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Do Norms Still Matter? The Corrosive Effects of Globalization on the Vitality of Norms

Posted by on Monday, July 23, 2012 in Articles, Vol. 41 No. 2, Volume 41, Volumes.

Why does the process of globalization undermine the power of social norms to regulate behavior?  Norms are the social regularities that shape individual behavior and help to create vibrant—or dysfunctional—communities.  Most theories of norms do not account for the many ways that globalization affects the foundations of norms.  This Article fills the gap by developing a more robust theory of the informal regulation of behavior that considers the ways that the process of globalization can interfere with the creation of norms and erode their power.

Drawing on behavioral economics, sociology, and criminology, the theory proposed in this Article contains three claims.  First, because individuals in a globalizing community typically suffer from significant disruptions in relationships, the community’s ability to regulate itself is eroded.  In vibrant communities, residents are willing to intervene in the lives of their neighbors by, for example, scolding children who misbehave in public or teenagers who deface buildings.  But in a globalizing community, the conditions that give rise to this willingness to intervene are eroded by the process of globalization.  Second, globalization can distort the process of creating and enforcing social norms by allowing individuals to, in effect, immunize themselves from the sanctions typically employed to enforce norms.  For example, differences in social status affect the ways that observers judge illicit behavior, and the ways that they condemn, condone, or ignore that behavior.

Third, globalization also makes it possible for individuals to engage in what the Author calls reputational segmentation.  In this process, people who wish to engage in an activity that carries social sanctions do so in a place where they are immune to the real effects of those sanctions.  For instance, Western tourists who travels to the developing world to engage in illicit sexual activity, often with children, may suffer social sanctions in the destination community, but those sanctions do not follow those tourists back to their countries of origin.  And because the quality of the person’s life is affected almost entirely by his reputation in his country of origin, the ability to engage in reputational segmentation allows him to escape the consequences of his actions.  The Author’s theory differs from other work on norms and globalization because it considers both the role of individuals and the incentives that shape their actions, as well as the role of communities in the enforcement of norms.  With some notable exceptions, most scholarship that considers the power of norms looks at the incentives that guide an individual’s decision to comply with or deviate from social norms.  But as communities confront globalization, they evolve in ways that inevitably affect the power and content of norms.  The give and take between individuals and communities is therefore central to the way that globalization affects norms.

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