Driving, Social Norms, and Social Structure
I am reminded of the structure of society and social norms every time I drive.
Have you ever noticed how our roads serve as a reminder of the structure of society? The markings and organization of roadways and freeways are an apt metaphor for society in many ways.
Roadways have lines marked on them intended to guide us in the “right” direction. Social norms are guidelines for expected behaviors thus they also point us in the direction that our society has as the “right” way.
Driving on the freeway, the cars line up in the lanes, all traveling the same direction. In society, people follow the norms by creating families, going to work, and attending to their personal and community’s needs.
Whether one looks at rules of the road or norms of society, most people follow these guidelines, although not everyone conforms to every rule-- by accident or intention. Most people break some rules at some point in their lives and some deviate from them habitually.
On the road, breaking a rule may cause an accident, some chaos, or nothing at all. Cars traveling outside the lanes or going too fast can run into other obstacles causing breakdowns or accidents and stopping traffic in that area.
Breaking norms in extreme ways—such as hurting another person-- can disrupt society. Norm-breaking can affect many different lives in much the same way that a traffic accident can.
Just this morning, a car abruptly pulled out from a store parking lot in front of me and proceeded to go through a crosswalk and onto the freeway, ignoring the red signal in their path. Since I saw this car in time to avoid meeting it physically (I put on my brakes), this caused some discomfort but not an actual accident. Seeing this car zip onto the freeway through the red light, I wondered what other rules that driver didn’t follow.
When people break social norms, we often think negatively about them. Deviance in one area often leads us to expect deviance in other areas.
A car running a stop sign when no other cars are present may not impact anyone else and, because no one witnessed it, there is no sanction for that act. (Unless there is a camera at that intersection but then there are witnesses of a sort!)
When someone does break those rules or breaches the norms, it causes some havoc in that social or road space and people work to get that rule breaker on track. People try to repair the breach so that things can get back to an orderly state. People stare or use verbal and physical gestures at the rule-breaker.
How many times have you seen someone yell at another car when they drive outside the lines? I once witnessed two men get out of their cars and get into a fist fight in the middle of a three lane road. Talk about breaking norms!
When the roads and rules are not fair or well designed, widespread deviation from them can signal the need for change.
Driving on a road that has poorly designed or timed signals can prompt drivers to ignore those signals or divert their path from the expected one. This may prompt the transportation authorities to re-design that intersection or pathway.
In society when the norms privilege a few, or otherwise are not fair to the majority, people can organize to challenge those norms. That’s a pretty simplistic description of many social movements, which strive to change society in some way.
So, if we consider roadways as a metaphor for society in general and for social norms in particular, how might something like road rage be described? It might be a variant on repairing these breaches but it also might be another example of breaking the rules or norms. The context of the road rage would be telling.
Social structure is one of the hardest things to understand, so finding some concrete things to compare it to can be useful. Can you think of any other metaphors for social structure?