The Prevalence of Social Norms
A social norm is one of the core concepts of sociology, and it refers to the behavioral expectations that a social group holds for its individuals. Basically, a social norm tells you what you’re supposed to do in any given situation. Social norms can operate in both small groups, such as a circle of friends, or a large group, such as a national society. They can be explicit, e.g., written down as laws, or implicit—something everyone just knows. Breaking norms can result in a formal punishment, such as being fined or imprisoned, or an informal punishment, such as being stared at or shunned by others.
There are a lot of things that can be said about social norms; in fact, sociology departments usually offer courses just about social norms and their violations, in a course called “deviance.” In this post, however, I have a fairly modest goal, and that is simply to illustrate just how many social norms guide every aspect of our life. As an example, I’ll consider classroom behavior in a college setting. Sometimes we don’t realize that norms exist until someone breaks them. Here, then, are just few of the many norms operating in this one situation.
Some classroom norms involve how students are to speak in class. If students want to say something, they should discretely raise their hands and wait to be called upon. (By the way, this norm is tough to break. In ten years, I’ve only been able to convince one of my classes to just speak without raising their hands). Once acknowledged, students can then offer their input with several limitations. They shouldn’t talk for too long, and they shouldn’t go too far off topic. What happens if they do? It’s not like the professor will call campus security, but instead the other students in the class will let the student know that they have strayed from appropriate behavior. They do this by rolling their eyes or snickering or some other means.
Other norms involve where and how students should sit during class. They should sit in the chairs provided, facing forward. Once I had a student realize that I never use the comfortable swivel chair provided for the professor (I walk around when I lecture), so he would routinely grab it at the start of class and sit through class leaning back with his feet up on a desk. I was fine with it, but his other students didn’t seem to think this was quite kosher.
When seated, students should give the appearance of paying attention by making a minimum of eye contact with the professor and by, hopefully, by staying awake. If a student dozes off, they should discretely close their eyes and definitely not just lay down or lean against the student next to them.
Students should also limit behaviors normally reserved for outside of class. For example, it’s usually a bad idea to order a pizza to be delivered to class and then share it with your friends. I know this because I encourage students to do this during evening classes, and it takes several weeks before they actually believe
that they can. Students should also have only specific interactions with their fellow students, such as talking or quietly joking around. Once I had two students in the back row start making out during lecture. Now, I tend to run a pretty loose class, but that surprised even me, and when I stopped lecture in befuddlement, the rest of the class turned around and started hooting and hollering.
Suppose that students need to leave class early. They can do so if they follow the right rules. If the class is small enough, they should let the professor know ahead of time. They should sit by the door, and when the time comes quietly pack up their belongings and they slip out unobtrusively. Often students will try to time it so as to leave when the professor has his/her back turned, which can be disconcerting—sometimes I turn around to a smaller class than I had just a moment ago.
This is not to say, however, that all rules are agreed upon. Sometimes people disagree about social norms. A classroom example of this is texting during class. I find it very distracting to have students texting on their cell phones during lecture, and so I think that it’s obvious that they shouldn’t. They, on the other hand, accept texting as appropriate in a wide range of settings, and so as long as they are trying to be discrete, they think what’s the problem?
In reading these examples of social norms, you might be thinking to yourself that they are obvious. Of course you’re not supposed to do some things and you’re supposed to do other things. This is the whole point—we’ve internalized social norms so well that we automatically know the hundreds, if not thousands, of rules that we need to follow as we go through our everyday life. Think about this as you go through today—you’re being guided by a comprehensive, albeit usually unwritten, rule book.