Summary: the Role of Conformity in the Tragedy Romeo and Juliet


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Conformity refers to the act of fitting in and matching one’s beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral conduct to the norms and politics of a particular group. The term ‘norm’ refers to the inherent beliefs and code of conduct shared by a group of people. Norms generally guide and regulate how individuals in the group interact with each other and with others. A set of generally accepted or stipulated norms, social norms, standards, criteria or customs, make up social conventions. Conventions refer to the tyrannical norms and rules that dictate the behaviors that people in a group engage in without necessarily thinking about them. In a social environment, conventions may remain unwritten customary laws; for instance, the custom of shaking hands as a form of greeting each other. This study aims at examining the concepts of conformity and convention, to determine how they relate to daily life, and to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

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To paraphrase Andrei Marmor, in certain cases, some conventions may be adopted as laws and regulatory legislation enacted to enforce them. A good example is the laws that dictate which side of the road vehicles should be driven. Several studies have been conducted to investigate the concepts of conformity and convention. Findings reveal that there exists a positive correlation between choices made by an individual and the choices of his/her preference group. According to Haun et al. some of the motivating factors include learning through, and making choices based on the experiences of others; individuals may feel as if they have gained by just making similar choices with one’s reference group; and also, maintaining the norm due to the associated image-related concerns. Social influence and comparison may lead an individual to conform to societal conventions.

The tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, written by William Shakespeare, follows the story of two young star-crossed lovers. There are several instances in the story where Romeo and Juliet refrain from conformity. Romeo and Juliet belong to two feuding families, which makes their love unconventional. In a brief summary, The Montagues and Capulets are sworn enemies, a fact that is evident from the beginning where servants from both families engage in a street brawl. However, to paraphrase, upon meeting each other, Romeo and Juliet instantly fall in love and plan to marry. By going against the expectations of their families, both Romeo and Juliet encounter several challenges which eventually lead to their death. Lack of conformity in “Romeo and Juliet” is unacceptable to their counterparts, and it is faced by adverse consequences. For instance, by refusing to get along with the arranged marriage, Juliet gets disowned by her mother. Juliet also, with the help of the Friar, comes up with a plan to escape the marriage and be rejoined with Romeo. However, the plan fails, and the two lovers end up dead. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet brought peace between the two feuding families.

If Juliet had conformed to the conventions of her family, she would have agreed to become the “Joyful Bride” of Paris. It was customary for women to be subjected to arranged marriages for political purposes. Juliet refused to conform to the customs and decided to marry the one she loved secretly. Romeo is showcased as the leading nonconformist in the tragedy. To summarize, he turns down a fight with Tybalt who he considers to be his kinsman after marrying Juliet. However, his offended friend Mercutio fights on his behalf and ends up with a fatal injury. Romeo conforms to pressures of guilt and pursues Tybalt to avenge the death of his friend, which leads to his banishment. However, he failed to conform to the orders of his banishment and went back to the Capulet crypt after he learned about Juliet’s death. Nonconformity led to the deaths of both Romeo and Juliet. However, without nonconformity, the two feuding families could not have made peace. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet showcases the two sides of conforming and nonconforming to conventions.

Several studies have been conducted over the years to investigate the concept of conformity and conventions. One of the earliest studies was conducted by Asch, to investigate the impact of social pressure on conformity. To summarize, the study involved an experiment, where the participants were placed in groups together with secret confederates of the researcher. The participants were asked to estimate the length of a line. This was after the other group members had each given their opinion. The findings of the study showed that social pressure might have a huge impact on the choices or behavior of a person. When the confederates intentionally endorsed a wrong answer unanimously, more than a third of the tested participants stuck with the wrong answer. The participants placed in a control group free from any influences answered the questions correctly. Such experiments lead to the development of various conformity theories, particularly by social psychologists.

Several researchers have been investigating the effects of peer influence, particularly the strength that social interactions, social comparison, social influence, and strategic complementarities may have on the emergence of conformity. A good example is a study conducted by Cialdini and Goldstein, in summary, investigated the role played by social learning in the dissemination of new agricultural technology. The study revealed that social learning might give rise to conformity, especially in situations where information about the right course of action is learned from the choices made by other people in a social group. Bernheim’s research, in summary, shows that individuals may be susceptible to conformity, even if their identity remains anonymous. The major influencing factor to conformity is the existing uncertainties of utility maximization from a particular action. Social comparison has been found to lead to conformity when an individual uses the behavior of other people as a base reference for the decisions they make. Conformity may arise in such conditions regardless of whether there exists uncertainty about the utility maximization from a particular decision/action, or not. A study conducted by Sweeting, investigated whether strategic complementarities can influence conformity among people. According to Sweeting, radio stations apply the principle of strategic complementarities in coordinating the timing of commercial breaks during a broadcast. The approach ensures that the commercials reach as many people as possible, which increases the value of the advertising time. However, in strategic complementarities, it can be hard to determine the actual impact of social interactions or other factors such as the need to increase one’s utility, that facilitates certain behavior or decisions.

