Shared norms and values

As for the second epistemological obstacle to an adequate theory of society, we cannot persuasively argue that societies are constituted, integrated, or coordinated by shared opinions, values or purposes because human beings (along with their values, opinions, goals, affects, etc.) belong to the environment of society. Norms and values are topics of communication, but it is communication itself that “holds society together” or makes social order possible.

Luhmann was a student of Talcott Parsons. And he reports that Parsons, following Durkheimian sociology, “drew a distinction between culture and social systems . . . [and] positioned culture in a hierarchically higher position” (Intro 236). In other words, Parsons appears to argue that cultural values or norms make social order possible. For Durkheim and Parsons, “language, culture, values, and norms are tied very closely together” (Luhmann, Intro 236). But in social systems theory, norms and values are descriptions–they are descriptions based on second-order observations, i.e., observations of observations. Or they could be called attributions if a particular event is attributed to a cultural value. They are observations of the distinctions another system makes, as a system cannot observe its own distinctions because it has to use those distinctions. Of course, second-order observations are also based on distinctions, which means they include a blind spot.

Norms are not observed or described as first-order observations because social systems consist of communication, and the norms are implicit to communication; they cannot be taken out of the “black box” and analyzed without halting the communication. Norms exist in the unmarked space of the communication system. In other words, if norms are to play any part in communication, they must remain implicit, unspoken, un-analyzed; they must remain in the blind spot. In sum, we can either use norms or describe norms; we cannot do both simultaneously. It’s like we can either use a hammer or describe it, but not both at the same time.

Norms are produced by distinctions. Social systems differentiate expected behavior (norms) from actual behavior. That is to say, norms serve as prediction schemata. The norm is the expected. Behavioral norms are expected even if they are not anticipated. For instance, even if we know a person well and we anticipate that he will lie to us, we nonetheless expect him to tell the truth; otherwise, we could not engage in communication with that person at all. And when we play or watch a football game, we expect the rules to be followed even if we anticipate that there will be many rule infractions and penalties. In fact, it is “normal” for many penalties to be called; it would be highly improbable for no penalties to be called. Nonetheless, we must operate on the expectations that the rules will be followed. The referees, especially, must have the expectation (but not the anticipation) that the rules will be followed; otherwise, they could not observe any infractions.

Luhmann describes the cultural invention of behavioral norms as a “doubling of reality” (“Are There Still Indispensable Norms . . .” 21). For example, when one observes a game there is a doubling of reality between game and life; similarly, a novel, film, or play produces a doubling of reality between fictional reality and real reality, the reality outside the work of art. In other words, there is a reentry of the system/environment distinction back into the real/not real distinction. 

Thus, when it comes to ethics or cultural norms, there is a doubling of reality between “normal” (expected) behavior and actual behavior, and we must expect “normal” behavior even when we don’t anticipate it. Luhmann argues that

there is no doubt that behavior in accordance with norms really is expected, even if–especially if–it must be distinguished from anticipated behavior. (“Are There Still Indispensable Norms . . . 21)

It is precisely this doubling of reality, not the existence of shared values per se, that, in part, allows a society to maintain a sense of continuity.

But beyond all this, social norms or values are empty categories; they can only exist as long as non-normal facts, or surprises, are possible. Norms allow the observation of non-normal facts (surprises, deviations). So if we speak of social norms, we must be able to indicate certain behaviors and describe them as not normal, or deviant. For instance, in America, we can point to a man with three wives and say it may indeed be a fact yet it is “not normal.”

Norms can only exist or function if a deviation is possible or relatively likely. The violation of the norms must be waiting in the wings, so to speak. The exceptional cannot be excluded from the system. It must be possible to act in other, non-normative, “deviant” ways. That which is excluded from basic norms must be included in the system as a possibility. In itself, a norm/expectation is nothing–it is one side of a two-sided form. We can also speak of the actual and the virtual, or the actual/virtual distinction.

Norms become topics of communication only when they come out of the blind spot–when we stop living them and start analyzing them, as in the way social scientists analyze them. This is second-order observation. First-order observation is just the observation that something is or isn’t normal–something confirms of disappoints expectations. The system observes that there are norms and that other actualizations are possible. This happens when one culture observes a different culture–a culture in a different place or time. A culture only recognizes itself as a culture once it encounters other cultures, or once it realizes that other ways of living are possible, or that its own way of life is contingent–it did not have to evolve the way it did, and it did not have to evolve at all.

Norms, again, are counterfactual; they are maintained in spite of inconsistent or contradictory facts. When we describe a society in terms of shared values, we are really talking about aspirations–what we might like to be the case but has never actually been the case. As Luhmann argues, if we choose to rely on norms to describe society,

against our better judgment, we would then have to deny that social conflicts, dissent, and deviant behavior are part of society, or make do with the assertion that they, too, presuppose some sort of consensus (for example, about the offensive value of certain abuse).


(Theory of Society, vol 1, p. 8)

To argue that culture, in the sense of shared language, social norms, beliefs, narratives, etc., forms the foundation of a society is to attempt to “dissolve the paradox” of autopoiesis, the paradox of the system that produces and reproduces itself by selecting events from a surplus of possibilities; it is to move to a higher level or posit an a priori, or a mythical origin without an origin/without distinction. It assumes a past that has always existed. It is like positing a God–the uncreated creator that has always existed. In politics the sovereign is created by the same process. One dissolves the paradox by moving to a meta-level (Intro to Systems Theory, 61) and positing an origin outside the system. It is to move God out of his creation. God is treated as a reality beyond distinction.

It’s also important to understand that Durkheim’s theory was not that shared social norms and laws alone hold society together, at least not a modern society. Durkeim maintained that “primitive” or “lower” societies are held together by similarity or resemblance;children grow up my imitating what everyone does and everyone seems to hold the same beliefs. In principle, there is no division of labor. Durkheim even claimed that the tasks of men and women did not differ greatly.

But as societies become more complex, they develop a division of labor. Or we might more accurately say that societies become more complex due to the division of labor. So, shared norms and values, or resemblance and imitation, are only part of the story. As societies grow in complexity, there is a division of labor that helps bind society together. In other words, the division of labor complements the shared norms, or similitude among the members of a society. If I cannot treat myself for some disease, I call on a physician. I need the physician, and I will defend medicine against attacks by religion or anything else that tries to undermine its autonomy. The physician also depends on the engineers that develop new medical technologies. So there is a complex web of dependencies. 

Furthermore, Durkheim argued that as societies increase in sophistication the “common conscience” diminishes or losing its binding power. Laws prohibiting things like working on the Sabbath or “fornication” fall away. Much more is left to personal choice. The division of labor (organic solidarity) becomes a stronger force so that mechanical solidarity can fall away. Of course, the law doesn’t go away, but different things come under the jurisdiction of the law. Some things that formerly were subject to penal law are now handled by civil law, as when someone is sued for defamation of character or libel. The “offender” in this case makes monetary restitution rather than being beaten or worse. The body is no longer targeted for punishment in the form of torture or execution for offenses like insulting the king or denying a religious dogma. Adulterers and homosexuals are no longer executed, at least not in “modern,” functionally differentiated societies.

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