December 15, 2023

Beyond Deviance 101: The Problem with Norms

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

You might have learned a very basic, easy to remember definition of deviance: that deviance is the violation of a social norm. A norm is a shared expectation of how people should behave; but this definition of deviance is very limited.

I ask my students to forget this definition. Here’s why:

  1. Who makes the rules? Where do norms come from?

Norms can seem like something that just happen organically, without intervention. If we think about an everyday behavior, like facing forward in an elevator, it may seem that norms just happen because they “make sense” or “it’s just the way it is,” without understanding that such unwritten rules come from social contexts.

But expectations for behavior don’t come out of nowhere. One of the questions we must ask is how and why rules are created. Erving Goffman’s concept of civil inattention, or politely ignoring others, might be explained by urbanization and coming into contact with many people we don’t know in daily life. Civil inattention gives us privacy in public, and although this wasn’t necessarily part of Goffman’s thinking, limiting conversation with strangers also prevents breaches of status boundaries. In other words, because we can ignore everyone we don’t know in a closed-in space like an elevator, we can maintain hierarchies of socioeconomic status, for instance, by not speaking to anyone and avoiding embarrassment of breaking said boundaries.

In the early days of urbanization, elevators had operators who drove the car, landed on a requested floor, and were of lower status than the more privileged occupants of high-rise buildings. So status was central in early elevator rides, likely contributing to behavioral patterns that followed.

Is it, then, problematic to face and speak to a stranger on an elevator? Most likely no: the encounter is brief and no real penalties will likely result beyond potential minor annoyance. This example reminds us that a “violation of a norm” doesn’t necessarily matter, and thus the definition isn’t very useful.

  1. We don’t agree about the rules

While most of us have noticed that people tend to look forward on an elevator, other unwritten rules aren’t nearly so straightforward. We don’t all agree about a lot of behavioral expectations, written or unwritten.

Masking during the height of the COVID-19 crisis was a clear example that many people did not agree with local laws or newly created expectations. Yes, many of the rules were new and challenged some Americans’ ideas about individualism and personal freedom. The decision to follow rules could vary based on location. I noticed near perfect compliance when going into a hospital—where masks were already frequently worn—and mixed compliance at airports. Things got heated at times in 2020 over these rules in public spaces.

The norm violation definition falls short, especially if we can’t agree on what constitutes a norm.

  1. The rules don’t apply to everyone

Some people might violate a norm, but their behavior might not elicit a negative response. Why does one person get stopped for failing to signal while changing lanes and someone else might not? Could it have to do with the apparent age of the car? The driver’s presumed age, race, class, and gender? The location?

We might think that this rule is minor and thus seldom enforced, and that might be true. But Sandra Bland, a Black woman driving from out of state to a job interview, was arrested and jailed for days (and ultimately died by suicide) for this everyday behavior. Conversely, someone might not be incarcerated for a major violation like driving drunk, especially if they can obtain legal assistance.

Many laws passed after the Civil War were explicitly targeted at newly freed slaves, and were technically made illegal with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, while today it is illegal in the United States to explicitly state that laws are meant to control specific groups, that often happens in practice. For instance, young People of Color are more likely to be charged with violating curfew laws. Curfew laws are typically municipal laws aimed at minors, and many people might not even know they exist, especially if they are unlikely to be cited for violating such laws.

It is also important to note that following the law is not necessarily following norms, as underage drinking laws and speed limits are frequently violated. And while following said laws might not be common, there is typically no penalty for violating the norm of driving the speed limit (save the occasional angry driver who wishes you would go faster).

  1. Rules change, but why? Who changes them?

And rules change, not just because we all happen to agree that they should, but because of the work of activists, and other broader social changes. As this Revisionist History podcast details, drunk driving was once seen as normal, and if someone was injured or killed it might have been considered an unfortunate accident. The death of author Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind sparked public outrage in 1949 and perhaps began the public conversation about whether driving drunk is every really an "accident."

Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in 1980 by a mother grieving the loss of her 13-year-old daughter killed by a drunk driver. MADD worked to change drunk driving penalties around the country, and raised awareness about the victims of drunk driving through holding events like candlelight vigils and airing public service announcements on network television. In 1984, Congress made 21 the national drinking age with the passage of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age act.

Focusing on norms enables us to overlook the struggles that people face to create change, and the resistance that they may face in the process.

  1. Power is generally absent from the discussion of norms

A focus on “a violation of a norm” overlooks the role of power and status in constructing meanings of deviance. Instead of focusing on norms, to understand who experiences social exclusion we should be asking these kinds of asking questions:

  • Who has the power to exclude?
  • Who is excluded? Who is not?
  • How is timing and context important?
  • Who constructs meanings of what is acceptable and what gets punished?


I'm grateful that you took the time to share this useful information. The same information is urgently needed by us! Please share more, if you can.

Wonderful blog. It was fun to read your posts. This book was really fun for me to read. I've saved it and can't wait to read more from it. Keep up your wonderful work! 

The article helps apply sociology analyzing the impact of past injustices on present conditions, emphasizing that personal attributes and individual morality alone do not determine upward mobility.

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