Social norms are a form of social structure, which according to different strands of social theory dictates the actions of individuals, on both a personal and private level and on a large scale collective social level. The theory is one which is controversial, due to the extent of personal freedom it implies an individual has available to them. This is both on a reactionary level, in the form of collective action and on the level of personal choice and implications of ones actions.
The problematic angle in relation to social norms is with regard to the extent which rules and laws are followed; and why everyone follows laws in the same way. It’s a question of the correct reaction carried out on a mass scale and why this occurs. Social theorists seem most interested in how we know to act in a certain way; and what it is that dictates the actions.
We know that in general, the actions that we take are followed by the majority of people and the reactions are socially prescribed. Parsons suggested that the level at which we act is a sub-conscious; a “super-ego” reaction. This theory makes social norms an internalized formulation, which makes a reaction clear; the assumption being that the ramifications of procedures can cause inner satisfaction or inner pain, which impacts how and why groups or individuals will act in a certain way.
People will act to minimize their own pain and so they gain as much from a social interaction or a decision as possible; this will consequently lead to a large proportion of people acting in the same way to secure the same gains. Parsons theory lead to questions based upon how accurately individuals follow social norms; if they are a strict internalized code to be followed or if they offer a vague directional indicator to the moral which it would be admirable for an individual to follow in prescribed circumstances.
A further problem that was raised with regard to this theory, is that no singular social reaction is ever the same as another, they may be vaguely in keeping with a general theme but no two situations are ever similar; so consequently, does one follow the prescribed social norm which was followed in a previously similar circumstance or does an individual prescribe a new social norm in correspondence with an altered situation?
For a social norm theory to have any practical value there must be key actions which always trigger the same emotion and reaction to a situation; a form of fail safe reaction. Consequently norms must maintain conformity and co-ordination in the collective, so everyone has the same trigger mechanisms and general laws and reactions which will occur in innumerable complex future situations. Though this creates a circular argument, as is this type of concrete reaction possible if norms are internalized?
A further problematic element is that because a reaction has been made automatically to a situation there is no guarantee that a social norm has been followed. Norms are effectively open ended` and interpreted by the individual in the situation, so one is still capable of following ones own purposes as they are weighed up in relation to the outcome and knock-on effects, hence the super-ego element. It is a personal choice to follow the social norm even if it is ingrained on a sub-conscious level.
This is where the idea of deviance emerges, an ability to diverge from the norm, and ultimately defy the social constraints which are recognized by social norms, this can be on a large scale deviance such as a criminal act or a smaller lack of social obedience. Consequently no matter what level a norm is followed on, it is merely following an analogy rather than a rigid rule. Social norms through the internalized debate become issues of custom versus practice.
There are infallible Trans national social norms and indeed laws, particularly about human welfare and reactions to others’ and it is the subject of debate how these laws have translated whilst other less specific cultural norms have not translated. For example monogamy is the recognized as the accepted western social norm, with very few examples of deviance; however the Omaha tribe believe that a good husband marries a second wife to save his first wife the trouble of house-keeping, and this is considered the social norms and those who do not conform are deviating from the “natural” social course.
However a westerner who chooses this route would be breaking western laws and shunning the social norm, risking social exclusion. (Segerstedt; 1966) The concept of a social norm being an analogy which can not therefore be socially universal across nationalities and conflicting backgrounds is based upon three-way divide; the formal, the psychological or behavioral and the social or collective dimensions.
These three divides are dependant on the premise that following norms is a natural process, particularly because of one or all of the categories and the agreement which occurs with others are from taking the correct moral path, which is recognized as an analogy which is extended to others and consequently feels externalized A greater problem with the analogy explanation of social norms is how individuals extend them, each individuals will take his or her own relevance from a norm, so consequently no norm will ever be the same for two people; a norm can only be applied in terms of how an individual makes their decision relevant to that which they find themselves in and how they take that social norm forwards in terms of the consequences of their actions, or situation reoccurrence.