A variety of research has also investigated the impact of social interactions on conformity in real-world settings. Some researchers have utilized the theories of reciprocity to investigate the relationship between an individual’s actions or choices and social influences. According to a study conducted by Laird, reciprocal motives are effective in instances where the behavior or choices made by others have an impact on the individual’s payoff. The concept of reciprocal motives is applicable to various cases but cannot be applied in some examples of social interaction. Therefore, the theory of reciprocity has been found to differ from conventional conformist behavior, which does not depend on the outcome benefits of the action or choice. A good example is the case where individuals contribute to a public good in which they do not benefit directly or derive any benefit at all. A conformist may be compelled to participate in the contribution just because other people in his/her circles are contributing. On the other hand, an individual guided by the principles of reciprocity may refrain from contributing as they may not get any direct benefits from the action or influences from other people. There exists a large body of literature on the concepts of conformity and convention. Most of the available literature points out that social influence and social comparison have a high impact on conformity.

Conformity entails a form of social influence, which requires an individual to change their beliefs or behavior in order to be part of a group. Conformity is a social mechanism that gives meaning to societal conventions. Conforming to conventions means adopting the conduct, beliefs, and values practiced by earlier generations. Conventions may change or disappear over time based on concurrent changes in the community or societal structures. It is through conforming to social conventions that people can engage and interact with each other, get into relations, and also eliminate misunderstandings. To paraphrase, Margaret Gilbert wrote there exists two basic types of conformity that people practice in their daily lives: compliance and internalization. Compliance refers to the act of changing one’s behavior, beliefs, or values in order to fit in a group, while still disagreeing with the behavior, beliefs, and values of the group. Internalization refers to changing one’s behavior internally because one believes in the perspective of the group.

There are many examples through which people practice conformity in their daily lives. For instance, obeying the law or following the established rules amounts to conformity. In most cases, people are compelled to conform to established rules through the scare of the resulting consequences such as paying fines or jail time in case one doesn’t conform. In some cases, conforming to existing conventions makes life easier. For example, in some countries, drivers keep left for easier movement on the road. This is an example of a rule that many people find irrelevant but end up conforming to fit in the society, and also to avoid unnecessary accidents and inconveniences. Greetings are also another example of conformity that people practice in their daily lives. Greetings differ among different cultures, but they are socially accepted as a sign of recognition or respect. When a particular individual fails to greet another in their first meeting, it may be interpreted as rudeness or lack of manners. There are many other examples of conformity in real-life, which include but not limited to developing habits, marriage, education, and career choices, and following fashion trends, among others.

To paraphrase, there are other instances where people become deviant and refrain from conforming to established norms and societal conventions. In most cases, such people are judged as attention seekers or troublemakers. However, human history shows that without the nonconformists, some of the major advancements made politically, economically, in technology, among other areas, could not have been possible. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. is the most known nonconformist in the history of America. He took a stand against social conventions of his time, resulting in the Civil Rights Movement. The Women’s Rights Movement is also an excellent example of nonconformity. Conformity is a double-edged sword with both advantages and disadvantages.

Conformity has been defined in this study as changing one’s beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral conduct to match the conventions of a particular group in order to fit in. Conventions refer to the arbitrary norms and rules that dictate the behaviors that people in a group engage in without necessarily thinking about them. Past research shows that social pressure may have a huge impact on the behavior and attitude of people. It is this social pressure that compels people to change their behavior and beliefs to fit in. People conform to numerous conventions throughout their daily life without even knowing. There are also numerous cases of nonconformity, which are often associated with unfavorable consequences. However, studies show that nonconformity is responsible for some of the most revolutionary historical changes in the world. Conformity is associated with both advantages and disadvantages. These advantages and disadvantages are depicted in the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. Conformity comes between the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Both are compelled to go against the conventions established by their feuding families. Their conformity ultimately leads to their death, but it also leads to the end of the feud between the two families.   

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