The Rule of Silence versus Social Norms – Competing (in)formal Institutions

By Geerte Verduijn

Being a frequent disturber of the desired silence on our second floor, this recently launched student-campaign is making me feel increasingly uncomfortable. This post is no complaint nor, I am afraid, a definite promise of behavioral improvement. What it might be however, is an apologetic explanation of why this theoretically utopian study area – quiet, but surrounded by friends – is often failing to fulfil that goal.

Now, when real work has to be done, many people move to one of the public libraries nearby. For some reason these buildings – less socially attractive, but all the more effective – seem to escape the pitfalls of our second floor. When solely looking at the formal descriptions of both places, this does not make sense – they are practically equal. As the student campaign indicates however, contrarily to the public library’s instruction, LUC’s rule of silence fails to have effect. Accordingly, the problem must be sought outside its formal establishments.  

In their analysis of informal institutions, Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky explain how they can influence their formal companions, dependent on the effectivity of those formal rules and the degree of differing informal goals. In the case of the public library, socially shared ideas about politeness perfectly complement the official request for silence. In our LUC-building however, this institution seems to be overruled by conflicting norms: differing opinions about ‘‘real’’ silence, adolescents’ ideas on group-appreciation (publicly speaking about your alcohol-involving weekend), and a general indifference towards less enforced rules, spoil every attempt.  

If Helmke and Levitsky ever decided to trade their current employer for LUC, they would sadly conclude that the formal and informal rules of our second floor are continuously competing: following the latter often resulting in a violation of the first. I am sorry, fellow students, and will try to improve my behavior. But please do not forget - I am also just an actor, surrounded by social temptations, trapped in a weak formal institutional environment.