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A normative definition identifies deviance as a violation of a norm held in certain groups or by a majority of the members of the society at large. A norm is a standard about ”what human beings should or should not think, say, or do under given circumstances” (Blake & Kingsley 1964). Put another way, a norm is a social expectation concerning thought or behavior in particular situations. To the normative definition, what defines something as deviance is a formal violation of social expectations.
Norms evaluate conduct; recognizing that some acts (including beliefs and the expression of beliefs) ought or ought not to occur, either in specific situations (e.g., no smoking in public elevators) or at any time or place (e.g., no armed robbery, ever). The use of proper etiquette reflects deliberate decisions to adhere to norms of respect and consideration for others. The norms that comprise etiquette are also situational, but are more likely to be codified than norms in many social situations.
The conception of norms as expectations highlights regularities of behavior based on habit or traditional customs. People expect a child, for example, to act a certain way in church, another way on the playground. This raises another dimension of norms: they are situationally bound. Running and yelling of children is appropriate for the playground, but not in church. Laughing is expected behavior in a comedy club, but not at a funeral.
Norms are not necessarily clear-cut rules because they are social properties. They are shared group evaluations or guidelines, and many of them are learned implicitly in the more general process of socialization. Norms are an absolutely essential component of the social order.
There is an enormous number of possible situations in which norms regulate behavior. There is, for example, a norm that guides people’s behavior in elevators: one is expected to face the door.
Sometimes the rationale for norms is vague. In this example, everyone facing the same direction avoids invading someone else’s ”personal space,” the distance between two strangers that feels most comfortable. This distance varies from culture to culture. Italians are comfortable with less distance between them than are people in the USA.
People risk being labeled as deviant by audiences when they express unacceptable beliefs (such as worshiping devils), violate behavioral norms (such as engaging in proscribed sexual acts), or possessing certain physical traits widely regarded as undesirable, which include physical handicaps (being confined to a wheelchair) and violations of appearance norms (e.g., obesity). The normative sociologist does not have to wait until condemnation takes place to know that something is deviant. It is the violation of what the norms of a society or group say about proper and improper behavior, beliefs, and characteristics that defines them as deviant. For instance, we know in advance that it is a violation of society’s norms to walk down the street nude (Gibbs 1972), and hence, that that act is deviant.
- Blake, J. & Kingsley, D. (1964) Norms, values, and sanctions. In: Faris, R. E. L. (ed.), Handbook of Modern Sociology. Rand McNally, Chicago, IL.
- Gibbs, J. P. (1972) Issues in defining deviant behavior. In: Scott, R. A. & Douglas, J. D. (eds.), Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance. Basic Books, New York, pp. 39—68.