Is Social Norm a Theory?


Martha Robinson

Social norm refers to the unwritten rules that govern social behavior within a particular group or society. It guides individuals on how they should behave and what is considered acceptable or unacceptable. While social norm is not a theory in the traditional sense, it can be understood and analyzed through various sociological theories.

The Role of Social Norm in Society

Social norms play a crucial role in maintaining order and cohesion within society. They provide guidelines for behavior, helping individuals understand what actions are expected of them in different situations. Social norms can vary across cultures, groups, and even subcultures, reflecting the values and beliefs of the collective.

Understanding Social Norms

To understand social norms better, it is essential to explore some key concepts:

  • Descriptive Norms: These norms describe how people typically behave in a given situation. For example, if most people in a classroom raise their hands to answer a question, it becomes a descriptive norm.
  • Injunctive Norms: In contrast to descriptive norms, injunctive norms specify how people ought to behave. They reflect societal expectations and standards.

    For instance, an injunctive norm could be that one should not talk loudly in libraries.

  • Proscriptive Norms: Proscriptive norms indicate behaviors that are prohibited or discouraged within a particular context. They serve as guidelines for avoiding certain actions deemed inappropriate or harmful.
  • Prescriptive Norms: Prescriptive norms prescribe certain behaviors that are expected or encouraged within specific circumstances. They guide individuals on what actions they should take.

Theories Explaining Social Norms

Sociologists and psychologists have proposed several theories to explain the origin and function of social norms. These theories help shed light on how social norms develop, why they are followed, and how they influence behavior.

1. Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory, proposed by Albert Bandura, suggests that individuals learn from observing others’ behavior and the consequences they face. According to this theory, people imitate behaviors that are rewarded or positively reinforced by their social environment. In the context of social norms, individuals are more likely to adopt behaviors that are socially accepted and rewarded.

2. Normative Social Influence

Normative social influence refers to the tendency of individuals to conform to social norms in order to gain acceptance and avoid rejection. This concept is closely related to peer pressure, as people often conform to group expectations to fit in or be liked by others.

3. Social Identity Theory

Social identity theory, developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, explains how individuals derive a sense of identity from their membership in various social groups. According to this theory, people conform to group norms as a way of maintaining a positive self-image and a sense of belonging.

The Importance of Challenging Social Norms

While social norms serve important functions within society, it is also crucial to critically examine them from time to time. Challenging social norms can lead to progress and positive change by questioning outdated beliefs or practices.

By questioning existing norms:

  • It becomes possible for societies to evolve and adapt in a changing world.
  • New ideas and perspectives can emerge, leading to innovation and creativity.
  • Social injustices can be identified and addressed.
  • Individuals can exercise their autonomy and express their unique identities.

In conclusion, social norm is not a theory in itself, but rather a concept that can be studied and analyzed through various sociological theories. Understanding social norms is essential to comprehend human behavior, social interactions, and the functioning of society as a whole. By critically examining and challenging social norms, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and progressive future.