I’m no homophobe, but I would find it very hard to hold the hand of another man. I don’t think men holding hands is wrong and I believe gay people, everywhere on Earth, deserve the same rights to relationships as everyone else. And yet if you asked me to walk down the street holding the hand of my best friend I would feel distinctly uncomfortable. Holding my wife’s hand, on the other hand, feels every bit as normal and natural as holding a man’s hand feels wrong.
Why is this the case? One possible answer is biology — holding hands is part of the spectrum of romantic interaction that culminates in reproduction (he says, trying to find suitably prude words for the internet). So it feels natural to hold the hand of your mate (i.e. lover) but wrong to hold the hand of your mate (i.e. Australian word for friend). This being for the simple reason that you don’t want to mate with your mate (reproduce with your friend).
That sounds plausible but as five minutes walking the streets of Honiara will show you it can not be the case. Following the norms of social behaviour here, heterosexual couples never hold hands or engage in public displays of affection. On the other hand you see many men (and to a lesser extent women) walking down the street talking and holding hands. These aren’t people in same sex relationships (alas Solomon Islands society is not gay friendly) they’re simply friends. For whom it is completely normal to engage in some physical conduct.
So what is going on here?
In a word: norms. A lot, but not all, of our social behaviour reflects our instinctive desire to conform to the informal rules (norms) of the social group that we are situated amongst.
This makes sense evolutionarily – we are communal animals so it stands to reason that mechanisms will have evolved within us to make collective action possible by leaving us inclined to behave in predictable, and not entirely self-centred, ways. Absent this we could have never lived in groups.
And in the case of hand-holding, our instinct to group conformity means that those of us raised in societies where friends don’t hold hands, don’t hold our friend’s hands, while those of who were raised in societies where lovers don’t hold each other’s hands don’t do that.
From a development perspective the importance of norms matters for a lot more than hand holding. The role of informal institutions (social rules or norms) in determining development outcomes has been on the rise since the work of Douglas North and other economists revitalised the area of study and it’s hard not to spend time in a developing country and not end up concluding that this aspect of human interaction might be a key piece currently missing in our understanding of development and under-development.
Why are bureaucracies in many developing countries dysfunctional maybe (not definitely, just maybe) this has to do with the absence of norms necessary to instil commitment to the outcomes of an entity to which employees are only professionally linked to. Want to understand why nepotism is rampant in many developing countries, possibly this has to do with very strong norms of familial obligation? Want to understand how markets actually work in the developing world? Then maybe you need to understand the normative rules that shape them? Want to understand the persistence of clientelist politics? Then possibly you need to understand norms of leadership within communities. Want to understand how ideas and practices propagate within NGOs and aid agencies? Have a think about norms, too. Norms are everywhere and while they aren’t everything in development they are almost certainly an important component of it.
An intellectually appealing aspect of norms is that there is an apparent logic or rationality to their functioning too. They aren’t completely random and can be modelled into intellectually pliable frameworks such as rational choice. This is a good thing and leads to much fruitful thinking such as that in the work of Akerlof and Kranton, discussed by Tom Slee here (HT Luis in comments a while back – thanks!) Lots of irrational behaviour becomes rationally explainable if you allow that we have a natural (and itself reasonable) preference for conforming to group norms.
That’s great intellectually, models of reasoning agents are infinitely easier to use than those positing more complex or unpredictable actors, and yet we need to be careful. Not only would I find it very hard to hold the hand of a friend on a busy street. (Which you can explain via reason and calculation – he knows that by doing this he will break a group norm and so, through fear of consequences, calculates that the utility maximising strategy is to resist the urge to hold). But, I would find it equally hard to hold hands with a friend on a deserted island. No group to catch us there – no rational calculation involving norms. Just an instinctive aversion.
In many instances norms aren’t reasoned at all, they are instinctual. And while that doesn’t totally negate the merits reason based modelling exercises it does mean that norms are likely to be sticky (persist even when all actors involved can see that they are harmful) and that they are likely to change in strange, erratic ways.
And what does all of that mean?
Development is complicated. And aid is complicated.
Development happens and aid can work – but both are a lot less predictable and understandable than we usually admit.