Individuality and Social Conformity

What is the driving force behind this phenomenon of social conformity?

So many people take social conformity for granted that not many bother to find out why it is such a powerful phenomenon and why so many people submit to this force without any resistance.

In ants and termite colonies the entire unit composed of thousands of individual ants or termites act as one unit and there is hardly any individual variation. The queen ant or termite spreads a chemical oozing out of her body through the entire assembly of ants and termites and that shared chemical bond somehow helps to keep the entire colony as one functional unit. But in a human community composed of countless individuals such unvarying conformity as found in ant colonies will be very surprising. It will be because humans are conscious individuals with a free will and unthinking submission to the Collective as found in Animal groups is something unthinkable.

But such submission is very much there and it is therefore worth finding out what endows this social conformity with such a tremendous force. It is easy to understand that in traditional pre-modern societies which saw very little change, uniform submission to the established custom and usage was the norm. For example in pre-industrial India which was feudal and agrarian, the priestly community held sway and monarchs ruled with absolute power. In such stagnant and conservative times, hardly anybody deviated from the standard custom and practice. Untouchables hardly aspired to rise above their station in society as menials, people followed the hereditary profession of their community, women submitted to the authority of men and widows hardly dared to remarry.

Though such strict submission to the authority of the social Collective is not there anymore in democratic and industrialized societies, still social conformity is widely prevalent and why it is still so needs to be explored. Three main factors appear as prominent reasons for social conformity to be still in force.

Power of habit which simply keeps perpetuating itself.

Fear of punishment and social ostracism.

Power of inertia and unwillingness to change.

Power of habit in enforcing social conformity

As said earlier, in traditional societies men simply followed the profession of their forefathers and engaged in what was known as the hereditary occupation of their community. Though the feudal and agrarian nature of society has changed considerably, this habit is still very much prevalent. Even today in modern India members of the priestly community still try to practice only certain chosen professions prescribed in the ancient scriptures for them and will shun certain other professions as beneath them even if they are monetary rewarding now. Setting up a leather factory or show showroom may be a lucrative profession now. But members of the priestly community won’t jump at this as this has been prohibited for them in their scriptures.

Many Indians took to the civil service under the British Raj as it gave them a sustained income, authority of government service and security of job. Even though the economy has changed considerably since the British left India, this fascination with government service still continues very much and many an Indian father still points to the civil service as the safe haven for his son even though prosperity looms large just outside the confines of civil service.

Many anachronistic practices continue in society simply by power of habit. The British coat and suit continues in tropical India even after the Britisher has left a long time ago. Corporate executives are afraid to break out of this mold simply due to fear of non-conformity. Only in the IT sector where people are allowed to dress casually have people dared to break out of this coat and suit syndrome and dress as they like. The age of extracting work by exercise of authority and issuing order has passed a long time ago and has been replaced by the age of consensus and collaboration. Still many corporate bosses function in the old style and issue executive fiats with little consultation with those below. Those below are obeying the executive fiats simply out of fear of questioning authority as their predecessors have done for generations. Only in the IT industry have people changed and the Team leader is seen as one among the team and not as some remote figure of authority.

Fear of punishment and ostracism

Many people will behave in an individualistic manner if they are not frightened of being punished and ostracized for not conforming to existing social standards. Galileo was put under house arrest and forced to disown his discoveries when his endorsements of Copernicus’s observations about the earth orbiting the sun displeased the Church. Many a young man and woman control themselves from falling in love and having a love marriage for fear of being ostracized and rejected b y parents and relatives in India as a love marriage may turn out to be an inter-caste marriage.

During the days of anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, politicians who recognized the value of Hindi were afraid to speak out in the Tamil Nadu assembly in favour of introducing Hindi in schools as they were afraid of being shouted down. Poet Subramanya Bharathi was a fearless individualist who did not care for social ridicule or ostracism. He freely moved with lower caste people, walked holding his wife’s hand on the street and wrote inflammatory articles opposing the British Raj. But such men are rare. Most men will hesitate to deviate from the social norm for fear of being punished and will suppress their individualism to a great extent so as to appear all right in the eyes of society.

Fear of change and role of inertia in opposing change

Familiarity gives a feeling of security and unfamiliarity generates fear and insecurity. This is very true of animals and not any less true of man also. Animals show reluctance when they are forced to move away from familiar territory and will try their best to come back to their old home grounds. Men are also very reluctant to move away from familiar places unless they are pressed by famine, war and persecution to leave their home lands. So basically there is something in man that feels comfortable with familiar conditions and distrusts anything new and different from what he knows as normal.

Exploring new territories is a forbidding task that not many take up eagerly. That is why ancient explorers like Columbus and all those who set out to explore the new world became noteworthy figures for daring to do something so risky. This fear of unknown territory gradually got extended to new ideas and customs and practices that were not heard of before or practiced by the community that one belongs to.

Indian villagers were afraid to receive small pox vaccinations as they have never heard of such a treatment before for preventing small pox. They were only used to covering the stricken patient with neem leaves. So suddenly when the Englishman came up with something new called vaccination it aroused suspicion and distrust. Sailors used to wooden boats were skeptical when steel ships were fabricated for sailing in the oceans. The same fear came with respect to air planes when they came on the scene.

Such fears are not confined to new territory and new machines alone. New ideas can also evoke the same fear. The concept of the U.N maintaining a global army and individual nations disbanding their national armies is something so unconventional that individual nations feel insecure about implementing this proposal. Even an American President exhibited fear when the idea of paper currency was mooted as a replacement for gold and silver coins. The ideas of Karl Marx about a communist type of social organization generated fear in the minds of people living in capitalist countries as they feared the total collapse of all that they were familiar with if communism gains ground.

So when change is feared in so many ways individuals who are constantly taking new initiatives that are unconventional are feared and shunned as agents of social instability. Moreover efforts to change demand a lot of energy and strain and people resist such extra efforts as painful. People who are used to keeping their house dirty will find it to be a painful effort if they are told to keep their house clean. So those who are lazy by disposition will reject advice to keep their house clean even if it is beneficial and makes the house look attractive. Similarly people who are satisfied with a minimum income in a secure salaried job will find efforts to start their own self-enterprise painful and will resent those who offer such advice. So one can imagine the fear and distrust an unconventional individualistic type of person will evoke when he goes about asking others to give up what they are familiar with and accept something unknown before. Such is the fear that Socrates evoked when he asked people to think about truth, justice and proper government etc. Normal citizens of Athens had never thought about these things and felt uncomfortable facing such questions. News spread to the government of Athens about the troublesome questions raised by Socrates and he was immediately branded as a disturber of social peace and punished with death by drinking poison. So inertia and fear of change are also powerful factors that keep people committed to social conformity.