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Changing Social Norms

An Introduction to Social Research Spring 2018 edition

Since Social Research is a quarterly journal and each of its issues is focused on a single theme, we must plan long in advance of publication and invite authors a year or two before an issue appears. As a consequence, we cannot hope to be timely, although sometimes — almost by chance — we are. The current issue is one of those cases when an enduring subject, that of social norms — how they arise, how they change, why some change quickly and others slowly — is also topical, and for many of us unfortunately so.

This issue is topical because we in the United States currently have a president who, along with many in his administration, has flouted norms of behavior that have long been associated with the presidency and with governing. This is not simply a matter of presidential decorum but rather is a serious threat to democratic governance, which demands civility in its leaders.

It is therefore not surprising that we find so many discussions these days of Trump’s trashing of the social norms associated with the presidency. To cite only two, Adam Gopnik, in his August 2017 New Yorker article “Norms and Cliffs in Trump’s America,” begins this way: “Suddenly all we hear about is ‘norms’ — norms are here, norms are there, norms are everywhere: norms violated, norms overthrown, norms thrown back in the faces of their normalcy.” And in the Atlantic just two months later, Jack Goldsmith writes: “Donald Trump is a norm-busting president without parallel in American history.”

So even though we were not trying to put out a timely issue, we have. But there is an important question not much addressed in the media discussions about Trump’s norm breaking that is addressed in this issue of Social Research. That question is whether the norm busting being done by our president will lead to norm changes. Are his actions likely to establish new norms for the presidency? That is the real worry — because if they do, the new norms would likely inflict serious damage on processes essential to democratic governance. If they don’t, the norm-breaking actions may still be repugnant, but they would be significantly less dangerous.

For an answer to this question, the reader is urged to consider carefully what the experts writing in this issue have to say about the factors that lead to norm change. One point of note is that norm-inconsistent actions carried out by someone in the public eye, someone with high social standing, someone famous, are more likely to lead to change, which makes Trump’s actions deeply worrisome.

The initial impetus behind our organizing an issue on social norm change was our interest in the question of why some norms change relatively quickly, such as the shift from not wearing seatbelts to wearing them, or even the acceptance of same-sex marriage, whereas other norms seem far more resistant to change, such as the acceptability of abortion as a means of terminating pregnancy.

There is much to be learned about this in the articles ahead, which we recommend to anyone interested in these questions.

 

Arien Mack is the editor of Social Research and is the Alfred J. & Monette C. Marrow Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research.

 

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