The Role of Primary and Secondary Discourses in Creating and Redefining Norms

The question of how norms are created is an interesting one because in trying to investigate the lifespan of a norm, I am led to consider how concepts like time, consistency, behavior, role model and deviation impact the creation and evolution of such norms.  One thing is clear—over time and within societal contexts, norms are always subject to change.  Even within educational settings, norms evolve over time. But what are the factors that cause norms to change and evolve?  Some possibilities include shifts in culture, values, and beliefs and of course, exposure through technology.  According to Cristina Bicchieri and Hugo Mercier, authors of Norms and Behaviors: How Change Occurs, “social norms,” or “behavioral rules supported by a combination of empirical and normative expectations,” demand that individuals obey the rules that align with those norms or risk dealing with implicit consequences. In my experience, I have found that some norms tend to become instituted gradually; it’s almost like they seep into aspects of our lives without us noticing. What follows can be gradual changes in behavior for some and conflicted feelings for others. Sometimes, what remains are individuals, who belonged to a time when different normative realities existed and, as a result, become saddened by the new norms, thus reflecting their feelings with statements like, “Years ago, when….”

One way that norms evolve is related to family and cultural background. As James Gee examines in Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, “cultural models or figured worlds,” which is the picture of what is taken to be typical or normal, begins with the family unit. Depending on those cultures, children begin to form a sense of what the “normal” world looks, sounds and feels like.  A large part of building this complex set of expectations comes from cultural Discourses, more specifically, primary Discourses, which serve as a “framework” or “base” for examining and expecting from others and the world.  Over the course of time, Gee argues, we reshape our views through secondary Discourses, or what we acquire as a result of later experiences.  One nuance, which is worth mentioning here, is that as parents, some of us try to pass down our primary and secondary Discourses to our children, thus initiating their frameworks and setting them on the path to redefining and challenging those beliefs.  What might follow is our children’s rejection of our frameworks as they interact with others of different family and cultural backgrounds.  

In considering how frameworks are shaped by family and cultural behavior, it is important to understand that social norms are often represented in schools; resulting in constant challenging, reshaping and adjustment of beliefs and actions, which impact norms.  One such example of a shift in norms exists in the high school at which I have been teaching for the last ten years and it deal with the use of digital devices.  

Even before reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I noticed that students were becoming more and more dependent on their digital devices.  Years ago, when I became a part of this environment, I rarely noticed cell phones in students’ hands.  There were strict rules against having them in class because they were deemed a huge distraction and also because they were very expensive to replace.  As time progressed, I began hearing from students about their use of social media outside of school; therefore, I began to take note of it and even extend some of my lesson plans to reflect those normative experiences. For example, when asking them to analyze a character from a novel, an option included using the form of a Facebook profile. A subsequent option included writing short descriptors using 140 characters. Although at the time, I did not have a Facebook account myself, nor was I on Twitter, I began to react to the norms to which my students were becoming accustomed and bring those into our classroom.  More recently, our educational institution has revised its policy and practice to allow students to use their cell phones during the school day. Although it provides advantages to research, I fear that constant connectivity has the potential to become constant distraction. When considering the reasons why cell phones were not allowed in classrooms 10 years ago, one can conclude that they are still valid because they are still great distractors and still expensive to replace.  So, why have we changed our policy and practice? It is because the societal norms have shifted to reflect instant and prevailing conductivity, therefore the educational setting had no choice but to also create a new normal.  Further, there are expectations that students leaving high school are digitally literate.  It is my belief that a new norm has been established and anyone who remembers when… has little choice but to swim with the currents.

In addition to changing to fit new norms, sometimes, there can be a purposeful attempt to change a norm.  To say the least, these attempts can be riddled with conflict, defiance and reflection. When a person, or institution decides that they will create a new norm, they must first acknowledge the reason for the desired shift and also how affected individuals will react. As Bicchieri and Mercier suggests, if the norm conflicts with self interest, people will want to rebel. Therefore, the powerful party, or the one instituting the new norm, must be prepared to include punitive measures. Over time, the expectation is that the behaviors that are being introduced, and required to be followed, will become expected and deemed normal. For example, at my school, an advisory program has been instituted where each teacher is assigned to a group of students with whom he or she to meets daily.  The expectation is that the teacher and students engage in relationship and team building. Since this is mostly an informal time during the school day, where there are no grades attached, some students believe that they do not have to attend. Therefore, a decision was made to impose a significant consequence for those not attending advisory.   The result has been that since students do not want to face the consequence, they attend advisory. If the intended norm to be established is that students approach a time within their educational setting where they engage and connect in an authentic way without expecting to receive a grade for it, then it will certainly take time.  Right now, there are some conflicts, but over time, perhaps the idea of personal gratification without grade impositions will end up becoming the norm.

With the implicit complication of schools shifting its expectations to align with social norms as well as creating new norms, it is important to note that one of the functions of school is to socialize students toward normalcy. What reinforces this need is the belief that schools are microcosms of societies, thus reflecting, and should reflect, the expectations of what students will need to know and be able to do once they leave school. As Gee puts it, employing the “right” language, attitude, behavior, expressions etc. plays a significant role on the extent to which people are successful within a society. This idea is reflected in the job interview portion of his book where the language employed by two different women significantly impacted the outcomes of their situations. For this reason, I do believe that it is important for schools to help to socialize toward normalcy.


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