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Breaking Norms in Comparative Social Inquiry: A Reflection

Story | Lara Kine

“Break a Norm,” a compulsory exercise of Comparative Social Inquiry (CSI), a Yale-NUS College Common Curriculum course, requires every student to break a social norm. Of course, this must be done in a legal and reasonably ethical fashion. It serves as a license to defy the social rules one might otherwise follow without ever stopping to second guess them.

In my own experience, I discovered how little people care about the apparel of the people around them. One might think that a university would be deeply invested in the aesthetic and fashion used by its students. Retrospectively, my impressions were vastly inaccurate. No one seemed to see anything amiss with me wandering through school in a pink bath towel cape. An unseen peer chose to blast Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” in the Dining Hall, another decided to change their outfit style entirely. Yet another unseen peer opted to sing “Happy Birthday” for no one in the dining hall roughly ten minutes after Shakira serenaded the room.

My original norm-breaking plan entailed walking through school in my lavender bathrobe rather than a pink bath towel. It was the most absurd norm I thought I could legally break. Regrettably, the fact that my robe failed to dry on time became the impetus for which I became a pink-towel-scarf-wearing individual. During Week 8, the “Break a Norm” exercise was extended to breaking a gender norm by acting as a member of another gender. Max Pasakorn Konwohrachet ’24 took this opportunity to attend his CSI seminar “dressed in drag.” He used the opportunity to “try drag” since “people wouldn’t judge [him because] it was technically for a class assignment.” Konwohrachet stated that someone even asked “who the new substitute teacher was” when he walked in. Nevertheless, the opportunity “was a very rewarding experience.”

I, for one, found the norm-breaking exercise liberating. Like many others, I once assumed that my actions were under constant scrutiny from the people around me. To fit into the group, I was obliged to meet the behavioral and social criteria that compose the “patterned ways of doing things”, as said by Professor Michael Maniates, Professor of Environmental Studies, during the first CSI lecture, that hold the social fabric together. This challenge, however, proved that I was almost entirely wrong. No one seemed troubled by my odd antics; no one seemed bothered by any of the others I listed.

Mr. Maniates, the facilitator of the CSI course this year, intended for the norm-breaking exercises to help “students notice the discomfort they’re feeling and reflect on where that discomfort comes from [as well as] how that might be a force that enforces our obedience to prevailing norms.” “The real focus is to interrogate one’s own discomfort.” “[Norms] can surely be constraining, but they can also be enabling.”

Overall, the actions individuals took allowed them to place a crack in their understanding of the social mould. In so doing, many comic moments became a part of the collective college experience. After breaking small norms to interrogate my discomfort and to see what happened, I know that I became that much freer.

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