How Do Social Norms Govern Our Society

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“Social norms are shared expectations about how people should think, feel and behave and they are the glue that binds social systems together.” (Schaller and Crandell, 2004 cited in Passer, M.W. & Smith, R.E. 2007: 624). Subconsciously our daily lives are regulated and influenced by social norms. We take these social norms for granted. (Passer/Smith, 2007:624) We see these customs as “normal” but as Michel Foucault illustrates in “Discipline and Punish, the Birth of the Prison”, these norms and patterns of behavior are a lot more complex than we may think. After reading “Discipline and Punish” I was able to identify in greater detail how our society is governed by social norms. This is evident in the media, through marketing and advertising, in schools and in various institutions. In this essay I will analyze the effects that groups such as the media, schools, prisons and peer groups have on social norms and subsequently on our behaviour. I will also use Michel Foucault’s book, “Discipline and Punish” to support my point of view.

According to Foucault we are “docile” creatures. We are easily trained and manipulated. “A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved.” (Discipline and Punish, Foucault, 1975:136). Social norms and the way in which a person behaves are usually established during early childhood. The ‘normal’ rules and expectations that society conforms to are taught to many individuals in school. Children learn how they are expected to act through discipline and control in school. Foucault believes that, “discipline proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space.” (Discipline and Punish, Foucault, 1975:141). In the book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault speaks of four techniques that are used in order to distribute space and therefore discipline individuals. The first technique used is enclosure. In relation to a school or educational institution the enclosure is the school building, a place contrary to other areas such as the home. Foucault then talks about partitioning as the second technique. He suggests that an individual should be given his or her own personal space, such as a child’s desk or seat in a classroom. A functional site was the third technique used to establish discipline. A functional site is a place in which supervision takes place and where communication between individuals is prohibited for example a study class or homework class in a school. The fourth technique used is a rank. This is the position that an individual holds. In the situation of a school rank can refer to the principal, the teacher, the pupil, the head pupil etc. These techniques work to ensure that students are disciplined and therefore conform to the rules and norms of the schooling environment as well as the general social rules. In schools children learn authority through the ranking technique and also through a hierarchical system. They learn respect for a place such as the school building, partitioning disciplines one to respect another individual’s personal space and also to respect their own space. A functional site teaches an individual control and discipline, it is a place where they must abide by rules and respect authority. Each technique teaches a child social norms and forces them to act in a certain way that is seen as ‘normal’. [Department of Communication Studies, University of Minnesota. December 15, 2003. Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (trans. Robert Hurley) (Online) (Updated December 15, 2003) Available at: [Accessed 10 January 2009]]. Michel Foucault uses the example of a monastery to illustrate these techniques used to distribute discipline. A study that was carried out by Stanley Milgram in 1974 show how people obey authority even in extreme circumstances. 40 men were taken in and introduced to another participant who was a confederate. Through a rig draw the real participant became the teacher and the confederate...
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