Challenge

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Challenge is integral to many situations in life. When a teacher, comedian, or politician stands up in front others, then contests, disruptions and objections can be welcomed because they serve to enhance the overall activity. Or, at least, challenge can work in this way. The trick is that what counts as going ‘too far’ by way of challenging can be uncertain, shifting and a matter of disagreement.

The manner in which entertainment magic is recognized by audiences as involving deception brings its own complexities about what counts as appropriate conduct. While magicians might proffer all sorts of patter about what is taking place, audiences can be downright skeptical about what they hear. Magicians, in turn, can anticipate such disbelief and even encourage certain kinds of challenge by the audience in order to counteract doubts. But audiences can full well imagine magicians will be prepared for at least certain kinds of challenge. With this expectation audience members can seek to act in unanticipated ways or simply refrain from engaging with performers at all. Magicians recognize both possibilities and thus… etc., etc., etc.

In theory, this overall situation creates a dizzying array of possibilities for action. It also creates much potential for behavioral transgressions.

Like many other social activities, magic is characterized both by diversity in how individuals act but an overall pattern in the conduct of action. In performing for others, I am both wary of how people will behave but I also experience a fair bit of predictability in the interactions.

How can we make sense of how people act and do not? In the social sciences and in everyday life, one long standing concept for doing so is that of ‘social norms’. Norms are collective standards for appropriate behavior.

One common way to think about norms is that they guide, govern, or otherwise produce certain behavior. Of course, not everyone agrees with or follows standards about what is right, good or important. Yet, once individuals become socialized into or persuaded about norms, then they are consciously or non-consciously followed. When norms are thought of in this way, determining how they are diffused through society is important in order to affect behavior.

Across different disciplines in the social sciences, this way of thinking about norms has been critiqued as ignoring significant aspects of how we live in the world. One starting point for this criticism has been the contention that, by themselves, norms and rules cannot act as authoritative guides to action (read: ‘be followed’) or as an explanation for action. This is because what it means to adhere to a norm or rule is always at some level unspecified. Instances of social life are never identical, the future application of normative standards cannot be set out once and for all. As a result, individuals must manage the relevance of norms, what it means to follow or deviate from them, and what consequences are likely to follow from whatever action they take.

Based on such arguments, fields such as ethnomethodology have sought to advance an alternative way of understanding norms. Herein, norms are not standards that determined action, but resources that people draw on to account for to what they do. Following on from this, instead of treating norms as general standards that govern behavior (after people have been socialized to them), the invoking of norms and rules is treated as a form of action. As part of this orientation, consideration must be given to how individuals’ understanding of their circumstances develops over time through a sense of the norm. In this way, norms and rules as phenomenon-in-the-making rather than definitive, objective standards. Even if we might often wish the latter were the case.

In the (first) Challenge video, Abi Dymond, Geoffrey Hughes, and Paul Stevens discuss the relevance of challenge in our joint accomplishment of a magic effect. In the second video, members of the University of Exeter discuss their expectations and experiences associated with partaking in a magic effect. 

Contrasting Ways of Conceiving of Norms in the Social Sciences

  • Norms as rules or restraints — They tell you what to do
  • Norms as resources — They are how you make sense of what is done and to co-ordinate their actions
  • Norms act as internalized standards setting out appropriate behavior
  • Meaning of action and norms determined in how norms are made relevant in specific situations
  • Degree to which norms are followed depends on the extent they are and whether the norms are clear and specific
  • Radical insufficiency of rules to specify appropriate action. Yet, open-ended norms can be bound up in the reproduction of predictable patterns of social life. A key question then is how this can take place
  • Uncertain or conflicting norms are an analytical problem which social scientists need to resolve
  • How people act in relation to uncertain indeterminate or conflicting norms is part and parcel of how those norms are given their importance. Their situated, practical-for-all-purposes meaning in the day-to-day world is a central topic for social scientists

Notes: My thanks to psychologist and magician Dr. Adam Putnam for showing me the effect by Jack Curtis called 'Extra Subliminal Persuasion'. that features in the first video. The handling of the cards in the second effect derives from my teacher Dani DaOrtiz.

Challenge

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