Social Norms

Topic: Normative And Non Normative Behavior

Social norms are the explicit or implicit rules specifying what behaviors are acceptable within a society or group and include sanctions, folkways, mores, taboos, and anomie.

Social norms define expected or acceptable behavior in particular circumstances. Social norms can also be defined as the shared ways of thinking and acting which are observable in regularly repeated behaviors and are adopted because they are assumed to solve problems.

Social norms are neither static nor universal; they change with respect to time and vary with respect to culture, social classes, and social groups. What is deemed an acceptable dress, speech, or behavior in one social group may not be acceptable in another.

Deference to social norms maintains one’s acceptance and popularity within a particular group. Social norms can be enforced formally (e.g., through sanctions) or informally (e.g., through body language and non-verbal communication cues). By ignoring or breaking social norms, one risks facing formal sanctions or quiet disapproval, finding oneself unpopular with or ostracized from a group.

As opposed to forms of internal control, like norms and values, sociologists consider sanctions a form of external control. Sanctions are mechanisms of social control. As opposed to forms of internal control, like cultural norms and values, sociologists consider sanctions a form of external control. Sanctions can be positive (rewards), or negative (punishment), and can arise from either formal or informal control.

Folkways and mores are informal norms that dictate behavior; however, the violation of mores carries more substantial consequences. Societal norms, or rules that are enforced by members of a community, can exist as both formal and informal rules of behavior. Informal norms can be divided into two distinct groups: folkways and mores. Folkways are informal rules and norms that, while not offensive to violate, are expected to be followed. Mores (pronounced more-rays) are also informal rules that are not written, but, when broken, result in severe punishments and social sanction upon the individuals. Mores are often seen as taboos.

Folkway refers to norms for more routine or casual interaction. This includes ideas about appropriate greetings and proper dress in different situations. In comparison to the morality of mores, folkways dictate what could be considered either polite or rude behavior. Their violation does not invite any punishment or sanctions but may come with reprimands or warnings.

Social alienation was famously described by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in the late nineteenth century with his concept of anomie. Anomie describes the alienation one feels from a lack of social norms, or the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and his community ties, resulting in the fragmentation of social identity. Anomie can lead to feelings of aimlessness or purposelessness, and occurs more frequently in periods of rapid social change.


Practice Questions


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Key Points

• Norms can be defined as the shared ways of thinking, feeling, desiring, deciding, and acting, which is observable in regularly repeated behaviours and is adopted because they are assumed to solve problems.

• Social norms are neither static nor universal; they change with respect to time and vary with respect to culture, social classes, and social groups.

• Social norms can be enforced formally (e.g., through sanctions ) or informally (e.g., through body language and non-verbal communication cues).

• Sanctions can either be positive ( rewards ) or negative (punishment).

• Sanctions can arise from either formal or informal control.

• Both “mores” and “folkways” are terms coined by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner.

• Mores distinguish the difference between right and wrong, while folkways draw a line between right and rude. While folkways may raise an eyebrow if violated, mores dictate morality and come with substantial consequences.

• Alienation has been primarily described in two ways: economic alienation, as articulated by Karl Max, or social alienation, as described by Émile Durkheim with his concept of anomie.

• Anomie describes a lack of social norms, or the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and his community ties, resulting in the fragmentation of social identity.


Key Terms

social group: a collection of humans or animals that share specific characteristics, interact with one another, accept expectations and obligations as members of the group, and share a collective identity.

social norms: sociologists describe social norms as being laws that govern society’s behaviors.

social control: any control, either formal or informal that is exerted by a group, especially by one’s peers

sanction: a penalty, or some coercive measure, intended to ensure compliance; especially one adopted by several nations, or by an international body

informal sanctions: these are the reactions of individuals and groups that bring about conformity to norms and laws. These can include peer and community pressure, bystander intervention in a crime, and collective responses such as citizen patrol groups.

folkway: a custom or belief common to members of a society or culture.

more: a way to refer to norms that are widely observed and have high moral significance. Mores include an aversion for societal taboos, such as incest or pederasty.

taboo: the most extreme end of disapproval; considered not just immoral but also repulsive.

alienation: emotional isolation or dissociation.

anomie: alienation or social instability caused by erosion of standards and values.



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