Social norms grow out of social value and both serve to differentiate human social behavior from that of other species. The significance of learning in behavior varies from species to species and is closely linked to processes of communication. Only human beings are capable of elaborate symbolic communication and of structuring their behavior in terms of abstract preferences that we have called values. Norms are the means through which values are expressed in behavior.
Norms generally are the rules and regulations that groups live by. Or perhaps because the words, rules and regulations, call to mind some kind of formal listing, we might refer to norms as the standards of behavior of a group. For while some of the appropriate standards of behavior in most societies are written down, many of them are not that formal. Many are learned, informally, in interaction with other people and are passed "that way from generation to generation.
The term "norms" covers an exceedingly wide range of behaviour. So that the whole range of that behaviour may be included. Sociologists have offered the following definition. Social norms are rules developed by a group of people that specify how people must, should, may, should not, and must not behave in various situations.
Some norms are defined by individual and societies as crucial to the society. For example, all members of the group are required to wear clothing and to bury their dead. Such "musts" are often labeled "mores", a term coined by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner.
Many social norms are concerned with "should "; that is, there is some pressure on the individual to conform but there is some leeway permitted also. The 'should behaviors' are what Sumner called "folk-ways"; that is, conventional ways of doing things that are not defined as crucial to the survival of either the individual or the society. The 'should behaviors' in our own society include the prescriptions that people's clothes should be clean, and that death should be recognized with public funerals. A complete list of the should behaviors in a complex society would be virtually without end.
The word "May" in the definition of norms indicates that, in most groups, there is a wide range of behaviors in which the individual is given considerable choice. To continue the illustration, in Western countries girls may select to wear dresses or halters and jeans. Diets may be done through trainers at the gym or through the benefit of Medifast coupons, some people may even prefer diets advertised on tv. Funerals may be held with or without flowers, with the casket open or closed, with or without religious participation, and so on. We have confined our examples to just three areas, but students should be able to construct their own examples from all areas of life.
The remainder of the definition, including the 'should-not' and the 'must-not' behaviours, probably does not require lengthy illustration because such examples are implicit in what has already been said. One should not belch in public, dump garbage in the street, run stop signs, or tell lies. One must not kill another person or have sexual intercourse with one's sister or brother.
Social norms cover almost every conceivable situation, and they vary from standards where almost complete conformity is demanded to those where there is great freedom of choice. Norms also vary in the kinds of sanctions that are attached to violation of the norms. Since norms derive from values, and since complex societies have multiple and conflicting value systems, it follows that norms frequently are in conflict also.
Taking the illustration of American sex norms, two proscriptive norms prohibit premarital intercourse and extramarital intercourse. But many boys also have been taught that sex is good and that they should seek to "score" with girls whenever possible. Somewhat similarly, girls have been taught that promiscuous intercourse before marriage is bad; but they have also been taught that sex is acceptable within true love relationships. Members of both sexes, then, find themselves faced with conflicting demands for participation in sex and for abstinence from it. They also discover that there are sanctions associated with either course of action.
Normative conflict is also deeply involved in social change. As statistical norms come to differ too blatantly from existing prescriptive norms, new prescriptive norms give sanction to formerly prohibited behaviour and even extend it. Recent changes in the sex norms of teenage and young adult groups provide examples. The change is more apparent in communal living groups where sometimes there is an explicit ideology of sexual freedom and the assumption that sexual activities will be shared with all members of the group. In less dramatic fashion, the change is evident among couples who simply begin to live together without the formality of a marriage ceremony.