Social Structures and the Socially Awkward

And now for a few sociological thoughts. 🙂 The primary reading this week was about the notion of social structures. These are the collective societal arrangements that shape our behavior and ways of thinking. They have two prominent features: they are external to each of us as individuals — they would exist without you or me being here — and they constrain our actions by sanctioning behavior that goes against them.

That’s pretty abstract, I realize. Examples of social structures include institutionalized things like laws and organized religion, but also more fluid things like cultural norms and fashion trends. They all constrain us to one degree or another: when we break a law, society can sanction us with jail time or fines, and when we make a social faux pas, people will look at us funny or even ostracize us. You could think of them in general as social obligations. You can break them, but you’ll incur some kind of backlash if you do.

Many social structures do also enable, or at least streamline, our behavior. A shared language allows us to communicate. Shared currency facilitates financial transactions. Traffic laws allow us to drive on the same road without all running into each other. We’re constrained by each of those structures, but that constraint can help us.

We’re also constrained by social structures even if we’re oblivious to them; ignorance of the law doesn’t mean you can break it, for example. That got me thinking about how one can also be oblivious to the social sanction that follows breaking one of these obligations — autistic people, for example, may miss the nonverbal cues that indicate social disapproval. That made me wonder if, in that instance, the sanction is no longer effective. After all, if I go blithely on my way, unaware that I have worn the absolute wrong thing to a party, then the social structure has failed to coerce me into conforming, right?

Not necessarily. I may be unaware that I have been socially sanctioned, but I will likely become aware that I am no longer invited to such parties. (Oh, the horror. Parties are a bad example, at least for me.) If I unknowingly break other social rules, I may find myself unable to get a job, or get a date. The social structure in question may have failed to change my behavior in any way, but I am still constrained by it. I will feel the effects of those structures, I just won’t know why.

And I think that’s precisely why autistic people frequently feel alienated, disconnected and misunderstood. We’re feeling the effects of social structures we don’t understand or explicitly reject. Sure, we may not catch the hints, the looks, the facial expressions that people use to pressure us to conform — but we still end up out in the cold, wondering why we can’t connect.

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