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Shaking hands after a tennis match is an example of a social norm.

Social norms are the behavioral expectations and cues within a society or group. This sociological term has been defined as "the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. These rules may be explicit or implicit. Failure to follow the rules can result in severe punishments, including exclusion from the group."[1] They have also been described as the "customary rules of behavior that coordinate our interactions with others."[2]

The social norms indicate the established and approved ways of doing things, of dress, of speech and of appearance. These vary and evolve not only through time but also vary from one age group to another and between social classes and social groups. What is deemed to be acceptable dress, speech or behaviour in one social group may not be accepted in another.

Deference to the social norms maintains one's acceptance and popularity within a particular group; ignoring the social norms risks one becoming unacceptable, unpopular or even an outcast from a group. Social norms tend to be tacitly established and maintained through body language and non-verbal communication between people in their normal social discourse.

We soon come to know when and where it is appropriate to say certain things, to use certain words, to discuss certain topics or wear certain clothes, and when not to. Such knowledge about cultural norms is important for impression management[3], which is an individual's regulation of their nonverbal behaviour. We also come to know through experience what types of people we can and cannot discuss certain topics with or wear certain types of dress around. Mostly this knowledge is derived experientially.



Social norms can also be viewed as statements that regulate behavior and act as informal social controls. They are usually based in some degree of consensus and are maintained through social sanctions. In order to explain the content of normative rules, three different models are identified:

  • Focus on the actions of one's personal ego,
  • Focus on ego's reactions to actions of alternative, and
  • Negotiation between ego and alternative.

Norms are rules of behavior. They exist as both formal and informal norms, but often the latter is found to be more strong and reinforced. These informal norms are divided into two:

  • Folkways: Informal rules and norms whose violation is not offensive, but expected to be followed. It's a kind of adjusting, accommodating type of habits. It does not invite any punishment or sanctions, but some reprimands or warnings.
  • Mores: They are also informal rules that are not written, but result in severe punishments and social sanction upon the individuals like social and religious exclusions.

Terms related to social norms

A descriptive norm refers to people's perceptions of what is commonly done in specific situations. An injunctive norm refers to people's perceptions of what is commonly approved or disapproved of within a specific culture[4].

Prescriptive Norms are unwritten rules that are understood and followed by society. We do these every day with out thinking about them.

Proscriptive Norms are unwritten rules that are known by society that you shouldn't do, or follow. These norms can vary from culture to culture.

Deviance is "nonconformity to a set of norms that are accepted by a significant number of people in a community or society(Appelbaum, 173)." In simple terms it is behavior that goes against norms.

Looking Glass-Self is how we see ourselves by interacting with others, seeing how they perceive us, what others expect from us, and how we should behave.

Definitions of social norms

Norms in the context of Sociology "are principles or rules people are expected to observe; they represent the dos and dont's of society (Appelbaum, 173)."

One might also say they are rules that define the behavior that is expected, required, or acceptable in particular circumstances. They are learned by interacting in society.

Examples of norms

Most understand what a norm is. We follow them every day without even thinking about it. When you are inside a building you do not yell as you carry on a conversation, it is just normal for you to talk in a reasonable voice. That is a norm. An example of a norm, from the book Introduction to Sociology, that we do usually do not think about is speeding. Most people speed when there is not an authority figure present, like a police car, most people do not go the speed limit. It is a norm in our society.

Game-theoretical analysis of norm

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.

A norm gives a person a rule of thumb for how they should behave. However, a rational person only acts according to the rule if it is optimal for them. The situation can be described as follows. A norm gives an expectation of how other people act in a given situation (macro). A person acts optimally given the expectation (micro). In order for a norm to be stable, people's actions must reconstitute the expectation without change (micro-macro feedback loop). A set of such correct stable expectations is known as a Nash equilibrium. Thus, a stable norm must constitute a Nash equilibrium. [5]

From a game theoretical point of view, there are two explanations for the vast variety of norms that exist throughout the world. One is the difference in games. Different parts of the world may give different environmental contexts and different people may have different values, which may result in a difference in games. The other is equilibrium selection not explicable by the game itself. Equilibrium selection is closely related to coordination. For a simple example, driving is common throughout the world, but in some countries people drive on the right and in other countries people drive on the left (see coordination game). A framework called comparative institutional analysis is proposed to deal with the game theoretical structural understanding of the variety of social norms.

