Norm (sociology)

In sociology, a norm, or social norm, is a pattern of behavior expected within a particular society in a given situation. The shared belief of what is normal and acceptable shapes and enforces the actions of people in a society. The very fact that others in one's society follow the norm may give them a reason to follow it. Important norms are called mores.


Justification and origins

A norm may or may not have a rational justification or origin. Norms with common sense origins may, over time, lose their original context as society changes: an action that was once performed because it was necessary to survive may over the years become a social norm, even once the circumstances that made it necessary for survival are no longer applicable. There are at least two reasons for the stability of a norm. First, people are educated via their socialization process to follow a norm and most people will not oppose it. Second, even if a person does not feel like following a norm, it may be in his best interest to follow it anyway.

Traditional norms such as the Golden rule have been followed by many people over a long period of time. Therefore norms are closely related to customs. On the other hand, a norm may arise as a formal description of an implicitly followed custom (see custom (law) for example).

In social situations, such as meetings, norms are unwritten and often unstated rules that govern individuals' behavior. Norms are most evident when they are not followed or are broken. This is often experienced when an individual finds him/herself in a foreign country, dealing with a strange culture where the norms are different. By the same token, import of cultural products in a culture may confront its people with different norms than they take for granted. Cultural import may then be seen as a threat to cultural identity.

In some groups, norms are consciously prescribed as a set of ground rules. Persons skilled in facilitation assist groups in recognizing norms, as well as establishing norms to promote greater group (or team) effectiveness. A general formal framework that can be used to represent the essential elements of the social situation surrounding a norm is the repeated game of game theory.

Levels of enforcement

Levels of enforcement, in decreasing order:

  • Violations of norms are punished with sanctions, possibly enforced by law.
  • Violators of norms are considered eccentric or even deviant and are stigmatized.
  • Alternatives are not presented as equal, the "normal" situation is assumed (e.g. somebody's lover is assumed to be of the opposite sex, a president is assumed to a man, a not-so-young adult is assumed to be married or to have been married, a couple is assumed to have or want children)

Types of norms

Sociologists claim that in every society there exist two types of norms:


Moral norms that define in every culture what is wrong and right, what is allowed and not allowed, what is wanted and not wanted. Breaking those norms is usually considered by the society as a threat to social organisation and are sanctioned harshly. Example: murder, robbery.


Norms that define in every culture the rituals, beliefs, traditions and routines. Breaking them is not usually considered a threat to social organisation and are sanctioned not as severe as mores. Example: Thanksgiving dinner, saying grace. See Faux pas

Example (gift exchange)

In the western world, it is a custom to exchange gifts in the holiday seasons. It is so deeply imprinted in the minds of people that many do not think of acting otherwise.

Now, suppose you become fed up with exchanging gifts, it is not necessarily easy to change your action. Unilaterally changing your action to stop giving gifts may give others the impression that you are a selfish person, and that impression may not be in your interest.

Notice however that the fact that your friends follow the custom may not necessarily imply that they are willing to do so. They may be following the norm for the reason exactly the same as yours. The situation resembles that in the short story of The Gift of the Magi. All the friends have to coordinate to change the custom.

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