October 11, 2010

Driving, Social Norms, and Social Structure

new sally By Sally Raskoff

I am reminded of the structure of society and social norms every time I drive.

Have you ever noticed how our roads serve as a reminder of the structure of society? The markings and organization of roadways and freeways are an apt metaphor for society in many ways.

Roadways have lines marked on them intended to guide us in the “right” direction. Social norms are guidelines for expected behaviors thus they also point us in the direction that our society has as the “right” way.

clip_image002Driving on the freeway, the cars line up in the lanes, all traveling the same direction. In society, people follow the norms by creating families, going to work, and attending to their personal and community’s needs.

Whether one looks at rules of the road or norms of society, most people follow these guidelines, although not everyone conforms to every rule-- by accident or intention. Most people break some rules at some point in their lives and some deviate from them habitually.

clip_image004On the road, breaking a rule may cause an accident, some chaos, or nothing at all. Cars traveling outside the lanes or going too fast can run into other obstacles causing breakdowns or accidents and stopping traffic in that area.

Breaking norms in extreme ways—such as hurting another person-- can disrupt society. Norm-breaking can affect many different lives in much the same way that a traffic accident can.

Just this morning, a car abruptly pulled out from a store parking lot in front of me and proceeded to go through a crosswalk and onto the freeway, ignoring the red signal in their path. Since I saw this car in time to avoid meeting it physically (I put on my brakes), this caused some discomfort but not an actual accident. Seeing this car zip onto the freeway through the red light, I wondered what other rules that driver didn’t follow.

When people break social norms, we often think negatively about them. Deviance in one area often leads us to expect deviance in other areas.

A car running a stop sign when no other cars are present may not impact anyone else and, because no one witnessed it, there is no sanction for that act. (Unless there is a camera at that intersection but then there are witnesses of a sort!)

clip_image006If someone breaks a social norm in a private way, does it still have the same impact as when it is broken publicly?

When someone does break those rules or breaches the norms, it causes some havoc in that social or road space and people work to get that rule breaker on track. People try to repair the breach so that things can get back to an orderly state. People stare or use verbal and physical gestures at the rule-breaker.

How many times have you seen someone yell at another car when they drive outside the lines? I once witnessed two men get out of their cars and get into a fist fight in the middle of a three lane road. Talk about breaking norms!

When the roads and rules are not fair or well designed, widespread deviation from them can signal the need for change.

clip_image008Driving on a road that has poorly designed or timed signals can prompt drivers to ignore those signals or divert their path from the expected one. This may prompt the transportation authorities to re-design that intersection or pathway.

In society when the norms privilege a few, or otherwise are not fair to the majority, people can organize to challenge those norms. That’s a pretty simplistic description of many social movements, which strive to change society in some way.

So, if we consider roadways as a metaphor for society in general and for social norms in particular, how might something like road rage be described? It might be a variant on repairing these breaches but it also might be another example of breaking the rules or norms. The context of the road rage would be telling.

Social structure is one of the hardest things to understand, so finding some concrete things to compare it to can be useful. Can you think of any other metaphors for social structure?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Driving, Social Norms, and Social Structure:


Sally Raskoff ,

Wow. I'm really impressed with your article and with how you compared the road, a usual part of everyday life,and it's signals to social structure and norms. I would've never thought of that! Not only was it creative, but also very informative. They way you described how norms and social structure were like the flow of traffic and the intersections made me, as a student, learn the material better by imagery. I am a visual learner, so whats great is that you included pictures to help show what you were talking about. If your not already, you should consider teaching. Students love teachers who put effort into helping students understand material by making it relatable! Thanks for your insights and helpful metaphor.


sociology student

This post has really explained what norms are and how they are used in everyday life. I also like how you used road sides to show how people know what way people go when they are on the highway. Your post was very interesting, i liked reading it because i can relate alot of things people do to how and what norms are. Thank You

April Messner

I found it very impressive and interesting how you compared society and its norms to driving everyday. I would have never thought of that. I also like how easily you explained everything. This article was very informative and expanded my knowledge on Sociology highly.

