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In sociology, a norm, or social norm, is a rule that is socially enforced. Social sanctioning is what distinguishes norms from other cultural products or social constructions such as meaning and values. Norms and normlessness are thought to affect a wide variety of human behavior.

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to survive may over the years become a social norm, even once the circumstances that made it necessary for survival are no longer applicable.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, they may do so because of social pressure.

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 unspoken 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 environment dealing with an unfamiliar culture where the norms are different. By the same token, importation of cultural products into a new culture will usually result in cultural confrontation. Attempted cultural importation 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 be 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[]

Some sociologists identify 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 organization 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 organization and are sanctioned less severely than mores. Example: In the U.S., before eating Thanksgiving dinner, you say grace. See Faux pas

Example (gift exchange)[]

The Norm of Reciprocity:

In the western world, it is a custom to exchange gifts in the holiday seasons. It is so deeply ingrained 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 actions. Unilaterally changing your actions to stop giving gifts may give others the impression that you are a selfish person, and that impression is probably not in your interest.

Notice, however, that the fact that your friends follow the custom may not necessarily imply that they actually want to do so. They may be following the norm for the same reasons as you. The situation resembles that in the short story of The Gift of the Magi. All the friends have to coordinate to change the custom.

See also[]

Further reading[]

  • Kenrick, D. T., Li, N. P., & Butner, J. (2003). Dynamical evolutionary psychology: Individual decision rules and emergent social norms. Psychological Review, 110, 3-28. Full text


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