Social Norms and Solidarity

One evening in 1941 a boatload of European refugees, including my father’s family, docked on the shores of Mogador in Morocco. The boat’s passengers were herded into a refugee camp; the only way out, they were told, would be for local families to come and take responsibility for them – presumably a mere theoretical possibility, since the passengers were unlikely to have any acquaintances there. By morning, not a single Jewish family remained in the camp and not a single non-Jewish family had left the camp.

What’s the secret to this kind of solidarity? One part of the answer, the part that concerns us now, is shared norms.

Solidarity, trust and cooperation, the stuff now often called social capital, is to a society what schnapps is to a farbrengen: without it, a society wouldn’t last long and it isn’t clear why it should. The generation of social capital among members of a society is possible only if shared norms align their expectations, habituate them to exercise self-control, instill in them a unity of purpose and incentivize them to transmit wisdom across generations. In short, social norms must encourage our prosocial instincts and discourage our selfish instincts. If you and I both know that we share a commitment to such norms, we can trust each other and cooperate in mutually advantageous ways.

Let’s see how the norms considered in the previous post – rituals, food taboos, kinship rules and exchange regulations – achieve these ends. I’ll follow the sequence of the Shulchan Arukh, but I’d like to ask the reader to try an exercise as we go through this: think about hunter-gatherers rather than observant Jews. Much less baggage.

Consider the public performance of rituals such as prayer, singing and dancing, communal ingestion of psychotropic substances, rites of passage, ostracisms, coronations, exorcisms and whatnot. Each such performance is carried out according to established rules governing who does what, where and when. Individuals sharing particularly powerful such experiences often feel an overwhelming sense of unity, a kind of melding into a single organism. (If you didn’t follow instructions and are still thinking Jewish rather than hunter-gatherer, I’m not talking about your typical weekday mincha here, for me a decidedly pedestrian experience, but maybe the end of Yom Kippur davening. If that doesn’t work for you, go with the psychotropic substances.)

Furthermore, younger participants in public rituals see that elders and wise men are accorded honor and understand implicitly whom they should take as role models. In this way, they learn to value experience and knowledge, and they understand that if they wish to obtain similar prestige, they should seek to acquire such experience and knowledge. They also internalize the tribe’s evolved division of ritualized responsibility and develop the qualities of character appropriate for best performing their respective roles. In addition, privately performed rituals, such as minor blessings or meditative activities, encourage mindfulness and introspection and, under special circumstances, can evoke a sense of awe and unity.

Food taboos (as well as rules of purity and contamination, on which I’m not elaborating here) serve the incidental purpose of reducing possibilities for eating or contacting toxins. Along with other constraints on consumption – ritualized slaughter of animals, blessings over food, feast-related ceremonies, sacrifices – they help cultivate the ability to defer pleasure and they draw attention to the differences between humans and animals. Rules regarding tithing and other obligatory food gifts build solidarity and trust and promote the internalization of a sense of mutual responsibility.

As for norms regarding kin relations, prohibitions on polyandry and rules regarding female fidelity in marriage reduce paternal uncertainty and thus encourage paternal responsibility. Limitations on polygamy prevent violence among males competing for scarce women. Institutionalized assortative mating, such as matching of promising scholars with wealthy brides, incentivizes scholarship and improves the gene pool. It is well understood that prohibitions on incest prevent defects associated with inbreeding, but in fact such prohibitions achieve much more. The fact that incest is not merely prohibited but a reprehensible taboo engenders intra-family trust by completely eliminating sexual tension within the family unit; this permits unthreatening intimacy between family members. (Are we okay so far? Here comes the grenade casually tossed into the room before I run for cover.) Analogously, only when homosexual acts are taboo can male cohorts – soldiers, yeshiva bachurim, hunters – interact with complete trust and even intimacy that is not undermined by sexual tension.

Now exchange regulations. Voluntary trades are beneficial for both sides of the transaction; a multitude of such transactions thus greatly benefit the entire society. But such commerce is only possible if buyers and sellers share an understanding of the rules of the game (when a transaction is complete, when and where delivery will take place, who is on the hook for defects, etc.) and can trust each other to carry out their respective parts of the deal. Norms of commerce manage expectations, create the necessary degree of trust and reduce transaction costs, to everybody’s benefit.

To summarize, all the types of social norms we have considered promote trust and cooperation, sometimes in subtle indirect ways. This is why they are so crucial for a society’s viability.

I want to add two important comments. First, the claim that certain types of norms have beneficial effects on the viability of a society is not the same as the claim that such viability is the purpose of the norms. Second, one can easily think of bizarre social norms in common practice that appear to have no benefit at all. These require further elaboration using some ideas from game theory. That will be the subject of my next post.


One thought on “Social Norms and Solidarity

  1. Good points and interesting article. But societal norms stay in place only as long as they are effective for the majority of the members of that society. Change occurs when that is no longer true. For example groups which were very protective of their women may have been seen as caring of the individual and possibly protecting the gene pool. But a safer society, and one with more opportunities for women then make those old norms more stifling than protective. So they change. What we now view as bizarre customs may have made sense in a previous time, taking into account that group’s understanding of the world.


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