I loved how the author, Sally Raskoff used metaphors to convey her point. She compared driving, to society and the norms within. This article made me really think about how simple things, such as road ways and driving are very comparable to how a certain society is based. My favorite metaphor that the author used was the fact that some people break the norms of society which causes distraction and chaos, which is comparable to the fact that if someone breaks a rule on the road, this could potentially cause an accident. I also enjoyed how she used her own real life example to justify this fact. What the author did was expressively literary and creative. This was a great way for me to learn about society and social norms, while being compared to something that i am involved in everyday.
Thank You so much Mrs. Raskoff!

When I read this post I thought to myself about it realizing that metaphor is the best metaphor I've ever heard for social structure. It really describes the norms that most people follow and the anger some feel when a norm is broken. This post kept me interested and was very impressive. Thanks for helping me understand social structure better!

I am starting driving again this afternoon after 12 years not being a driver. I can tell you that people are disturb to know that I am not a driver at 31 years old ! As the comparison with the norms is excellent, it can also help to understand why people can't accept that you don't like driving. If driving is a extension of the social norms and social structures, not driving is also not accepting those norms and structures, not going in the same direction as others ! By not being driving for so long, I am pointing at the norms and telling people they are not for me. How disturbing in our society...

Anyway as I am starting again in a few hours with an instructor, because we are moving soon in a north-american suburb and that pressure where too strong on me, I will anyway follow the norms and structures again and stop being this rebellious person not driving.

At first I completely did not get the whole social structure is like a highway metaphor, but with the descriptions about how when people upset traffic there are different consequences and sometimes no consequences at all just like in life. Although altering from the norm in our society can have good consequences; altering from road signs and not driving like you are suppose to rarely has a positive out come.

I've never thought of the social structure of society being like a highway, or any other roadway for that matter. It is a very apt metaphor, and it helped me get a bigger idea of what the extents of social status are. It also gave me a better idea of how society interacts with each other within social statuses.

Thank you so much for posting this blog! I have never thought of the roadway as a social structure. I am learning about social structure in my Sociology class right now and this really helped me understand it better. Next time I'm on the road, I will definitely be thinking about your blog.

Dear Sally, I've had a difficult time thinking about how social structure works, with folkways, mores and taboo, but thinking about them in terms of road laws helps me significantly! Another metaphor for social structure is like going on a blind date. There are some things that are awkward and make other people uncomfortable, like if the other person burps or something. These are like breaking folkways in society. But there are more extreme things that happen on a first date, like if the other person were to announce that he was just going on the date for a one-night hook up, that'd be closer to breaking a taboo. That's one way I have tried to think of it!

Ashley Poszywak

The comparison between social norms and driving was a great way to explain a complicated topic in a simple way. I especially enjoyed the explanation of deviance, in relation of the rules of the road. Prior to reading this article, I felt that deviance had only a negative connotation. However, the comparison of how breaking a rule of the road can lead to the changing of that rule, for the better, cleared up my understanding of the effects of deviant behavior on society. Not all deviant behavior is intentionally negative and sometimes that deviance can results in an improvement within society. Thank you for simplifying a complicated topic, in a way that everyone can easily relate to.

Although we live in an age that is defined by transportation, I think people desire a connection to a more pastoral lifestyle. The nature of our highway system, is a function of efficiency and impersonal indifference. We cannot relate to other drivers as we speed from one destination to the next, nor can they relate to us. As Durkheim pointed out, when an individual is left without any unifying characteristics in which they can relate to others, they suffer. This suffering is sure to manifest itself in ways that deviate from the more normative social behavior that we're all accustomed to seeing.

The fact that individuals act out and break the law while driving correlates well to Durkheim's definition of egoism. The fact that a person is willing to risk other peoples lives as he/she speeds through red lights and onto a highway is indicative to behavior that shows a sense of egoism. Road rage might stem from this basic concept of extreme individualism and cultural pluralism that Durkheim is responsible for.

This article really explained what deviation really is by expressing when a person violates the rules of the highway or running a red light. Deviation is when a person does what is wrong instead of what is right, which changes the situation for everyone because they are involving other people. There has been numerous times when I saw someone tailgating, running lights, speeding dramatically, and texting while driving. People who commit these crimes and break these rules get no sympathy from me when they are caught.

I loved the comparison between social norms and driving. It was nice to have something that I thought was difficult to understand more simple. Before reading this I thought of deviance as all around negative behavior, but now I see that deviance can result with an improvement within society.

