It is hard to keep up habits these days. As the academic year starts up with remote teaching, hybrid teaching, and rapidly-changing plans amid the pandemic, many of us are thinking about how to design new ways to connect now that our old habits are disrupted. How do you make a new routine or make up for old rituals lost? How do we make them stick and feel meaningful?
Social science shows us how these things take time, and in a world where we would all very much like a quick solution to our current social problems, it can be tough to sort out exactly what new rules and routines can do for us.
For example, The New York Times recently profiled “spiritual consultants” in the workplace – teams that are tasked with creating a more meaningful and communal experience on the job. This is part of a larger social trend of companies and other organizations implementing things like mindfulness practices and meditation because they…keep workers happy? Foster a sense of community? Maybe just keep the workers just a little more productive in unsettled times?
It is hard to talk about the motives behind these programs without getting cynical, but that snark points us to an important sociological point. Some of our most meaningful and important institutions emerge from social behavior, and it is easy to forget how hard it is to design them into place.
This example reminded me of the classic Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann, who argue that some of our strongest and most established assumptions come from habit over time. Repeated interactions become habits, habits become routines, and suddenly those routines take on a life of their own that becomes meaningful to the participants in a way that “just is.” Trust, authority, and collective solidarity fall into place when people lean on these established habits. In other words: on Wednesdays we wear pink.
The challenge with emergent social institutions is that they take time and repetition to form. You have to let them happen on their own, otherwise they don’t take on the same same sense of meaning. Designing a new ritual often invites cringe, because it skips over the part where people buy into it through their collective routines. This is the difference between saying “on Wednesdays we wear pink” and saying
“Hey team, we have a great idea that’s going to build office solidarity and really reinforce the family dynamic we’ve got going on. We’re implementing: Pink. Wednesdays.”
All of our usual routines are disrupted right now, inviting fear, sadness, anger, frustration, and disappointment. People are trying to persist with the rituals closest to them, sometimes to the extreme detriment of public health (see: weddings, rallies, and ugh). I think there’s some good sociological advice for moving through these challenges for ourselves and our communities: recognize those emotions, trust in the routines and habits that you can safely establish for yourself and others, and know that they will take a long time to feel really meaningful again, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working for you. In other words, stop trying to make fetch happen.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.