What Is a Norm?

A Visual Explanation to the Sociological Term

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Norms, according to sociologists, are rules, both implicit and explicit, that guide our behavior. Sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to norms as "social facts" —social phenomena that exist independently of individuals as the products of collective cultural effort. As such, they exert a coercive force on each of us.

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An Essential Part of Society

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On the plus side, norms are the basis for social order, allowing us to experience a sense of safety and security in our everyday lives. However, there are also downsides to the power of social norms.

But first, how do they become "facts"?

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We Learn Norms Through Socialization

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The creation, distribution, reproduction, and renovation of norms is an ongoing dialectical process wherein social forces shape our behavior, and we in turn reshape social forces through our behavior. This is why there is a certain inertia to social traditions, but also why many aspects of our culture and society change over time.

But when we are young, our relationship to norms is more unidirectional — we learn norms from social institutions and authority figures in our lives. We are socialized so that we behave in ways that are expected of us, and so that we can function in the society in which we live.

For the vast majority of people, socialization and the teaching of norms first takes place within the family. Family members teach children what is considered proper behavior for their given cultural context, like norms that govern eating, dressing, care for our health and hygiene, and how to interact politely and kindly with others.

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Learning Norms Takes Place in School, Too

Teacher David Nieder with students in The Bronx, New York in 2000.
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For children, the educational institution serves as an important site for learning social norms, though we mostly think of school as a place where we learn facts and skills. Many sociologists have written on how schools teach us to follow orders given by authority figures, and as such, to respect authority figures. We learn norms of sharing, collaborating, and waiting our turn, and how to respond to scheduling cues like bells that mark the beginning and ends of class periods.

But norms learned in school go far beyond those required to get an education. Sociologist C.J. Pascoe, in her book Dude, You're a Fag, provides many examples of what she calls the "hidden curriculum" of sex and gender, in which heterosexual and patriarchal norms that govern behavior on the basis of gender and sexuality are reinforced by administrators, teachers, rituals and events, and peers.

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How Are Norms Enforced?

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Some norms are inscribed into law in the interest of preserving the safety and welfare of us all (at least, in theory). As those who enforce law, police officers patrol our communities on the lookout for those who break norms in ways that may endanger themselves or others, or who break norms related to private property. Stopping a behavior, either with a warning or an arrest, is a way in which police enforce social norms that have been inscribed into law.

But more often, norms are enforced in ways that we do not even notice. Simply because we know they exist, or that they are expected of us, most of us abide the norms in our societies. The social force of the expectations of others, and the threat of being embarrassed, sanctioned, or ostracized for not doing so, compels us to mind them. 

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But, There Are Downsides to Norms

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Many of the norms we learn as children and adolescents serve to govern our behavior on the basis of gender. These manifest in norms of dress, like how at a very early age many parents opt to dress their child in gendered clothing signaled by color (blue for boys, pink for girls), or style (dresses and skirts for girls, pants and shorts for boys). They also manifest in expectations for physical behavior, wherein boys are expected to be rowdy and loud, and girls, sedate and quiet.

The gendered norms of behavior taught to children also often shape expectations around household participation that, from a young age, create an often disparate gendered division of labor between boys and girls that carries through to adulthood.

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Social Norms Can Lead to Dangerous Behavior

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Though the existence of social norms is overall a good thing — we can have order, stability, and safety because social norms allow us to understand our society and have reasonable expectations of those around us — they can also lead to dangerous behavior. For example, norms that govern social consumption of alcohol among college students can fuel dangerous practices of binge-drinking that may lead to serious medical and social consequences.

Many sociologists have also studied how gendered norms that cast masculinity as "tough" and as requiring respect from others fosters a culture of violence among boys and men, wherein physical violence is expected of one who has been disrespected by others.

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Social Norms Can Lead to Widespread Social Problems

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Those who do not abide social norms, whether by choice or circumstance, are often viewed and labeled as deviant by social institutions or society at large. There are many different ways of self-selecting into a deviant role, or of being labeled as such in society. This encompasses everything from a being a "tomboy," queer, having purple hair or facial piercings, to being a childless woman, a drug addict, or a criminal.

Racial, ethnic, and religious signifiers can also serve to classify one as deviant in U.S. society. Because being white is framed as being a "normal" American, people of all other races are automatically framed as deviant. This can manifest as realities and perceptions of cultural differences, many of which are stereotypical and racist, but also as expectations of immoral or criminal behavior.

Racial profiling by police and security officers is a primary, and troubling, example of the way criminal deviance is expected of Black, Latino, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Arab men in the U.S.