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Certain types of rules or customs may become law, and regulatory legislation may be introduced to formalise or enforce the convention (e.g. laws which determine which side of the road vehicles must be driven). In a social context, a convention may retain the character of an "unwritten" law of custom (e.g. the manner in which people greet each other, such as by shaking each other's hands).
A convention is a rule or a selection from among two or more alternatives, where the rule or alternative is agreed upon among participants. Often the word refers to unwritten customs shared throughout a community. For instance, it is conventional in many societies that strangers being introduced shake hands. Some conventions are explicitly legislated; for example, it is conventional in America and Germany that motorists drive on the right side of the road, whereas in England, Australia and Barbados they drive on the left. The extent to which justice is conventional (as opposed to natural or objective) is historically an important debate among philosophers.
The nature of conventions has raised long-lasting philosophical discussion. Quine, Davidson and David Lewis published influential writings on the subject. Lewis's account of convention received an extended critique in Margaret Gilbert's On Social Facts (1989), where an alternative account is offered. Another view of convention comes from Ruth Millikan's Language: A Biological Model (2005), once more against Lewis.
- Main article: Norm (sociology)
In sociology a social rule refers to any social convention commonly adhered to in a society. These rules are not written in law or otherwise formalized. In social constructionism there is a great focus on social rules. It is argued that these rules are socially constructed, that these rules act upon every member of a society, but at the same time, are re-produced by the individuals.
Sociologists representing symbolic interactionism argue that social rules are created through the interaction between the members of a society. The focus on active interaction highlights the fluid, shifting character of social rules. These are specific to the social context, in particular time and space. That means a social rule changes over time within the same society. What was acceptable in the past may no longer be the case. Similarly, rules differ across space: what is acceptable in one society may not be so in another.
Social rules reflect what is acceptable or normal behaviour in any situation. Michel Foucault's concept of discourse is closely related to social rules as it offers a possible explanation how these rules are shaped and change. It is the social rules that tell people what is normal behaviour for any specific category. Thus, social rules tell a woman how to behave in a womanly manner, and a man, how to be manly. Other such rules are as follows:
- strangers being introduced shake hands, as in Western society, but
- bow toward each other, in Korea, Japan and China
- do not bow at each other, in the Jewish tradition
- in the US, eye contact, a nod of the head toward each other, and a smile, with no bowing; the palm of the hand faces sideways, neither upward nor downward, in a business handshake.
- present business cards to each other, in business meetings
- in Japan, removal of dark eyeglasses when meeting, as dark eyeglasses indicate association with the underworld.
- click heels together, in past eras of Western history
- a woman's curtsey, in some societies
- in the Mideast, never displaying the sole of the foot toward another, as this would be seen as a grave insult.
- In many schools, even though seats for students are not assigned they are still "claimed" by certain kids, and sitting in someone else's seat is considered an insult
There are generic conventions which are very closely tied to a particular artistic genre, and may even help to define what that genre is. Terms such as fan conventions and science fiction conventions could be interpreted in this manner, but more often refer to the meaning of "convention" as a gathering or the physical location of a gathering.
Other conventions that may simply be expectations are:
- paintings are rectangular or square
- stock devices (a comedy ends with a marriage, but a cowboy film can end with the hero riding off into the sunset)
In government, convention is a set of unwritten rules which the participants in the government are expected to follow. These rules can be ignored only if justification is clear, or can be provided. Otherwise, consequences are sure to follow. Consequences may include ignoring some other convention that has until now been followed. According to the traditional doctrine (Dicey), conventions cannot be enforced in courts, because they are non-legal sets of rules. Convention is particularly important in the United Kingdom and other governments using the Westminster System of government (e.g. Canada and Australia) where many of the rules of government are unwritten.
- Main article: International law
The term convention is also used in international law to refer to certain formal statements of principle such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Conventions are adopted by international bodies such as the International Labour Organization and the United Nations. Conventions so adopted usually apply only to countries that ratify them, and do not automatically apply to member states of such bodies. These conventions are generally seen as having the force of international treaties for the ratifying countries. The best known of these are perhaps the several Geneva Conventions.
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