Monday, July 4, 2011



The Nature of Social Norms

The word “norm” is derived from the Latin “norms”, which is a carpenter’s square or rule.

Social norms are standards of behaviour shared by the members of a social group, to which they are expected to conform. Norms refer to accepted and required behaviour for a person or a group in a particular setting. They are rules for social living.

Changing Nature of Social Norms

Social norms are standards of a group for controlling the conduct of its members in relation to each other and to the community as a whole. Norms are both prescriptive and prohibitive. In other words, norms require people to do certain things, and forbid them from doing certain other things.

Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft Norms

According to Earl Bell (1961), the action norms which belong to the Gesellschaft category are both rational and efficient where the achievement of goals in society is concerned. Only the efficiency

of achieving one’s aims counts in this sphere. Whereas, in Gemeinschaft category the society or community will follow the traditional ways and habits of doing things even though they may not achieve results. In spite of the evidences which show the inefficiency of their methods and procedures, the people keep on following their old ways.

Discord in Norms

Norms are based on values. They prescribe through relatively specific rules what is considered to be good or desirable by the society as a whole, or by a particular group. There is a diversity of norms belonging to various groups, and these sometimes come in variance with each other. For instance, the norms of the family and the broader kin-group require that one should help his or her kinsmen in every way. If someone holds a position of power in a government or some other organisation,

he/she is expected to help and provide employment to his or her kinsmen but the norms of the organisation require a person to select the most efficient candidate. This is only one example of discord in norms.

Aspects of Norms

Folkways and Mores : Kindred Concepts

i) Relations between folkways and mores

Mores are those folkways which are viewed as regulators of the society. Thus “folkways” is a wider concept, and those folkways which are considered to be important for the sustenance of the society are “mores”. In this sense mores are a kind of folkways, which are more binding than the latter.

ii) Distinctions between folkways and mores

However, some writers treat folkways and mores as separate categories. For example, Kimball Young and Raymond Mack (1972) observe that in Sumner’s own work the concept of folkways is employed in a general sense while mores are defined as a particular kind of folkways but it would help clarity of thought if the two are distinguished. Young & Mack (1972) have drawn a distinction between folkways

and mores. They say that folkways are more general in comparison to mores; while mores are folkways which have been given greater importance by the society. To have a clear conceptual idea about them, it is essential to treat the less important or significant norms as folkways and more crucial norms as mores. The violation of folkways is lightly judged while the violation of the morally judged norms or mores is punished severely.

In comparison to Young & Mack, Broom and Selznick (1963 : 69) believe that the intensity of feelings and the procedure for enforcing them distinguishes the folkways from the mores. They say that in the scale of norms, the mores find their place at the top and the folkways at the bottom. The folkways concerned with such things as dress, fashion, table manners, etc., do not evoke much emotion. If somebody wears the wrong clothes at a formal occasion, at the most that person will be asked to

leave or will be ridiculed. However, the dress or uniform of such positions as the clergy, the military etc., are different since they are not merely clothes. They are badges of membership and rank which cannot be substituted by other clothes, as in the case of civilians. These authors maintain that though folkways are considered to be right proper and rational, objectively they may not be rational.

Koller and Couse (1965 : 665) also treat folkways and mores as distinct concepts. To them folkways are “customary ways of doing things, but they are not vital to a society’s well being. Consequently, an individual who fails to conform to a folkway usually suffers only a mild disapproval”. Mores on the other hand, are viewed as “essential to a society’s well being. Consequently, they are strictly enforced”.

However, there is much to be said in favour of regarding “folkways” as the broad category of which mores are the more effective manifestation. The difference between them is only that of degree; for, all folkways regulate socio-cultural life in some way, to a greater or a lesser extent.

Types of Norms

Customs as norms

Customs regulate most of our day-to-day behaviour. They underlie the more formal order of legal and institutional norms. Customs are socially accredited ways of action. They are so deeply rooted in the way of life of a society, that people conform to them almost by force of habit, without being conscious about it. Customs are seldom coded or written down by the people who are governed by them. They are

group procedures that emerge gradually. They are not enacted by any established authority. They are spontaneous and yet they are perhaps the most pervasive and effective of all social norms.

Fashion as a norm

A fashion which is the latest, tends to be the most preferred, even when it may be ugly or uncomfortable. On the other hand, the older a custom is believed to be, stronger is its grip on the people, even though it may be unjust or repressive. It appears thus that a major difference between traditional and modern societies is that while the traditional societies tend to value whatever is old, modern societies tend to place a value on whatever is new.

