Norm circles, practices and households

On January 26th 2016, Dr. Dave Elder-Vass visited Wageningen University for a lecture on and discussion of his work. Inspired by his novel concept called ‘norm circle’, I will use this blog to share some reflections on the use of this concept in the study of domestic energy practices (note: I only learned what norm circles imply today, so forgive (m)any inaccuracies). Hopefully a step-by-step approach will reveal hidden assumptions and possible contradictions in my understanding of the household.

In an earlier blog I made the argument that it would be useful to my research to think of the household, or the home, as a special kind of social structure. Since my point of departure is practice theory, I understand households first of all as “hybrids of objects and people, which are implied in the (routine) performance of a series of interconnected practices reproduced in the domestic arena with the help of energy as a key resource” (Naus et al., 2014). Then, if we want to understand how the household and its practices change, a Shovian analysis would point to how system actors (on the infrastructure side) introduce new elements into circulation, at which point they may or may not be taken up into practices, transforming these practices in a co-shaping process together with practitioners. By looking at infrastructures of practices, we see how and why our practices have become so similar and so synchronized.

However, it so happens that the variation in the performances of practices is important in my research. In particular, I am interested in sustainable performances, or versions, of similar practices (considering that different performances of practices with similar outcomes, such as washed clothes or a clean house, can have such different environmental impacts). Why are more sustainable domestic cleaning practices performed in household A, and less sustainable domestic cleaning practices household B?

To be able to understand difference better, and perhaps even to explain difference, I intuitively arrived at morality: people do things the way they do things at home, because it feels appropriate and right. Hence I added to the practices understanding of the home above the idea that the home is also a particularly powerful normative environment. As May writes, ‘the idea of home itself is powerful’. Indeed, she writes, “home ownership is identified, like the idea of home itself, with security, which means having a measure of control over one’s life and one’s immediate environment.” The home is personal, a narrative told by its residents. The qualities that make homes unique to its residents are derived in part from broader social structure (because I do not suggest sociality ends at the doorstep), but also, importantly, from the agency of its residents.

In trying to accommodate the agency of residents in shaping their home into a practices understanding of the home, without succumbing to methodological individualism, my search has pointed me to the household as social unit of analysis. Three processes appear to me important at this point. First of all, members of a household all bring their own habitus into the home. Secondly, these members all interact with the domestic infrastructure (both physical and symbolic). And, thirdly, the members of the household relate to each other, the result of which is the generation of a normative orientation of domestic practices.

I have characterized this third process as moral economy. The household, as social unit, produces and reproduces certain implicit and explicit agreements about the way in which showering, cooking, cleaning, etc. is done (a kind of regime governing practices). Not in isolation, of course: many of these social norms (and now I start to use Elder-Vass’ concepts) are widely shared in society and rarely questioned. But the normative qualities of energy practices are neither universally handed down by system actors (on the infrastructure side), nor merely the result of individual values expressed through practices. I argue, rather, that (environmentally) crucial variations are the result of interaction between the residents of the household. We may call this an emergent quality of households.

Having carefully laid out these considerations, I can finally come to the point: can the concept of ‘norm circles’ contribute to a practice theoretical understanding of the household which avoids both methodological individualism and (infra)structural or practices determinism?

Elder-Vass writes that “normative social institutions... are produced by the causal power of social groups that I call norm circles. A norm circle is an entity whose parts are the people who are committed to endorsing and enforcing a particular norm. Operating through its members, such a norm circle has the causal power to influence people to observe the norm concerned.  ... A particularly significant feature of norm circles is that they may be profusely intersectional: any given individual will belong to a large number of norm circles and, although these may tend to cluster, there is no necessity that they should all share the same membership.”

I will make two arguments in favour of using norm circles to understand domestic morality.

First of all, households can be seen as actual norm circles (as opposed to proximal or imagined norm circles). Social norms embraced by members of the household, are enforced in the household. Plainly put, people spend a lot of time at home in close proximity to the other household members; often it is the household which is the actual norm circle that disciplines transgression. But luckily transgression of social norms is not something that occurs all the time, because, as Elder-Vass writes, ‘individuals are aware that they face a normative environment that will sanction their behaviour and this tends to create a disposition in them to conform to the norm concern’. In homes across the world for example, children are disciplined to observe dinner etiquette. The household is a crucial actual norm circle in social structure. The ‘size’ of the proximal norm circle, however, is much bigger: in the example of dinner etiquette, it can span an entire civilization.

Secondly, relating to the initial quest to explain variance in social practices on the basis of morality or culture, I argue that households can be seen as norm-set circles. A norm-set circle comprises all persons that uphold a certain (unique) set of norms. Elder-Vass illustrates: “A particular religious organisation, for example, may endorse a variety of norms that are not observed outside this group, so that the norm circles for these norms consist of all the members of the organization but no one else. We might expect such clusters to be common, given that many individuals in contemporary societies are socialized through institutions like families, schools, and religions that have wide normative ranges.” Households are norm-set circles because particular social norms are embraced by its members and internalized in a consistent narrative of the home’s identity. To me, Elder-Vass’saccount of the causal power of norm circles is convincing and matches my initial intuition, and what I have learned since.

By applying the concepts of actual norm circles and norm-set circles to the household in this way, I hope to lend ontological credibility to the study of normative change in the household using both a practices approach and moral economy approach.