the number of bags in the hold. A tense interaction ended with him saying “it’s your choice whether you enforce the rules”. I couldn’t have phrased the problem of normativity better myself.