In this post, Lacey Davidson and Daniel Kelly discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on bias and social norms.

In our recent article, we argue that contemporary empirical work on norms and norm psychology provides a way to move beyond debates between proponents of individualist and structuralist approaches to understanding human social behavior, and to addressing oppression and injustice. We show how this empirical work fits into recent debates about implicit biases, and conclude how integrating norms and norm psychology into this conversation shows that theorists need not, indeed should not, choose between either the individualist or structuralist camp. We’ll briefly spell out the main elements of our argument below.

What gap, exactly?

Our title obviously (right?) alludes to the famous warning that echoes through tube stations of the London Underground. The gap referred to by the polite voices issuing that warning is a spatial one between the train door and the station platform, and passengers are urged to attend to it so they don’t get hurt crossing from one to the other.

Our subject matter obviously (right?) isn’t public transportation and safety, though. The gap we’re concerned with is the putative one between individual people and the social structures and institutions that they inhabit. Actually, that’s not even quite right. We’re skeptical that there really is any significant gap between those two types of things.

But we do think there is a different kind of gap, a divide between the way theorists tend to think about individuals and the way they tend to think about structures and institutions. Even if the clusters of concepts favored by those on either side of the divide aren’t strictly incompatible or inconsistent with each other, they’re usually kept separate, and often treated as antithetical. At the very least, theorists of human activity on Team Structuralist, who are skeptical of the power of individual agency and favor explanations pitched at the level of groups and institutions, are typically suspicious of theorists on Team Individualist who emphasize choice, personal preference and belief, and other psychologically oriented explanations. The feeling tends to be mutual.

And so how are you minding it, then?

Our aim is more ambitious than merely trying to call attention to our gap. Just like the safety whizzes at the London Underground have worked out a few tricks to shrink their gap over the years, we want to help shrink the theoretical gap between Team Individualist and Team Structuralist. Our strategy is to develop some conceptual tools, and help enrich and expand the way we all think about individual human minds and what they can do. Our focus is on norms, the informal rules of social life.

For example, why don’t you have to think about how far away to stand in a casual conversation? You’ve internalized the norms about standing distance. Can’t help but give someone who jumps the line the side eye? We have norms that govern cooperation, and we intuitively enforce them. We’re naturally judge-y and gossip-y and otherwise punitive towards those who step out of line.

Not all norms are created equal. Some are beneficial and good; others are oppressive and bad. For example, if you’re a woman, why do you feel like you should move over when crossing paths with a man on the street? Norms can be gendered, and prescribe unjust ways of even taking up space in the world. Why do People of Color face barriers at dominantly white companies? Many norms are racialized, and underlie biased organizational cultures.

To bring the influence of norms into better view, we describe an increasingly convincing case coming from cognitive and evolutionary sciences that human minds contain a suite of specialized psychological resources that help us automatically internalize local rules and naturally navigate the norm-governed interactions that structure our shared social worlds. These resources are exquisitely sensitive to social cues, and operate alongside and sometimes independently of the more familiar psychological processes that allow individuals to engage explicit reasoning, and to make individual choices and reflective decisions.

Our thesis is that norms are the fibers of an invisible but vital connective tissue, the social fabric that runs through and between individual people and weaves them together into cohesive communities. The minds of individual humans are normative minds, and norms are the stuff that social structures and informal institutions are made of. Having made our case, we conclude that our Gap has been Minded.

What’s this about norms leading a double life, and is it somehow lascivious?

No, it’s not lascivious, but it’s still pretty cool. We develop this idea by way of Charlotte Witt’s excellent discussion of gender, which in her book she analyzes in terms of social norms and social roles, the elements of our shared social reality. We combine Witt’s view with our broadened picture of the human mind and its special capacity for internalizing and enforcing norms.

Norms structure the social roles that individuals occupy, encoding the shared expectations and injunctions that apply to different members of a community in virtue of their stations in it. Norms are uniquely fit to serve as the connective tissue between individuals and structures because they live a unique double life. They face both inwardly and outwardly, and their private and public faces are inextricably interconnected. They transcend several traditional, intuitive dichotomies:

  • They have both group-level and individual-level properties
  • They generate both internal and external motivations to comply and enforce
  • They interconnect and produce mutually reinforcing stabilizing effects on both self and others

We use this norm-centric, gap-straddling perspective to show that individualist and structuralist theoretical resources are more powerful when used in conjunction with each other. We conclude that both will be equally indispensable to understanding human social behavior and helping to guide progress towards a better and less biased social reality.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.