Navigating Social Norms

A few weeks ago, I met someone whose description of their experiences in the outdoor field made me question what I know and understand about leadership in the outdoors.

It was a chance encounter. After small talk and niceties we meandered to the topic of leadership in the outdoor industry, and through my hazy knowledge of their background, I came to hear some brilliant snippets about their life as a climber, instructor and adventurer, which lit up my brain. The story of their path into the industry was fascinating and what they shared has made me think more deeply about how leaders navigate their way to (or leave) the higher levels of mountaineering leadership. One of the key transition points they shared was the move from being a largely UK-based climber to one who climbs the world and instructs in it; stepping out into the wider world, into a more privileged sphere where people have had money and opportunities very different from their own. 

It sounded like they were forced to make a choice at that point of transition – change yourself to be accepted or don’t, and you won’t – and this is interesting to me, someone who has come from a working class background, the child of a teenage single mother and absent, alcoholic father, and who has seen the subtle forces of social, cultural and economic capital at play on too many occasions to keep track. 

Adapting ourselves and our behaviour to comply with social norms isn’t unusual – we do this from childhood, but at what point do the demands from social norms become unreasonable?  What role does social class play in the outdoor industry? Does it make a difference to whether people stay in the industry and progress as leaders or move on to other vocations? Is it the same for people of all genders?

At present, I am researching social capital and how this phenomenon impacts and influences the career pathways and journeys of leaders in the outdoor industry. Social capital is all about our networks, the social norms in those networks and the sanctions that apply when someone breaks the social norms. Having a network of contacts in the field in which we work is likely to benefit individuals for a range of reasons. Access to advice is important when you’re new to a field and perhaps more so now for experienced instructors than previously, as the world speeds up amidst the 4th Industrial Revolution (4iR). Mentoring is much easier to access if you know someone already who has influence or wider contacts. Understanding a field or industry takes time, and this understanding is enhanced when we connect with people from a wider base. 

Sometimes networks are much more subtle. They can offer us acceptance – being part of the tribe, or leaving us out of the tribe, if we transgress. They can validate or invalidate our feelings or even our existence. 

The topics are complex and fascinating and I would love to hear other people’s perspectives on what you see, how you’ve experienced things and how you navigate these challenges. Please share your perspectives in the comments box.

Emily Pitts

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