See also


  • Axelrod, Robert (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books. 
  • Appelbaum, R. P., Carr, D., Duneir, M., Giddens, A., 2009, "Confomity, Deviance, and Crime." Introduction to Sociology, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., p173.
  • Becker, Howard S, 1982, "Culture: A Sociological View," Yale Review, 71(4): 513–27
  • Bicchieri, Cristina. 2006. The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Blumer, Herbert, 1956, "Sociological Analysis and the 'Variable,'" American Sociological Review, 21(6): 683–90
  • Boyd, Robert and Peter J. Richerson, 1985, Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Burt, Ronald S, 1987, "Social Contagion and Innovation: Cohesive Versus Structural Equivalence," American Journal of Sociology 92(6): 1287–1335
  • Cialdini, R., 2007, Descriptive Social Norms as Underappreciated Sources of Social Control, Psychometrika, vol. 72, no. 2, 263–268,
  • Durkheim, Emile, 1915, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York: Free Press
  • Elster, Jon, 1989, Social norms and economic theory, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 3, no. 4, 99–117
  • Fehr, Ernst, Urs Fischbacher, and Simon Gächter, 2002, Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms, Human Nature, 13, 1–25
  • Fine, Gary Alan, 2001, Social Norms, ed. by Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp, New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation
  • Greif, Avner. 1994. "Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and Individualist Societies." The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 102, No. 5: 912–50.
  • Hechter, Michael and Karl-Dieter Opp, eds, 2001, Social Norms, New York:Russell Sage Foundation
  • Heiss, Jerold, 1981, "Social Roles," In Social Psychology: Sociological Perspectives, edited by Morris Rosenburg and Ralph H. Turner, New York: Basic Books.
  • Hochschild, Arlie, 1989, "The Economy of Gratitude," In The Sociology of Emotions: Original Essays and Research Papers, edited by David D. Franks and E. Doyle McCarthy, Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press
  • Horne, Christine, 2001, Social Norms, ed. by Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp, New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation
  • Kahneman and Miller (1986) Norm Theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives, Psychological Review, 80, 136–153
  • Kollock, Peter, 1994. "The Emergence of Exchange Structures: An Experimental Study of Uncertainty, Commitment, and Trust." American Journal of Sociology 100(2): 313–45
  • Kohn, Melvin L, 1977, Class and Conformity: A Study in Values, 2d ed Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Macy, Michael W and John Skvoretz, 1998, "The Evolution of Trust and Cooperation Between Strangers: A Computational Model," American Sociological Review, 63(5): 638–60
  • Mark, Noah, 1998, "Birds of a Feather Sing Together," Social Forces 77(2): 453–85
  • McElreath, R.; Boyd, R.; Richerson, P.J. (2003), "Shared norms and the evolution of ethnic markers", Current Anthropology (1): 122–129, 
  • Opp, Karl-Dieter, 1982, "The Evolutionary Emergence of Norms," British Journal of Social Psychology, 21(2): 139–49
  • Posner, Eric, 1996, "The Regulation of Solidary Groups: The Influence of Legal and Nonlegal Sanctions on Collective Action," University of Chicago Law Review 63(1): 133–97[1]
  • Posner, Eric. 2000. Law and Social Norms. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press
  • Prentice, D. A. and Miller, D. T. (1993) Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256
  • Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., Griskevicius, V., 2007, The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms, Psychological Science, vol. 18, no. 5, 429–434, 2007[2]
  • Scott, John Finley, 1971, Internalization of Norms: A Sociological Theory of Moral Commitment, Englewoods Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice–Hall
  • Ullmann-Margalit, Edna, 1977, The Emergence of Norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Yamagishi, Toshio, Karen S. Cook, and Motoki Watabe. 1998. "Uncertainty, Trust, and Commitment Formation in the United States and Japan," American Journal of Sociology, 104(1), 165–94
  • Young, H. Peyton, 2008. "social norms." The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition. Abstract.


  1. ^ Social Norms
  2. ^ Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume (Eds), 'Social Norms' in New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Second Edition, London: Macmillan, (forthcoming)
  3. ^ Kamau, C. (2009) Strategising impression management in corporations: cultural knowledge as capital. In D. Harorimana (Ed) Cultural implications of knowledge sharing, management and transfer: identifying competitive advantage. Chapter 4. Information Science Reference. ISBN 978-1-60566-790-4
  4. ^ Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, Griskevicius. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science 18 (5) pp 429–434
  5. ^ Bicchieri, Cristina. 2006. The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, New York: Cambridge University Press, Ch. 1

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