At first I wasn't too sure about your comparison of society and social norms with the road signs and rules, but now I think it is a great example.
I liked your question in the middle, "If someone breaks a social norm in a private way, does it still have the same impact as when it is broken publicly?" I just wish you had expanded on it.
I believe that if a person is deviant in private, it becomes natural and it will lead to deviance in public. People always say that how a person acts when no one is watching defines their character, and that is exactly the case here.
Anyways, thanks for the enlightening article. I enjoyed reading it.

This article has helped me understand the meaning of norms. The norms is practically guidelines at which us as people follow every day.

I found it very interesting how social structure/norms can be compared to the daily task of driving. People who drive follow norms established by society to enforce the safety of others. Yet, disruption is caused when as stated in the article,"road-rage" occurs, when people grow aggressive and defensive when someone breaks valued established norms. One thing I found very interesting was that in comparing driving to society, it can be perceived that people are institutionalized on how to drive--each person must individually pass the driving test-- just like people are educated in school and are pressured to meet objectives. Each person must be deemed capable with the ability to function in society, and abide by the very rules that society seems necessary for stability to be achieved. All the marked lines and signs are symbols to guide people safely to their destination, to live a better life. However, there are people who do not follow driving norms, which in turn pose possible accidents for others. There are people who deviate from the established norms, and at times come to take the lives of others.
This article serves for a very interesting metaphor.

I had to read through this artile a twice, at first I didnt catch how the roads tide into social norms. But going through it the second time I caught a better understanding of the metaphor. I like how you can take an everyday task and relate it to social structure. Rules are everywhere its what keeps the people in order. There are some that break the rules and at times are punished for or get by with it. Breaking a rule on the roads can potentialy cause an accident as for those who deviate from the setted norms can as well cause a potential problem. It was a good metaphor she use to compare the two.

Roadways as well as driving is a sociol norm because of the signs and lines. It is a sociol strutre.

signs are all-around us , guiding us too the right way to live, social norms in driving if broken can lead to more laws or taking away of privilege for certain group's. But driving through the lane of life those signs outwardly show themselves, through social interactions, family, and daily healthy living of life.

Explaining the social structure like a highway and tying them together with concrete examples were connect. I had never thought about it that way and it totally makes sense.

I start it very inspiring and motivating how you compared culture and its custom to driving every day. I would have never thought of that. I also like how easily you explain everything. This was very useful and expanded my information on Sociology highly.

Interesting post. I believe the norm depends on where you are. If you are in another country, then the norms on the road could be so different from what you have been used to.

Great post! It is really important that people on the road are responsible enough to keep everyone around them safe. Because it takes only a very simple mistake to create a catastrophe on the road.

I really liked your article, the relationship of the roads and society are described well and it made it very easy to understand. Thinking of the world like all of these independent parts that cause changes is very interesting and true. I think anyone who is looking to understand sociology should read this article.

I think that you outlined a theory about typical social structures very eloquently... responsibility is always important, and it will always affect you and the people around you, no matter where you are.

People have a trained mindstate that will baffle others if disected. People follow the norms because it what they're parents or grandparents did. You are born, you get married, you have kids, and you die!! What if somebody doesn't follow the norm. What if a person does the exact opposite of the norm. Are they viewed as outcasts in society. People also bring religion into the fold. By saying you have to be married before you have sex. Who Says!!!

Dumb and irrelevant. Complete waste of my time.

What about the transference and the manifestation of other social norms on the roadway? As a frugal person, I have always driven less-than-new cars. My experience has consistently been that there are a significant number of new car owners who will wantonly endanger me,themselves and others as they blatantly violate both the social contract and traffic laws by drive recklessly in the presence of less expensive cars. Call me presumptuous if you like, but it seems to me they see new car ownership and the premium price they pay for it, as license to ignore any vehicle lower in the price spectrum. I could go on here at length about human behavior and the su conscious norms we establish on the roadways. I wonder if anyone has dared to explore this and a great many other issues concerning what I label as: "The Mass Emotions of Mass in Motion."

Car accidents are most frequently caused by negligent operation of motor vehicle. Drivers of all vehicles in Arizona have a responsibility to operate the car safely and to do so without harming others.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Who is Responsible for Student Learning? | Main | Trendspotting: Poverty »