This could however be translated to the fact that as more people interpret the norm to their own purposes the norm looses meaning and relevance and the analogy becomes fractured; or a new understanding is collectively constructed; creating a form of active negotiation, and thus a public entity rather than having a high private relevance, perhaps impacting how the norm is followed? Parsons claims that norms are open ended analogies, which do indeed develop with the individual and are as such internalized in a social respect… Although each norm has its own inherent qualities which take root in our consciousnesses.
Parsons believes individuals possess the capacity to adjust their judgment whether in accordance with norms or not. Differences in responses do not threaten the normative order of society, but merely represent an individual’s quirks and sensitivities… How people react may indeed be a reflection of social norms but collective reactions are all a question of alignment. The existence of a normative order requires that social norms are not internalized so that groups may actually all react together in the same way as part of an unspoken consensus of opinion… Mutual alignment of ideals is key as concept here, consequently a social equilibrium must be found to create social stability.
Therefore social norms are an outcome of a social action, where people choose to act in certain ways, but they are not the cause of it. The counter argument to Parsons centres on the role of the individual, undermining the entire functionalist theory of social integration. The concept revolved around the ideal that norms operated in opposition to the tendency to rational self, and as a consequence individuals cant escape the pressure to conform through norms. Norms must not be rationally chosen but accidentally acquired and adhered to through this accidental pattern. This is why Parsons’ functionalism places norms as part of the super ego; consequently norms are implanted but not adaptable by the acting person.
If norms must be reconstructed for each individual for every circumstance normative functionalism collapses; as normative functionalism allows people power to decide what is involved in following norms. However social action clearly occurs under the influence of social norms but not as a result of them; interaction would occur whether an individual was follow social norms and the patterns they dictate or not, but in knowing what a norm dictates is knowing what is normally expected as social behaviour. Consequently normative order exists as a distribution of self-referring and validating knowledge, thus normative order is a self fulfilling prophecy.
Following rules can be identified in terms of meaningful action, and following the “right” or “wrong” way of approaching a situation. Giddens 1979) There appear to be different understandings of norms, analytical differentiation and those whereby communications effect the interaction and thus directly the social norm. All structural elements of the social norms therefore have ramifications; this displays Parsons’ concept of “double contingency” which is defined as the reactions of each party to a process of interaction, but is dependant upon the contingent responses of the others, and thus allows a potential sanction on social norms by way of the first reaction and subsequent ones, in an actualization of power. This appears as an actualization of rights and an enactment of obligations.
Social Norms have come to be described as a pattern of behavior, and as previously revealed ones which differ from culture to culture and different social theorists have described them in various ways Hillier as “regulative principle” whilst Dewey characterized them as “standards for personal activities” and Sapir as “control of the interaction” whilst MacIver drew a difference between social laws and laws of nature. (Segerstedt 1966) The norms of society have been described as normative, regulative and obligatory, suggesting that they dictate and action and have to be followed; but here enters the possible distinction between norms and cultural customs. So here the functions of social norms must be taken into consideration to define a custom and a norm. Norms must adhere to these three functions, to create dispositions of behavior or emotion, to release behaviour and to release emotions, and do so in either an imperative or indicative way.
It appears that there is no steadfast definition of social norms, or the extent to which people are free to adhere to them or shape their own reaction by free will. However it does appear that some reactions to certain circumstances are universal, and accepted by a mass audience. It also appears that certain appropriate reaction and forms of behaviour maybe learnt by reliance on an expected reaction; as was demonstrated by Garfinkel’s study of the Tran gendered Agnes, who learnt to be a women and even fooled both doctors and social scientists. Agnes perhaps demonstrated the social norms are a form of collective action which can be learnt and deviated from when understood and calculated fully.
People carry with them many implicit predictions and pre-judgments on how a situation will occur and the appropriate reactions, many of these judgments are based on social norms, either through previous experience or an expectation of the outcome of events. As such social norms exist as a precedent for reaction but are unsubstantiated s a force of social dominance in group or individual reaction. It is my belief that although individuals may strive to act in accordance with others this is through a need to conform and a fear of reprisals and need to further themselves and lessen any potential pain rather than an in built knowledge of how a society should act on any level other than that of free choice.