Norm Criticism

A norm-critical perspective can help us see, and change, constraining structures and norms instead of trying to make individuals fit the mold.

Norm criticism implies a focus on power, and on recognising and questioning the norms that determine people’s perceptions of what is ‘normal’ and therefore desirable.
When certain features and traits are promoted as ‘normal’, those who possess them are given expanded opportunities and acting spaces. ’The normal’ or ‘we’ is created by being placed in opposition to something else, ‘the deviant’ or ‘the others’, where those who conform to the norm can have opinions about, evaluate and name the deviance and decide to what extent it should be tolerated.

Those who conform to a norm have the power and space to either maintain the norm or help change it. This is true not only at the individual but also at the organisational and societal level. When we are able to see who has the power to facilitate change, we can put the responsibility for the work of change in the right place.
When structures are changed, instead of making individuals conform, a realistic potential for sustainable change arises.
It is also necessary to understand that multiple norms continuously interact – and sometimes interfere with each other – in a complex system. Read more about this under Intersectionality.

Norm criticism is a tool that enables organisations and other actors to change their structures. This change occurs by recognising the link between power and the norm, scrutinising systems of regulations and understanding how the conditions people face differ.
Norm criticism is a tool for promoting equal rights and opportunities by questioning present practices and critically assessing development of an activity. The method can also be used effectively when analysing work models, texts and pictures.
The practical use of a norm-critical perspective is based on a norm-critical pedagogy, where the focus is transferred from ‘the others’ or norm violators through an analysis of norms and power.

Two completely different approaches used in a diversity project exemplify the different perspectives. Without a norm-critical perspective, the project could amount to a mere discussion about how Muslims and ‘their special culture’ should be dealt with in a particular workplace context. With a norm-critical perspective, the attention is instead turned to the entire organisation’s norms and power structures, by asking what food is served at the staff party and what opportunities staff have to ask for time off in connection with holidays not recognised in the official Swedish calender. This implies a transition from ‘them’ and ‘their’ to a general review of organisational norms and their consequences for present and future employees.

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