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Scientific article
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Misleading norms and vulnerability in the life course: definition and illustrations

Published inResearch in human development, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 52-67
Publication date2017
Abstract

This review paper investigates the potentially misleading effect of some social norms on life trajectories. Conformity to some gender norms related to the division of paid and family work becomes counterproductive for individuals who experience turning points in their life along the way. We present various empirical results mainly drawn from the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES where conformity to social norms has detrimental effects on life trajectories. We conclude by stressing that the sensitizing concept of misleading norms contributes to a better understanding of vulnerability across the life course. Research has mainly stressed the positive aspects of individual compliance with social norms across the life course and the negative consequences of deviance from social norms. However, more attention should be paid to the vulnerability processes of conforming with established norms. One area of research in which normative conformity has been criticized concerns gender. Various studies have stressed that gender norms predispose a highly unequal accumulation of resources and specialization processes among men and women, thus delegating males and females to particular roles. We use this field of research to present misleading norms as a sensitizing concept (Blumer, 1969 Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.) and stress the mismatch between social structures and social norms as a root of individual vulnerability across the life course. Based on the framework that is proposed by Spini, Bernardi, and Oris (this issue), we develop the idea that misleading norms are reproduced under the influence of multilevel processes, from the individual, to intermediate groupings and networks, to society at large. This article focuses on one empirical example of misleading norms: the potential negative consequences for a large number, if not a majority, of individuals in contemporary Western society of complying with gender norms regarding the division of child care and paid work. We assert that conformity to such gender norms is counterproductive for individuals who experience critical events later in life. The following sections first summarize some results about deviance and conformity to norms in life-course research. Then, the article proposes an alternative by defining the concept of misleading norms from a life-course perspective that stresses the importance of changing life circumstances for understanding the impact of normative conformity. Third, based on empirical illustrations, the paper summarizes studies that are drawn from the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES with regard to the question of how some gender norms increase vulnerability at three different stages of the life course—the transition to parenthood, divorce and family recomposition, and family interactions of people who are elderly. This article also presents some multilevel influences that account for the reproduction of misleading norms, notably personal networks and normative climates. The article concludes by stressing that the concept of misleading norms contributes to a better understanding of vulnerability across the life course beyond gender issues by sensitizing scholars and stakeholders to the negative effects for individuals of normative conformity priorly in the life course in several circumstances.

Keywords
  • VLV
Citation (ISO format)
WIDMER, Eric, SPINI, Dario. Misleading norms and vulnerability in the life course: definition and illustrations. In: Research in human development, 2017, vol. 14, n° 1, p. 52–67. doi: 10.1080/15427609.2016.1268894
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ISSN of the journal1542-7609
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