Definition of Social Norms: Examples from Everyday Life
In the science of sociology and the studies of social theory, social norms are defined as a set of unwritten rules on the standards of behaviour that are acceptable within different institutions such as social groupings, societies and cultures.
Social norms are the expectations of how people should think, feel and behave (Schaller & Crandall, 2004). Even though they are unspoken and rarely thought of, social norms become visible when they are violated or when we combine people of different cultures and beliefs, then do we see the comparisons and highlights of our daily life ideals. They become foreseeable actions of people without having occurred. It is what is expected of those who want to be a part of the society. They exercise social influence on group members by advocating which reactions are appropriate, and which are not (Abrams, Wetherell, Cochrane, Hogg, & Turner, 1990). Nonconformity within the social norms of a group can result in loss of social status or exclusion, particularly if the social norm is important to the group (Festinger, 1950). Thus, norms serve to reinforce conformity by promoting the need for social acceptance and avoidance of social punishments (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955).
The social roles people play in society dictate what norms they are to follow and how people in different social positions ought to behave. For example, social roles within the Western world such as ‘attractive people’ or ‘gender’ carry distinctive behavioural expectations such as a requirement for women to be skinny and men to be muscular to be considered as attractive, or the expectation that all women should be nurturing as a gender role. These norms may seem ‘normal’, but when studied from other cultural or temporal perspectives, we can see that not all of them are reasonable and fair-minded. The mechanisms which support normative behaviours include coordination with others in particular types of interaction, social pressures, signals and symbolism such as dress codes for specific groups (eg. headscarf and veil covering of Muslim women), and benchmarks and reference points (eg. time of day it is acceptable to begin drinking alcohol).
Throughout history, theorists have had their own interpretations on the influence social norms have on society. Talcott Parsons believed that norms dictate the relations of people in all social situations, while Karl Marx had the belief that the use of norms is to promote the creation of roles in society which then allows people of different levels of social class to function properly. Marx claimed that this social dynamic creates order within society as people understand their place within the hierarchy.
Social norms usually evolve without direct instruction through processes of trial and error, experimentation and adaptation (Young, 2015 pg. 361). This then shows how social order is formed through interactions rather than by a set design. Throughout history, some social norms have evolved, whilst some have passed through generations. Sometimes it comes down to the society within which we study said norms. Take for instance, having an illegitimate child, passing on all your belongings to your eldest male offspring, or the use of contraception. Some societies frown upon these acts and view them as disruptions to set social norms; while others, to this day, consider them normal practice.
Humans are not independent creatures in the sense that they can all individually live alone forever. It is in our human nature to form groups, societies, and to be part of something. But to be part of a group or society, we must adapt to and follow certain unspoken rules and guidelines. For example, different religions have customs that apply to how someone is to dress when attending religious gatherings or attending the house of worship, or how they must speak with higher religious leaders. This is how norms shape peoples’ behaviour. Such with the example of religious groups, within all social groupings there are unspoken guidelines on how one should behave that are to be followed if one wishes to stay a part of said social grouping. For people who stray outside of the unspoken social norms, it is usually detrimental to their position within the group or society. These attitudes we must abide by also fall hand-in-hand with Marx’s theory of social hierarchy. For example, there are social norms that are to be abided by within different workplaces based on your position within the workforce. At the lower end of the hierarchy we have receptionists in an office. Receptionists are not permitted to raise their voice at someone above them on the higher end of the hierarchy, such as an administrator. If they do so, they would probably be fired from their job. This is not a rule by law but one that is formed over time through social expectations within the set field of work. Another example of how social norms shape peoples’ behaviour within society is attitudes towards people who identify themselves as LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etcetera). Most religious societies view homosexuality as problematic. As these people are so set within their religious groupings and the beliefs they form over time through teachings, rather than individually deciding their stance on the topic at hand based on peoples’ personalities, they are moved by the teachings of their religious scripts and the unanimous decisions of their social grouping so as that they are not removed from said grouping.
Other social norms that people unanimously follow in everyday life include norms regarding their behaviour in public, norms while using their mobile phones, norms when dining out, norms in teaching institutions such as schools or classrooms, norms within the workplace, and norms that are specific to gender.
Some examples of these norms include: making your way to the end of a shopping line rather than pushing in at the front; flushing the toilet after use; dressing appropriately depending on the environment you are in; starting a phone call with a greeting; when eating, using utensils appropriate to the meal and cuisine, such as not eating soup with a fork but rather with a spoon; arriving to set meetings or classes on time; the idea that men should be strong and muscular, while women should be dainty and nurturing; the idea that men should take care of household repairs, whilst women are expected to do the cooking.
The examples can go on and on as these are all things people are aware of within the social world but do not pay very much mind to until attention is brought to them. Even though these are our current norms, social norms are able to change quite rapidly within different societies. The changes are not unanimous to all humans though, rather only to certain social groupings. Just as rapidly as they may change in some societies, do they intensify in others. For example, the customs of marriage over time. In countries such as Australia and America, if legally accepted, marriage is generally by choice. People within these countries are able to marry whoever they please. While this is the case in these countries, in countries such as India, the cultural expectations of marriage have not evolved. In cultures such as this, a marriage is usually arranged between two families rather than the individuals choosing for themselves. Whether this cultural norm will evolve over time to adapt more to the Western world, we can only wait and see.
In conclusion, social norms are the unspoken rules of our societies. They tell us what to think about certain topics, when to feel certain feelings, and how to behave in certain environments. They are not punishable by law, but in some cases being shunned and rejected by your social grouping is much worse than paying a fine. These social norms we live by shape our behaviour based on which social grouping we find ourselves in. They are the unspoken teachings of how we are to behave depending on where we stand within the social hierarchy of our groups and communities; within our educational facilities or our workplaces; within our religions and our nations. Embarrassment and punishment is what drives us to cooperate with these norms. Everyone wishes to be ‘normal’.
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