September 19, 2016

Social Norms and Social Change

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

As students of sociology, we learn about social norms. Social norms are guidelines for expected behaviors, thus they set out our options for appropriate behavior. Bradley Wright’s blog post nicely describes a number of social norms operating in a college setting.

Not everyone follows the norms (deviance might be defined as not following the norm), challenging the social order. Note that the norms are guidelines for expected behaviors. They are the “should dos” and, sometimes the “must dos” of society. Norms can be loosely held, such as folkways, or tightly held, such as mores and taboos, those that are often built into the legal code.

I love teaching students about social norms since we can point to any social situation and identify the norms, how we break them, how people react to breaking norms, and how we repair our sense of social order once a norm is broken. Once you know what norms are, you start to see them everywhere, and, hopefully, see how your own behavior is guided by those norms (whether you follow them or not).

In this post, I’d like to explore the depth of social norms. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at why norms are important – and not just for guiding our behavior.

Social change is a core concept within the sociological perspective. Things change in a society, usually very slowly, but change is possible. How is change possible? Through many avenues, including technological innovations and social movements. But in each of those avenues, social norms are involved.

Think of how the introduction and use of cell phones has changed our society. We have norms about how to communicate, especially in public. When you first heard someone talking on the phone while shopping, what was your reaction? I was confused, since prior to that experience when someone spoke in a store, they were often talking to you or someone else.

The social norm for communication in public and in person is to pay attention when someone is speaking. In this experience, the two of us were the only people in that section of the store and they were holding one side of a conversation. I thought that they were talking to me and that I should speak up… until I figured out that they were not talking to me. My confusion came from the breaching of a norm.

Now that cell phones are in widespread use, do we react with surprise or confusion to hearing someone have a conversation with someone who is not bodily present? The norm of responding to communication is still with us but it has changed shape. It is also a (new) social norm to be able to hold conversations via phone in a wide variety of social situations. Even though some of us may be annoyed when this happens, that signals that we have not fully accepted this new norm of talking on the phone while in public and in close proximity to others.

Social movements, of course, are a change agent for society. Social movements are often born of people challenging norms that they perceive to be unfair. Think of the civil rights era (among many other social movements) and how it took shape. Protests, whether mass or individual, are when people stop doing their normative behavior and speak out against injustice. From Rosa Parks’ bus ride (although that was not just an individual action) to the protests going on in North Dakota as I write, people joining in and speaking out about problems break the everyday norms of behavior and challenge the system. Without breaking norms, we may not be able to solve problems in society and prompt positive social change. Protests are most effective when coalitions are built across different groups and the protests – and problems - are widespread and well known.

Social norms and their link to social change is a logical connection. How do social norms relate to social structure, another core concept in sociology?

Social structure is built and maintained by social norms. Social norms create social order – by giving us those guidelines for behavior, most of which we do follow most of the time. Social order, through social norms, builds society and social structure.

What the heck is social structure? It is an abstract concept, as it is hard to point to and say, “Hey, there’s social structure!” You can point to the building in which you take classes and say that’s social structure but most people will just see a building.

Social structure has to do with the patterned relationships between social groups and institutions. Various societal elements exist to perpetuate a society through repetitive functions and behaviors.

The social institution of education is an important part of social structure and, yes, the building is representative of that. Education is an institution made up of many different organizations, all of which exist to educate a society’s populace into the norms and history of that society. (There are also latent functions – the institution of education also does other things that are not fully intended – and dysfunctions, when the institution fails to do what it is intended to do.)

Point to your family, whatever its structure, and, yes, that’s part of the social institution of family, another important piece of social structure. Why do societies have the institution of family? By having family, whatever the shape or content of those families, society ensures that people will connect through intimate social bonds, create more people, and socialize all of those people into society’s norms. Different societies define family differently yet all of them provide more people, who know the norms, to participate in that society.

Berger and Luckmann’s social construction of society holds that people, through their actions, create society, then forget what they create, and are controlled by that society they have created – and, dare I say, maintained through repetition and adherence to socially normative behavior.

Social norms operate to build society, maintain society, and challenge society. Whether or not we adhere or follow the norms of our society, we are participating in society, to either maintain it or challenge it.


Rules by which the society lives are not a mystery anymore but there is still much left to research.

So the correlation of societal norms and the function they serve in our interactions is not lost on me. The real question that I have again and again is, "Why do we let ourselves be fooled by norms in our quest to interact?". The most obvious answer to me is an experienced based interpretation, but that leaves room for more questions. It seems, to me, that we have gone beyond just having the necessary tools in our box. With the progression of society and the detailed documentation of our past, it has become much more difficult. It is no longer enough to be self aware and make the best decisions for your circumstance. It seems that we are required to be aware of our past, present and future, along with everyone else's. The sheer volume of tools needed to acquire this information and politically correct vantage is ridiculous... Why, in your opinion, do we desire this excess in order to substantiate our vantage? Isn't our own enough?
I am not really seeking answers here, just a conversation. I don't feel like there are really any right or wrong perspectives. I am just a curious person.

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