Cultural Norms and Conformity

Cultural Norms and Conformity

Let’s consider the example of grooming norms to illustrate the power of cultural socialization. Imagine it is a hot summer day and you are having lunch in an outdoor café. You notice an attractive couple sitting at the table next to you. Just like many others, they are wearing shorts and tank tops, enjoying the warm weather. At some point, the man raises his arm to flag down the waiter. The café’s busy, and the waiter doesn’t notice. After a few minutes of being ignored, the woman raises her arm in an attempt to get the waiter’s attention, and you see that she does not shave under her arms and has a thick patch of black underarm hair.

Many people would feel a sense of shock; some might even lose their appetite. You might point it out to your lunch mate, and tell your friends about it later that day. However, thinking back to when the man raised his arm, you might realize that you did not have any reaction at all to his unshaved armpits. In fact, they didn’t even register. Yet underarm hair is completely natural to the adult human body—male and female. Why would the woman’s hair disgust many of us, but not the man’s? It is because we have been socialized to see underarm hair as inappropriate for women. This socialization is so effective that we actually have a physical reaction when the norm is violated. Further, this norm is specific to dominant culture in Canada and the United States. In a different social context (or place or time), underarm hair on women would appear natural, perhaps even sexy, to most people.

This leads to another key aspect of socialization—our beliefs need not be inherently true to have very real consequences. For example, it is not inherently true that underarm hair on women is disgusting. But if that is the norm in our culture, it will be true in its impact; we will still feel disgusted and this disgust will seem natural and appropriate. So despite not being inherently true, the effect and consequences of our socialization are real. Similarly, while the colors blue and pink are simply colors that occur in nature and are not naturally male or female, once we assign that meaning to them, they become real in their consequences. Any male who


has worn pink (in the wrong shade or to the wrong place) will know this firsthand; young males in particular actually risk physical harm if this norm is violated in certain spaces. (Why then, you might ask, can a girl wear blue without risking violence? To understand why, you must understand social power, which we address in Chapter 5.)

PERSPECTIVE CHECK: Of course trans and genderqueer peoples face additional social threats and even violence when they transgress social expectations. These additional risks are amplified if they are trans people of Color.

On an abstract level most people grasp the concept of socialization. However, applying it personally to our own lives is more challenging. We live in a culture that teaches us that human objectivity (or independence from socialization) is not only possible, but that it can be readily attained through simple choice. In other words, if I want to be an individual who is not influenced by the forces of socialization around me, then I can just decide that I am an individual who is not influenced by those forces; it is presumed that this decision is all that it takes to break away from the undertow of socialization. Yet this breakaway from socialization is much more challenging than it may appear. There are social, psychological, and material rewards for conformity, such as social acceptance, being treated as “normal” by family, peers, and superiors, and even opportunities for career progression.

Conversely, there are also penalties for not conforming. Take our example of the woman with the underarm hair; while she has the right to not shave under her arms, she also has to deal with the consequences of that choice. For example, she will face looks of disgust, pressure from family and friends, and questions about her sexuality and her hygiene; this choice may even be cause for censure in the workplace. That is, by not playing by the rules, she jeopardizes her status as a “normal” member of that society. And the penalties do not necessarily go away if the woman has greater social power. For instance, female celebrities who do not shave their armpits are routinely criticized, mocked, and insulted on social media for their choice. Thus the social norms of a given culture, whether we conform to them or choose to challenge them, are powerful and unavoidable. Of course this still assumes that we can readily identify aspects of our socialization we want to change. Much of our socialization is so internalized and taken for granted that we don’t even see it as a choice—we just believe that it’s natural to feel and act the way we do.

Consider one of many studies of its kind regarding discrimination in


hiring (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). Seeking to understand the well- documented patterns of inequality between Whites and Blacks in the U.S. job market in terms of rate of employment and pay, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted a large study. These researchers responded to over 1,300 help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers by sending out close to 5,000 resumes. While the qualifications on the resumes were consistent, they randomly assigned stereotypically White-sounding names, such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker, to half of the resumes, and stereotypically Black-sounding names, such as Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones to the other half. Resumes with White-sounding names received 50% more callbacks than the resumes with stereotypically Black-sounding names, regardless of the employer, occupation, industry, or size of the company.

The researchers also investigated how improvements in credentials affected the callback rate. While the resumes with White-sounding names received 30% more callbacks when the credentials improved, there was no significant improvement in callback rates for the applicants with Black- sounding names. In other words, there were no benefits to Black applicants for improving their credentials. The discrimination stayed consistent and did not vary across occupations, region, or industry; even when the applications of people perceived as Black were more qualified, they were still discriminated against. Although race was the focus of the study, it is virtually impossible to separate race from class, gender, and presumed religious affiliation.

While this study along with others of its kind (Gaddis, 2015; Kang, DeCelles, Tilesik, & Jun, 2016; Oreopoulos, 2011) provides clear evidence that racial discrimination is alive and well, it raises another question: What happened when the human resource workers screened these resumes? They were likely not aware that they were discriminating, and would probably have vigorously (and sincerely) denied any suggestion to the contrary. They would not be intentionally lying when they denied discriminating, and herein lies the power of socialization: We often have no idea that we are discriminating. What we see appears to be the truth; that is, this batch of applicants appears to us as more qualified than that batch. But we have interpreted these resumes through our racial filters, filters that have been activated as soon as we read the names. When we read the resume and see, for example, the name Lakisha Washington, a name traditionally associated in our culture with Blacks, our racial filters are triggered. We are now unconsciously reading her resume through these filters, which are filled with the assumptions and expectations about her qualifications that we have absorbed from the culture at large.


STOP: While many of us believe that we treat everyone the same, this is not possible. Countless studies show that humans are not and cannot be objective (independent from our socialization) about one another. This socialization drives us to discriminate. Most of our discrimination is not conscious, but real nonetheless. There are ways to help us minimize this discrimination, but they cannot help us if we refuse to accept that we don’t in fact treat everyone equally.

Whether we are aware of these filters or not, we have associations based on names that cause us to see some in a more favorable light than others. Because dominant culture constantly reinforces the idea that Blacks are underqualified, even when the qualifications of an already qualified applicant with a Black-sounding name were increased, the resume readers still perceived them as unqualified. In other words, the facts are not enough to trump the socialized beliefs.

In the case of Lakisha, this happens instantaneously and is almost always unconscious—we will simply interpret her resume in a way that fulfills our expectations that she is less qualified based on assumptions about her race and class. Names such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker don’t trigger the same set of racial filters because they are associated with dominant culture and thus are neutral in terms of racial association (since Whites in mainstream culture are not racialized, it is peoples of Color who “have” race). The unconscious racial filters for these names allow us to interpret their resumes as from “normal” candidates, and thus we can take in the facts of their qualifications with different (more positive) bias. Regardless of the race of the readers of these resumes themselves, names convey ideas about race (and gender and class) to everyone, and these ideas are often unconscious, yet still play a powerful role in the presumed “fit” of one candidate over another.

This is both the power of our filters and the dilemma of our denial that they exist; if we can’t see (or admit) that this is happening, we can’t stop doing it or put protections in place to help minimize it. For example, because studies of this kind provided powerful proof of racial discrimination, many companies now block out the names on resumes before sending them to hiring committees in order to protect against unaware bias.

Place Your Order Here!

Cultural Norms and Conformity
Cultural Norms and Conformity

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *