What is a Norm and Social Norms? Types, Functions, Examples

Synopsis: This article deals with the concept of norms, social norms, their definitions, characteristics, functions, and types. It also covers how norms are institutionalized in our society, why we should follow norms, and what happens if we violate them. Tracing the behavioral changes norms have on individuals and the changing patterns of norms seen today, we finally conclude by exploring how norms are culturally specific in different communities and primitive societies.


What is a Norm?

A norm is an expected and typical behavior pattern that is highly specific and generalized in nature. Norms are standard ways of performing a particular task, a duty by most sections of the population. There are separate norms for children, elders, norms regulating a business organization, and an educational institute. For example, it is a norm for elders to show respect and decide whether or not to cross the road when the red signal is on.

What is a Social Norm?

A social norm can, therefore, be understood in simplified language as those prescribed rules and regulations operating in society that determine the behavior and actions of people within a particular group, culture, or structure. Norms are the “ways of life” and they enforce the dos and don’ts that all individuals must adhere to. Emile Durkheim states that norms are social facts that form the pivotal focus of his work “Rules of Sociological Methods”

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (1994), “a norm is a shared expectation of behavior that connotes what is considered culturally desirable and appropriate.”

M. Haralambos (2000) defines it as “a norm is a specific guide to action acceptable and appropriate behavior in a particular situation.”

There are certain characteristics of norms that define their nature:

Characteristics of Social Norms:

● Social Norms are Universal: Norms exist in societies, both primitive and modern, where they establish a social order without which that particular society is unable to function.

● Norms incorporate Value Judgments: All norms are associated with social values and judgments of the degree of rightness or wrongness, positive aspect, or negative aspect influencing the behavioral pattern of individuals.

● Norms are Relative: With each society and each group, there is a difference in norms and their implementation. There are different norms based on age, sex, occupational position, etc.

● Degree of Importance of Social Norms: Norms get imbibed in the lives of individuals through sanctions of positive reinforcements (rewards) and negative reinforcements (punishments). However, some norms are strict while some are more lenient.

● Internalization of Social Norms: People inculcate the norms through the process of socialization and try to make them an internal part of their life, thus influencing their character and demeanor.

Norms are enforced in society to perform certain functions:

Functions of Social Norms:

● A society without norms cannot survive: A norm helps in the proper functioning and maintenance of each and every individual of a particular society. The prescribed dos and don’ts of norms allow people to organize themselves and live in a systematic manner without a state of anarchy.

● Behavior is highly influenced and controlled by norms: All members behave and act in a certain appropriate way because of the enforcement of norms in society.

● Establishment of social order: A type of order can be achieved through rules and regulations. In the case of social order, norms play an important role as a controlling, constraining, and enforcing agent. Social order is a building block of all societies.

● Permitting Cohesion: A sort of systematic pattern and flow of social relations, social order, and functioning of society is ensured by norms, which establish a certain amount of cohesion among all these factors. They ensure that people live in social harmony, solidarity, collective consciousness, and cooperation.

● A certain amount of self-control is achieved: Self-control is an important feature for individuals residing in a society as it helps them lead a balanced life with appropriate actions and behavior. Norms ensure that people have the right to self-control to discipline themselves in order to adjust to society and its requirements.

Norms can be divided into four important types:

examples for the types of social norms

Types of Social Norms:

Mores: They are a type of norm that determines behavior patterns that are both widely accepted and followed, as well as prescribed by society. They are a rigid form of social norm and are usually supported by social values and religious beliefs. For example, the norm of taking off one’s shoes before entering a place of worship in some religions. Read more about Mores

Folkways: According to W.G. Sumner, folkways determine how an individual adjusts to the surrounding environment. He states that they include various conventions, etiquettes, customs, etc. They are not backed by law and are enforced informally. For example, saying the five words of kindness: thank you, excuse me, please, pardon me, sorry.

Customs: Customs refer to various socially approved methods that individuals in personal contact with others perform collectively. They are durable in nature, and people are mostly not aware when they are performing a custom as it often occurs unconsciously. For example, the custom of lighting earthen ‘diyas’ during the Hindu festival of Diwali or the month-long fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Sanctions: They are the social norms that ensure social order through control, discipline, and conformity in society. They are backed by the law. They can be applied both physically or symbolically. For example, banning arms export, illegal migration, etc.

Norms are found in all social institutions, such as school, family, marriage, and religion.

Institutionalization of Social Norms:

Social norms are embedded in social institutions and are thus institutionalized. However, the functionality and operation of social norms vary within each social system and social structures. Johnson has stated the various reasons why norms get institutionalized.

  1. Most individuals tend to internalize the norms prescribed to them to make them a part and parcel of their daily lives. It is a kind of psycho-social process.
  2. Thus, as a result, most of the population willingly accepts the social norms.
  3. Usually, norms are regulated by sanctions. So, a particular circumstance will define the specific norm expected to be followed by individuals at that moment.
  4. The institutionalized norms apply on a hierarchical basis of social positions within the social structure. For example, in a school, the principal, teachers, and students do not have to follow the same norms. However, the norm appropriate in an educational institution applies to all.
  5. How individuals in society would internalize the norms is measured to some degree. For example, the norm of staying away from extra-marital affairs or infidelity binds a marriage contract more importantly than the equal division of household labor between the husband and wife.
  6. Lastly, how the norms are accepted by the majority is also a matter of degree. For example, there are various norms that are followed in the day-to-day workings of the government to ensure social order. However, the general masses are often unaware of such norms and proceedings.

Rules of Conformity and Consequences of Violation and the Impact on the Behavior of an Individual

Norms define the path of an individual’s character building. Every unique social situation calls for different conformity to norms and regulations. The degree of conformity might differ, but all norms influence and determine the actual social behavior of the members of society. Violation of these norms leads to the loss of honor and prestige, social mockery, or severe punishment in the form of ostracization from society. Most norms, with some exceptions, are not backed or codified by law. We see that social norms have an impact on the behavior of an individual at the societal level and the personal level.

1) The societal level 2) The personal level.

In the first case, every society tries to retain its existence by abiding by the social norms and passing them on to future generations through the process of socialization.

In the second case, an individual, in fear of being abandoned by their community, strives to live in accordance with socially accredited behavior, actions, and way of life. Therefore, we see that social norms have a powerful influence on each one of us.

Changing Patterns of Social Norms:

A number of factors influence social norms, such as awareness and scientific attitudes of people, socio-cultural differences among various generations, growth of individualism and separate identities of groups as well as individuals, and gender and women empowerment. Durkheim believed that Anomie or the state of normlessness occurred due to the increased division of labor leading to an increase in individualism.

For example:

  1. Earlier, menstruating women were not allowed to enter religious places or perform religious offerings as they were considered unclean and impure.
  2. Social norms prohibited women from citing Vedic chants and mantras until a few decades ago. However, with women’s empowerment and gender equality, we now have a changed perception about menstruation due to a scientific approach. Nowadays, we see women priestesses performing Vedic marriage rituals and reciting the mantras. This is changing the entire patriarchy revolving around the institution of marriage.
  3. Yet another example: Social norms consider premarital sexual intercourse as a taboo. People engaging in such activity are looked down upon by society and face dire criticism. In recent times, due to the increase of individualism, there has been a growth of the live-in culture, where two unmarried individuals are residing together and can engage in intimacy without facing harsh consequences. Even laws are being formulated to slowly normalize this. Thus, we see how norms are continuously changing through the years.

The Cultural Specificity of Social Norms:

Social norms vary from culture to culture, society to society, and community to community. There exists a unique set of norms that distinguishes them from the rest. This gives an individualistic perspective to a particular society. A certain social norm that is followed by people in one community may not even exist in some other community or may have a higher or lower degree of importance. For example:

  • The Nayars Of Kerala: According to E.R. Leach, in the marriage norms of the polyandrous, matrilineal Nayars, there was a ritualistic husband during the Tali rite ceremony who belonged to her own lineage (preferably Nambudiri Brahmins) as well as a group of recognized lovers called Sambandham. Although they had ritual status, these men were denied any kind of legal rights over the woman’s offspring. Relationship of perpetual affinities between linked lineages. The ocean of fatherhood was missing because the children were only recruits or a continuation of the mother’s matrilineage.
  • The Sinhalese of Sri Lanka: Polyandry does not exist, and it is not permitted for a woman to determine her child’s patrilineage to more than one man without applying for a divorce. However, in many families, brothers share a common household but maintain an avoidance relationship with the sister-in-laws. If the wives are not married as per the Sinhalese law, they are not considered legitimate. However, they possess a bird certificate determining their biological parents.
  • The Gonds Of Orissa and Maharashtra: They follow a norm where the maternal uncle names the male child, and the paternal aunt names the female child. They perform death rituals to help in the passing of the spirit to the other world. This rite is known as Karun and should be done in respect of the deceased.
  • The Balinese people of Bali, Indonesia: They follow a norm of using the palm and arm rather than the index finger to indicate or point at something. Balinese women are supposed to dress modestly in shirts with their bodies covered and wear a sarong or a scarf. They do not prefer the left hand for offering, eating, or greeting. The right hand is considered normatively superior. The people also dislike others touching their heads as it is considered the seat of the soul.
  • The Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, New Guinea: A certain ritual ceremony is performed for expecting mothers and for infants and mothers several months post-delivery. The two are kept secluded as the Trobriands fear evil spells, spirits, and sorcery. During the death rituals, as per custom, the women’s wealth distribution occurs, and close relatives and the father of the deceased shave their heads and blacken their bodies. There also exists a norm between the gift exchange Kula and the market exchange Gimwali. According to Marcel Mauss’s Gift Exchange Theory, Kula objects are inalienable items, and they or an equivalent object have to be returned to the original owner as it contains a part of the owner’s soul. Gimwali, on the other hand, took place in a barter system method.

Conclusion: Norms are an integral part of our lives to which we have to adjust and accustom ourselves. This makes life much easier, routinized, and smooth for all individuals. Without norms, one’s behavior patterns and actions could not be controlled and regulated. This would eventually lead to confusion and chaos among all, as no one would understand what is approved by society and what is forbidden. The stable structure would hence crumble, disrupting all social relations, the social order, and, lastly, the society.

Also Read: Socialisation and the Creation of Social identity: As & A Level Notes

Globalization and Contemporary Issues – AS and A Level Notes


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Adrija is a Sociology student studying at Miranda House. Her areas of interest are gender and women's studies, intersexuality, feminism, and criminology. She has a passion for content writing and research work. Her hobbies include theatrical arts (drama) and photography.