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August 2018 Newsletter: Changing Social Norms



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"We persist in what we are doing because that is the safe or safer course of action." --Elke Weber 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. In our July 2018 newsletter, we introduce our special issue on "Changing Social Norms" and explore articles from past issues that also address issues of norm change in a variety of realms.


CHANGING SOCIAL NORMS / Vol. 85, No. 1 (Spring 2018) / Arien Mack, Editor

“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" -- The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, August 2017.

This quote from nearly a year ago is still current, as we wait to see whether Donald Trump’s norm breaking actions are merely a passing trend or will result in enduring change. This issue of Social Research explores questions around social norm change: when they change, how fast they change, why they change, and who initiates the change.


  • Cristina Bicchieri and Alexander Funcke on trendsetters and social structure

  • Michael Hechter on norms in the evolution of social order

  • Robert E. Goodin on emulation and the transformation of social norms

  • Cass Sunstein on what’s revealed by the erosion and revision of norms

  • Christine Horne, Justine Tinkler, and Wojtek Przepiorka on behavioral regularities and norm stickiness in the cases of transracial adoption and online privacy

  • Deborah Prentice on when intervening to change social norms does and doesn’t work

  • Gerry Mackie on social norms change—how believing makes it so

  • Karl-Dieter Opp on James Coleman’s Theory of externalities, social networks, and the emergence of norms

  • Dennis Chong and Morris Levy on competing norms of free expression and political tolerance

  • Jonathan Baron on social norms for citizenship

  • Jo Becker corporal punishment as a case of legal reform as a route to changing norms

[Read the issue online]




“Expanding Military Intervention: Promise or Peril?”

Social Research, 62 [1] Spring 1995 J. Bryan Hehir notes that “[t]he erosion of the classical notion of state sovereignty has been a pervasive aspect of world politics” since the 1960s. A combination of forces, political, economic, ethnic, and environmental, all work—in different ways—to set limits on a state’s control of its destiny and policy .… The formal principle of sovereignty remains the basic norm of international relations, but the context of the principle has shifted. [Read more]


“The Seriously Erotic Politics of Feminist Laughter” Social Research, 79 [1] Spring 2012

Cynthia Willett, Julie Willett, and Yael D. Sherman posit that humor can serve as a particularly effective means of changing social norms:

“Scholars have … noted the erasure or supposed “lack” of feminist humor…. And certainly, coming of age with or soon after the second wave of feminism, it is hard for us not to be well versed in the sad facts about hostile workplace climates, statistics on violence against women, the need for equality in a workplace for women who are primary caregivers—facts that do not have the effect they might have. [Read more]


“Climate Change Demands Behavioral Change: What Are the Challenges?” Social Research, 82 [3] Fall 2015

Elke Weber discusses the difficulties in fostering actions mandated by climate change and how they are impeded by the status quo bias (defined by Weber as “a strong preference for things the way they are and a strong opposition to any kind of change”).

“Typically we persist in what we are doing because that is the safe or safer course of action…While it is thus true in many contexts that status quo bias results in safer outcomes, the pernicious thing in the case of climate change is that inaction and status quo bias are the most dangerous options.” [Read more]


"Rights, Norms, and Politics: The Case of German Citizenship Reform"

Social Research, 77 [1] Spring 2010

In their article, James D. Ingram and Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos discuss how various international normative pressures influenced the early 1990’s German debate on the meaning of citizenship, eventually shifting “the language of German citizenship policy away from a highly legalistic and state-based discourse to one that accented rights, equality, and fairness.” [Read more]


"Fairness and Norms" Social Research, 73 [2] Summer 2006

Jon Elster uses the work of Ernst Fehr and his collaborators to theorize the concepts of social norms and moral norms and their relationship with fairness.

“Fehr refers to reciprocity and conditional cooperation as resulting from the operation of social norms. I want to suggest a different frame­ work. First, let me state how I see the difference between the operation of social norms and of moral norms. [Read more]


about social research

In 1933, the New School's first president, Alvin Johnson, with support from philanthropist Hiram Halle and the Rockefeller Foundation, initiated an historic effort to rescue endangered scholars from the shadow of Nazism in Europe at the brink of WWII. These refugees became the founding scholars of "The University in Exile," and constituted what became known as the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, now known as The New School for Social Research. Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Political and Social Sciences was launched in 1934 by these scholars, who held the deep conviction that every true university must have its own distinct public voice. In the years since, Social Research, edited since 1970 by Professor Arien Mack, has matured into one of the oldest and most influential journals in the United States. Papers by authors from around the globe have reached our readers in nearly 100 countries, and our audience continues to grow. Articles and complete back issues are regularly used as classroom texts across the United States. Articles from our pages have been translated or reprinted in books and journals all over the world, and our special conference issues are award winners.

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