Institutions as Social Norms

The term institutions has been employed in various ways. Some sociologists use it in such a broad sense that it includes almost anything that is socially established. Maclver (1949 : 15), however, has defined institution in a narrower sense. According to him, institutions are “established forms or conditions of procedure characteristic of group activity”. In this sense institutions too constitute social norms. These social norms are so compelling that they become the necessary conditions of behaviour. Institutions

embody more social recognition and compulsion than customs.

Legal Norms

As mentioned already legal norms have the power of the state behind them. In modern society the state alone wields the ultimate sanction of physical enforcement through imposition or threat of imposition of fine, imprisonment, or death. Laws are often derived from customs, but norms become a part of law only when they are upheld by the state.

Integration and Conflict of Norms

In stable societies, even though there are diverse kinds of social norms, these are ordered and integrated through values which are unanimously accepted by almost everyone. In no society there is complete conformity to norms by all the people. But in stable traditional societies, there tends to be a high degree of unanimity about basic values and the propriety of social norms that they underline. Yet, even in such societies, conflict between various norms is not totally absent. However, in modern complex societies which are marked by unprecedented social differentiation and a fast rate of social change, conflict of norms reaches new heights. Such societies tend to have subgroups whose particular norms violate the norms of the larger social system. For example, there are criminal subcultures. There is also deviance which does not necessarily come within the perview of criminality. These

lead to deviant subcultures.

A high pace of social change also tends to enhance the conflict of norms, and deviance. When values are changing fast, it is difficult to judge what is right and what is wrong. The simultaneous existence of diverse systems of values and norms weakens the spirit of conformity because of rapid social change as well as vastly increasing contact between different cultures and ethnic groups. When people know only one set of values and norms, they tend to adhere to them steadfastly. But when they are aware

of numerous alternative values and norms, they no more consider any of these as sacred and inviolable. Prime example of role conflict experienced is by women in contemporary urban life. Women as mothers, as wives, as working women, as daughters and daughters-in-law experience role conflict in their everyday lives since the values attached to each role they perform tend to conflict with each other. Even men in today’s society face role conflict since traditional male superiority expected from them may conflict with their modern value of treating their women as their equals.

Diversity of Norms in Different Cultures

Innumerable variations are found in the norms of different cultures. Sociological and anthropological literature is replete with illustrative material regarding the variety of norms in different societies, and different strata of the same society. The variety in norms is so large that it would be difficult even to classify them. As Maclver and Page (1949 : 20-21) point out, that there are very few universally

prohibited behaviours in society, exception being the taboo on mother-son incest. There are wide variations in cultural practices. In some societies we find people covering their heads to show respect, in others uncovering. Some people prohibit marriage within their community while others prohibit outside the community. In some societies a strict sex code exists for the married but not the unmarried, while in

others the strictness applies to the unmarried but not the married. Thus, we see that a great variation in the crucial norms exists from one society to another, from one social group to another. Maclver and Page, therefore, warn the student of sociology that to be scientific in our investigations we must develop an unbiased approach to the study of other cultural systems. Even in the face of such wide diversity of social norms, ethnocentrism is far from non-existent. Wide variation in the norms of different societies underscores the need of viewing social phenomenon in relation to their cultural setting. However, there is often a tendency to evaluate the ways of other people in terms of our own

norms. This is ethnocentrism. Much of the prevailing social science itself seems to suffer from deep western ethnocentrism.

The Function of Norms in Socialisation and Social Control

Socialisation refers to the processes through which human infants develop into social beings. Socialisation inevitably involves the internalisation of the social norms of the group to which the individual belongs. In other word, social norms become a part of the personality of the individual through the process of socialisation.

By social control we mean the way in which the social order is organised and sustained. In the process of social control, norms play the most crucial part for it is norms that regulate social behaviour. And without such regulation no stable patterning of social relationship is possible. Thus social groups; which embody distinctive patterns of social relationships, cannot survive. The maintenance of social organisation is unthinkable without the operation of norms.


Norms provide the standards for the control of behaviour of individuals towards each other, and in relation to various groups and the community as a whole. This does not mean, however, that there is absolute conformity to social norms by all the members of a society at any time. Deviance from norms does exist, and there are a variety of reasons for deviance which merit serious study in terms of general theory and also with reference to particular societies. Such study would inevitably imply

better understanding of the nature and functioning of social norms.


Anomie literally means the lack of norms or normlessness. But the situation of complete normlessness seldom exists. Sometimes there is lack of clarity about norms. But the term anomie is more frequently used to indicate ambivalent orientation towards norms. R.K. Merton has explained anomie in terms of the gap between culturally defined goals and the legitimate means to reach them.

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