Essay on Norms

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Norms are informal rules which guide social interaction. They are, as Cristina Bicchieri (2006) calls them, ”the rules we live by.” As the do’s and don’ts of social life, norms are a critical component in the makeup of human culture and therefore play a highly significant role in determining what it means to be human. When codified, norms are laws or other types of institutionalized regulatory strictures. When conceived without moral consequence, the term can also refer to mere behavioral regularities. Variously defined even by sociologists themselves, there is perhaps no other sociological concept more regularly used nor one about which more has been written and discussed. It is therefore not surprising that a concept as vague as it is elemental to the sociological enterprise is also one that is oft-debated.

Rational choice theorists, for example, have looked to norms as potential explanation for otherwise seemingly irrational individual behavior. As Hechter and Opp (2001) argue, basic phenomena such as cooperation and collective action, not to mention social order itself, are difficult to explain using only ”rational egoistic behavioral assumptions” of the sort typical of rational choice theory. In Bicchieri’s (2006) account, the power of norms to constrain behavior is tested using game theory simulations such as Ultimatum, Dictator, Trust, and Social Dilemma. While computer simulation of normative behavior brings us considerable distance from William Graham Sumner’s Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Implications of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1906) and Talcott Parsons’s The Social System (1951), these works share the same interest in understanding the workings of a uniquely human moral order.

Human, yes, but from whence do norms originate. At one extreme is speculation as to whether certain fundamental norms are inherent and universal in human social life. Alvin Gouldner (1960) argued that ”the norm of reciprocity,” like the incest taboo, was very probably a cultural universal. He meant that guidelines were everywhere and always in some manner in effect which encouraged actors to help, and not harm, those who have helped them. This comes very close to positing a sociological Golden Rule. At the other extreme is attention to the power of actors to suppress, reject, alter, or spontaneously create norms, even with respect to those previously deemed sacred. For Bicchieri (2006), norms can even ”endo-genously emerge” as a result of nothing more than interaction among actors sharing prior dispositions.

Alan Wolfe’s sociology seeks to merge these tendencies in a coherent analysis of contemporary norms. Drawing on classical theorists as divergent as Emile Durkheim and William James, Wolfe (2001) argues that ours will be ”the century of moral freedom,” which is to say that twenty-first-century individuals will increasingly choose their own norms from the plurality of normative systems characteristic of postmodern society, thus setting for themselves their own course toward the true, right, and good. While this proposition seems out of sync with Durkheim’s nineteenth-century concern about modern society’s tendency to weaken normative regulation, what Durkehim termed the pathology of ”anomy,” Wolfe emphasizes the individual’s capacity for moral discernment and decision, which is consistent at least with Durkheim’s advocacy for moral individualism. Indeed, attention to the ”varieties of moral experience” a la James is consistent with cohesion in a pluralistic society which values its own pluralism.


  1. Bicchieri, C. (2006) The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Gouldner, A. (1960) The norm of reciprocity. American Sociological Review 25 (2): 161-78.
  3. Hechter, M. & Opp, K.-D. (eds.) (2001) Social Norms. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
  4. Wolfe, A. (2001) Moral Freedom. W. W. Norton, New York.

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