Children learn about their world from many personal and social context sources. These sensual and contextual sources enable abstract rules to form (Lu, Li, Fang, & Yi, 2019). Thinking to form these abstract rules involves collecting information gathered from these sensory inputs and developing a general understanding. Finally, these understandings are combined into abstract rules based on the individual component sensory understandings (Shulman, Guberman, Shiling, & Bauminger, 2012). For example, an adult’s intent eye gaze serves as a social rule cue to a child and learning to express gratitude and be polite when accepting an unwanted gift (Lu et al., 2019) helps form another social rule.
The ability to derive social rules from different experiences is crucial to multiple human functions, including categorization, language, and social behavior. People exhibiting autism spectrum disorder (ASD) traits experience difficulty learning, applying, and flexibly using abstract rules, which influences their ability to respond appropriately in social situations. If a person with ASD encounters a situation that contradicts an existing rule, they will likely have problems learning and applying the new rule (Jones, Webb, Estes, & Dawson, 2013).
Social Scientists Views of Rules
A group of French philosophers and sociologists met between 1999 and 2007 to discuss 20th-century philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Rawls’ understanding and definition of a rule. Their discussion of Wittgenstein’s definition that a rule is “a family resemblance concept” (Ogien, 2009) encompasses many definitions and not specific enough to work with. The group reasoned that a rule could refer to or mean a duty, an obligation, a recommendation, a justification, a regularity, or a description (Ogien, 2009).
Professionals in philosophy, humanities, and social sciences believe that to understand social life and social rules, one must first understand the practices of a social group. Many of those holding to these theories of practice, inspired by Wittgenstein, share the belief that the individuals in these groups possess a collection of acquired abilities, skills, and practical knowledge or know-how. These theories are commonly referred to as ability theories of practice.
Ability theorists of practice believe individuals follow these rules both consciously and subconsciously. In addition, ability theorists of practice emphasize that learning practical knowledge results from someone without the skill or knowledge observing another person and then trying to mimic the same behavior, and guided by the rules they learned from the observation. They hold that individuals actions are governed and can be explained by four types of rules:
Ability theorists of practice hold that rules can always be described verbally and articulated. They believe that most individuals’ knowledge of how to act is subconsciously understood and cannot explain it to someone else. Ability theorists of practice reason that if someone cannot explain their actions, they do not follow a rule. They observe that individuals only follow the rules occasionally and are limited in scope and only partial guides to actions, rendering verbal rule explanations incomplete (Zahle, 2017).
Sociologist and ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel holds that individuals do not base their actions on rules but instead use rules to defend their actions Garfinkel’s conclusion was based on how members of a jury reach a unanimous verdict, and only used rules to defend their decision (Zahle, 2017). Garfinkel also holds that a person’s actions and the rules that guided that action are only valid in the specific context and circumstances of that person’s actions (Belek, 2018).
Two arguments support the belief that rules are incomplete. First, a rule may be understood or interpreted in multiple ways that may conflict, resulting in a gap between understanding the rule and how it is to be applied. Consequently, the rule by itself, what is the appropriate response for a situation. Second, many rules have exceptions. Following a rule may lead to an inappropriate or ineffective action. The second argument reasons that there are too many unforeseeable exceptions to possibly document them all. Garfinkel believes that reliance on rules alone will not guarantee an individual responds appropriately to a situation, and individuals must be able to determine when to discard the rule (Zahle, 2017). Every social situation is potentially a situation never encountered before, adding to the individual’s challenge to determine the correct response (Sterponi, 2004).
French sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu offer that it is too easy for social scientists to assume an individual’s behavior is solely determined by rules alone. According to Bourdieu, social scientists are outsiders to those they observe. When observing apparently repeated behaviors, the social scientist will construct a rule based on their observations. Then, in future sessions with other individuals, the social scientist will believe individuals who fit the new rule pattern follow the new rule. Bourdieu reasons the social scientist is making the mistake of “sliding from the model of reality to the reality of the model” (Zahle, 2017), that is, instead of treating the new rule as just one model of reality where other models still exist, the social scientist is considering the new rule as the only/new model that now exists. Thus, theorists of practice often emphasize the limited scope of rule explanations (Zahle, 2017).
Bourdieu asserts that knowledge and understanding of social rules are dependent on an individual’s cumulative experiences of their social world and their continuous adjustments to their experiences (Belek, 2018). “Individuals’ practices are typically caused, not by their rules, but by their habitus.” (Zahle, 2017). Bourdieu, who coined the term habitus, described it as “the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences” (Zahle, 2017).
Bourdieu often used sports metaphors when talking about the habitus, often referring to it as a “feel for the game.” Just like a skilled baseball player “just knows” when to swing at a 95-mile-per-hour fastball without consciously thinking about it, each of us has an embodied type of “feel” for the social situations or “games” we regularly find ourselves in. In the right situations, our habitus allows us to successfully navigate social environments (Routledge, 2016).
As described previously, both Garfinkel and Bourdieu define and describe rules as only being understood correctly in the context of their use, whose views align with Wittgenstein (Belek, 2018).
Flexibility and Compensatory Strategies
For typically developed children and adults, responding appropriately to social situations becomes more effortless as their exposure to situations and their exceptions to social rules has expanded. However, many on the autism spectrum avoid social situations, and consequently likely have abbreviated repositories of experiences from which to draw on. Therefore, learning flexibility in learning social rules and situations when the many exceptions apply is paramount (Jameel, Vyas, Bellesi, Cassell, & Channon, 2015).
Brain scans have indicated that individuals with high-functioning ASD may occasionally compensate for their lack of understanding of the social implications of the social rules they have learned. Reliance on rules without understanding the implications or caveats may lead to awkward and inflexible behaviors in more socially complex situations that more straightforward rules can handle (Jameel et al., 2015).
This paper has examined the definitions and views of social rules by three prominent social scientists. There is a consensus that social rules are context-based and unique to every individual’s social interactions as they have experienced so far in their life.
Belek, B. (2018). Autism and the proficiency of social ineptitude: Probing the rules of “appropriate” behavior. Ethos, 46(2), 167-169. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.umgc.edu/10.1111/etho.12202
Jameel, L., Vyas, K., Bellesi, G., Cassell, D., & Channon, S. (2015). Great expectations: The role of rules in guiding pro-social behaviour in groups with high versus low autistic traits. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(8), 2311-2322.
Jones, E. J., Webb, S. J., Estes, A., & Dawson, G. (2013). Rule learning in autism: the role of reward type and social context. Developmental neuropsychology, 38(1), 58-77.
Lu, H., Li, P., Fang, J., & Yi, L. (2019). The Perceived Social Context Modulates Rule Learning in Autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 49(11), 4698-4706.
Ogien, A. (2009). Rules and details: From Wittgenstein and Rawls to the study of practices. Journal of Classical Sociology, 9(4), 450-474.
Routledge, member of the Taylor & Francis Group (2016). Habitus – Pierre Bourdieu. http://routledgesoc.com/category/profile-tags/habitus
Shulman, C., Guberman, A., Shiling, N., & Bauminger, N. (2012). Moral and social reasoning in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 42(7), 1364-1376.
Sterponi, L. (2004). Construction of rules, accountability and moral identity by high-functioning children with autism. Discourse studies, 6(2), 207-228.
Zahle, J. (2017). Ability Theories of Practice and Turner’s Criticism of Bourdieu. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 48(4), 553-567.
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