Social Norms: Internalization, Persuasion, and History

By Etzioni, Amitai | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Social Norms: Internalization, Persuasion, and History


Etzioni, Amitai, Law & Society Review


At issue in the debate over social norms are different conceptions of human nature and the social order, of the ways people behave, and of the ways the law can both modify and be modified by social conduct. Three interpretive frameworks to the discussion of social norms are discussed: (a) whether social norms affect individual behavior merely as environmental/external factors or whether they also shape people's intrinsic predispositions; (b) the specific process by which norms influence people (i.e., whether preferences are considered predetermined or assumed to be modifiable as a result of internalization and persuasion); and (c) the ways social norms themselves are formed (whether merely via rational choice or also through historical transmissions). It is concluded that the discussion of social norms within a legal context is enriched by considering a "law and socio-economics" model, which combines the law and economics and law and society perspectives into a single discipline.

I. The Rediscovery of Norms

Legal scholars have rediscovered social norms. For decades, the insights and findings of law and society1 were largely ignored, and law and economics-which mostly ignores social norms-- was all the rage. In the past few years, however, new, powerful essays about social norms have begun appearing in law reviews.2 As Richard Epstein wrote recently, "[T]he subject of social norms is once again hot."3

Some of the scholars at the forefront of this revival attempt to integrate social norms into the law and economics paradigm4 while other scholars try to include them under the emerging "law and socioeconomics" model, which combines the law and economics and law and society perspectives into a single discipline.5 Much more is at stake than the division of labor among academic disciplines; also at issue are the different conceptions of human nature and the social order, of the ways people behave, and of the ways laws can both modify and be modified by social conduct.

To highlight the alternative approaches to the study of social norms, I examine three pairs of opposing concepts central to a full exploration of the subject: (a) whether social norms affect individual behavior merely as environmental/external factors or whether they also shape people's intrinsic predispositions; (b) the specific processes by which norms influence people (i.e., whether preferences are considered to be predetermined or assumed to be modifiable as a result of internalization and persuasion); and (c) the ways social norms themselves are formed (whether merely via rational choice or also through historical transmissions). Law and economics scholars tend to use the first elements of each of these pairs (environmental factors, predetermination, and intentional choice) to integrate social norms into their models, to depict the actor as a free agent, and to portray the social order as based on aggregations of voluntary agreements. The law and society approach is based upon the opposite elements of the pairs: intrinsic predisposition, internalization and persuasion, and history. Law and socioeconomics combines these two sets of elements in ways that I will discuss.

The legal scholars who study social norms stand out as compared to the much larger number of their colleagues who have yet to include this important concept in their scholarly paradigms. These pioneering legal scholars differ, though, in terms of the concepts they draw on to conceptualize social norms. Only some deal with internalization, still fewer with persuasion, and next to none with the role of history. This article argues that a full analysis of social norms requires the inclusion of all three conceptions. One can view the three concepts as the building blocks of a pyramid whose foundation is secure, while the other tiers are best shored up-or, in some cases, constructed.

After briefly highlighting the importance of social norms for legal scholarship, in this article I examine the core concepts of law and socioeconomics and their importance for the understanding of social norms in legal studies in general. …

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