Norm criticism – what is it and why is it necessary?

Norm criticism is a concept that is commonly used when talking about equality, diversity and discrimination. In this post we are going to answer questions about what norm criticism is and why it’s an important perspective when you work with increasing quality in any organization.  

What are norms? Norms are behaviors we expect and take for granted. They are usually not outspoken but silently agreed on. A common misconception is that norm criticism is about being against norms in general, but this is not the case. As a society, we need to have norms to be able to function together. For example, the norm to show up to work on time is a good and reasonable one.

Norm criticism is not about being against norms. Its aim is to question them. Think about it like literature criticism. Literature criticism isn’t against literature. It analyses it. Norm criticism asks: what norms do we want? Is a particular norm necessary? What happens if we break it? Who is it including and excluding and what are the effects?

Let’s take a look at another example of a norm: that everyone has the ability to walk. Is that one problematic? Imagine that you plan to arrange an event and want customers to attend. If you arrange it in a place you can’t access if you’re in a wheelchair, people in wheelchairs will be left out. You will miss potential customers, maybe without even noticing, because it hasn’t crossed your mind that some people might be unable to attend the event.

In some rural areas it’s a norm that everyone has a car. Is that norm problematic? If you arrange activities in a place you can only get to by car, your assumption that everyone has a car will make you lose customers because they can’t attend. It’s also likely that those potential customers will feel that “this is probably not for people like me” and lose interest in you and what you offer. 

Including people, and not forgetting about different needs, experiences and preferences, is crucial for recruiting and keeping competent people in the workplace and giving all citizens in a municipality equal service. Norms need to be questioned in order to make an active choice on which norms we want to keep and which we do not. Making this active choice increases quality in all parts of the organization.

Ten years ago, the focus in the debate was not on norms, but instead on the concept of tolerance. The aim of tolerance is to accept people, even thoughthey’re different. Here are three ways in which the tolerance perspective is problematic.                                                                     

1.    It focuses on the group that breaks the norm (for example, people in wheelchairs) instead of on the norm itself (that everyone is expected to be able to walk). The tolerance perspective does not give us tools to question and analyze the norm. It doesn’t raise the question why some people are seen as normal and others are seen as different.

2.    It creates a distinction between us and them: weneed to accept them. While talking from a tolerance perspective, the assumption tends to be that everyone who listens belongs to the norm group. The norm breakers are the others, those who we are talking about, and need to learn how to tolerate. 

3.    Tolerance is use of power. The norm group can choose whether or not to tolerate the norm breakers. The norm breakers are dependent on other people’s good will. 

With norm criticism, we don’t have these problems. It gives us a method to question the norm itself and make an active choice about whether we want to follow the norm or break it. It targets the norm, and not the people breaking it. It also gives people in norm breaking groups a method to question their position and the situation that creates it. From the norm criticism perspective, they’re in a position where they can take action that is something else than pleasing the norm group to gain their tolerance. 

So, how can you use norm criticism in your organization? In the next post, we will look more into how to question norms. You will get some practical ideas on how to get started.

Charlotte Ovesson