Is individual behavior truly a formation and development of individual concepts or is it simply a conglomeration of normative behavior expectations? It is a question wrought with complex variables. Many scientists, both social and physical would agree that behavior is developed by environmental expression as well as genetic factors. Unfortunately, this is the junction where their union begins to disjoint. Some argue that socially expected behavior drives the behavior of an individual, while others may hold that individual expression is just that, unique and characterized by self-introspection. However, others take hold of the viewpoint that behavior is developed through both individual expression as well as culturally learned normative behavior.
Normative behavior has been more than apparent in development of behavior patterns among virtually all individuals. According to social scientists, virtually all behavior stems from normative behavior. However, this would in turn mean that we, as individuals make no choices. Are we truly confined to the hive mind? Are we, only one sheep, in a flock of million. Sheep without any apparent say in our course, forever doomed to follow the societal wills that is our shepherd? It is obvious that society guides the course of the people within it. Society controls the people through its mores and folkways. It keeps its members in line with threats of humiliation or retaliation.
Societies “mores” are the most important code of conduct. These mores are the laws on which the societies are based, with violation of these codes resulting in very harsh punishments. Societies “folkways” are less stringent codes of conduct. Violation of these folkways often results in exclusion or general feeling of social disapproval. This common way of feeling and acting helps delineate right and wrong. Although both have significantly different levels of importance within a society, any violation usually results in some form of punishment. Moreover, they both contribute to mold the society’s inhabitants, with anyone not following these norms immediately labeled as outcasts or social deviants.
Ralph Waldo Emerson a renowned Transcendentalist, identified the concepts of normative behavior within a literary sense in his rather fervent speech “The American Scholar”. Emerson berates the academic community for sometimes going beyond the written word. Emerson begins by condemning those “bookworms” who would place literature on a pedestal, perhaps forgetting one day that indeed the work may be great, but it was not the words of an omnipotent being. Instead he argues that it is merely words from a man, a being that can never be “perfect”. Calling for a change in thought among literary circles, he urges contemporary writers to lay their foundations on previous author’s creative process, allowing them to release their own talents, rather than have them strain to model books they had previously assimilated.
His solicitations for the removal of the pedestal on which many pieces of literature lie bring the readers to ponder what are the true deeper meanings within themselves. As a transcendentalist his views on individualistic thought and expression are reflected in his speech. His preaching against the herd mentality, whether it be regarding literature or within life, define the virtues for which Emerson obviously hopes to share. Nevertheless, Emerson does not discard literature itself as flawed. Instead he maintains the necessity of free thought when interpreting the texts; the persistent need for analysis and self-introspection. With this message Emerson walks the fine line between two schools of thought.
Moreover, history has shown that the ideas can and are manipulated. Although not all literature stipulates manipulation, most literature is a subtle form of coercion. The doctrines laid out to create sensationalism by yellow journalism in America during the 19th and 20th century has persistently shaped minds. The media has often been blamed for giving the minds of John Q. Public a thorough washing. However, Emerson also points his finger at public, criticizing them for allowing such blatant manipulation to take place. To Emerson and many others, the group sees, hears and thinks as a hive mind, believing that their doctrine is golden, merely because previous minds found them to be so. Where were the processes of thought? Was it all merely recognition of events, predigested for the masses?
These neat prepackaged ways of thought seemed to fit rather snugly with many of today’s post-industrial societies. Today, no one man needs to learn how an automobile works to use it, they need not worry how their water travels to their house or electricity to their outlets. Today, they merely care if these intricate networks of reactions work the way they are required, with the ignorant yet utilitarian ideology of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. With processed food, processed this and processed that, it is no wonder that processed thought comes into play. Societies have historically always shared in misconceptions brought upon by common thoughts. Whether these thoughts were artificially manipulated and implanted or gathered collectively from general sources.
Emerson’s individualistic callings may be extreme, however he clearly emphasizes how normative behavior drives society and manipulates behavior and thought on a massive scale. Nevertheless, a person’s development depends as much on the person as the society around them. It is perhaps the classical concept of gene expression, when exposed to certain environments, certain traits would become dominant. With no particular rhyme or reason the environmental aspects such as normative behavior and genetic expression commingle to form what we know as human behavior. Normative behavior alone will not define a person, instead it gives the individual an acceptable set of parameters to operate within, a form of social blueprint. As a social science, it is impossible to clearly link behavior with intangible aspects.
However this lack of finality can be the greatest virtue, allowing for a degree of latitude during interpretation. It continues to remind us the behavior of individuals are not set in stone, some will follow the guidelines set by society others will continue to color outside the lines. Beliefs that a person is purely influenced by self-expression and individualism or that all actions we commit are controlled wholly by normative behavior is just as foolish as to believe that there is