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.

A Threshold? Germany Enforces Border Controls

By Geerte Verduijn

This step has become necessary.” Where Germany’s leaders recently offered refugees arriving from Eastern Europe the ability to travel freely across its borders, last Sunday Thomas de Maizière announced the end of this era. Border controls were carried out immediately after German officials claimed that the amount of refugees had ‘stretched the system to breaking point.’ The term ‘’breaking point’’ in this context instantly reminds of the causal theory of threshold effects. According to Paul Pierson, in certain processes tension can gradually increase until a certain boiling point is met, with changes being completely non-linear from then on.

However, is Germany’s recently unstable refugee-policy indeed substantially affected by such a threshold? And if so, is this a boiling point that was fixed or could its limits have been higher, postponed, maybe even prevented? Imagine that, instead of Viktor Orbán stating that ‘the migration crisis is a German problem, not a European problem’ more countries had followed Germany’s example – what would have happened? Or, if it is true that Germany’s decision is ‘supposed to discourage refugees from rushing toward Germany,’ could this have been accomplished in other ways?

Though my knowledge about Germany’s economic and political situation is too basic to know whether this decision is justified, the decision has at least one clear result: last Sunday, Germany ‘sparked a domino effect of border closures’ in Europe. If a threshold is predetermined, it is difficult to argue that all European countries following Germany’s example met their individual boiling points simultaneously. Was this mass-movement of border control indeed the inevitable result of a threshold being met last weekend, or was it more of a useful political term, arbitrarily created by politicians and media reports? In other words, if we were to look back at the decisions made this week in several years, which theory would we need to apply to indeed confirm the necessity of Germany’s decision?


By Geerte Verduijn

In 1911, Agnes Ferguson decided to leave her life in Scotland and headed to the United States of America. Dating back over a million years, migration is no new phenomenon. Yet media reports of citizen’s animosity against migrants intensify in frequency. With David Cameron referring to ‘a swarm’ of refugees, and foreign secretary Philip Hammond predicting ‘a threat to the EU’s standard of living and social structure,’ explicit opinions now have reached the United Kingdom’s government. When expressing such worries however, there are several things the British might want to take into account. 

First of all, the country’s fairly recent past. It is interesting to see how easily is spoken in generalized terms – ‘the swarm’, ‘Africans’ - when addressing great groups of migrants, as if all that is foreign is homogenous. Meanwhile, when referring to ‘our country’, the outspoken Britain’s seem to conveniently forget ‘’their’’ ancestors who massively migrated to the furthest corners of the world. Those journeys moreover showed that migration is not a priori negative. It has even been argued that the presence of refugees can supply a country with labor and stimulate economic growth. Is the British standard of living really as threatened as its people fear?

On the other hand, even comparing current affairs with past migrations of the British would not suffice. While Ms. Ferguson was ‘enticed by alluring pictures of the Canadian prairies,’ and economic migration is still happening, the motives of many refugees anno 2015 have exceeded such luxuries. People are fleeing from ‘apocalyptic’ civil wars, willing to risk their lives trying to reach safer ground.

How long does it take before people get used to a certain standard of living? Before having Maslow’s first needs fulfilled and owning the most powerful passport in the world starts to weaken their empathy for the less-lucky or unknown? Perhaps the British should reconsider the treasured but ‘threatened’ social and institutional structures that allow them to make such impassive statements when human lives are at stake.