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Society and Culture


Types of Societies

Status and Roles

Every society has expectations about how its members should and should not behave. A norm is a guideline or an expectation for behavior. Each society makes up its own rules for behavior and decides when those rules have been violated and what to do about it. Norms change constantly.

How Norms Differ

Norms differ widely among societies, and they can even differ from group to group within the same society.

  • Different settings: Wherever we go, expectations are placed on our behavior. Even within the same society, these norms change from setting to setting.

Example: The way we are expected to behave in church differs from the way we are expected to behave at a party, which also differs from the way we should behave in a classroom.

  • Different countries: Norms are place-specific, and what is considered appropriate in one country may be considered highly inappropriate in another.

Example: In some African countries, it’s acceptable for people in movie theaters to yell frequently and make loud comments about the film. In the United States, people are expected to sit quietly during a movie, and shouting would be unacceptable.

  • Different time periods: Appropriate and inappropriate behavior often changes dramatically from one generation to the next. Norms can and do shift over time.

Example: In the United States in the 1950s, a woman almost never asked a man out on a date, nor did she pay for the date. While some traditional norms for dating prevail, most women today feel comfortable asking men out on dates and paying for some or even all of the expenses.

Norm Categories

Sociologists have separated norms into four categories: folkways, mores, laws, and taboos.


A folkway is a norm for everyday behavior that people follow for the sake of convenience or tradition. People practice folkways simply because they have done things that way for a long time. Violating a folkway does not usually have serious consequences.

Example: Holding the door open for a person right behind you is a folkway.


A more (pronounced MORE-ay) is a norm based on morality, or definitions of right and wrong. Since mores have moral significance, people feel strongly about them, and violating a more usually results in disapproval.

Example: Parents who believe in the more that only married people should live together will disapprove of their son living with his girlfriend. They may consider their son’s action a violation of the moral guidelines for behavior.


A law is a norm that is written down and enforced by an official agency. Violating a law results in a specific punishment.

Example: It is illegal in most countries to drive a car while drunk, and a person violating this law may get cited for driving under the influence (DUI), which may bring a fine, loss of driver’s license, or even jail time.


A taboo is a norm that society holds so strongly that violating it results in extreme disgust. The violator is often considered unfit to live in that society.

Example: In most countries, cannibalism and incest are considered taboo. In some Muslim cultures, eating pork is taboo because the pig is considered unclean.


Where there are rules, there are rule breakers. Sociologists call the violation of a norm deviance. The word deviant has taken on the negative connotation of someone who behaves in disgusting or immoral ways, but to sociologists, a deviant is anyone who doesn’t follow a norm, in either a good way or a bad way. See Chapter 6 for more about deviance.

Example: Most people don’t graduate from college with a 4.0 grade point average, so sociologists view someone who does graduate with a 4.0 as deviant. Likewise, most Americans get married at some point in their lives, so someone who chooses not to marry is sociologically a deviant.

Although deviance can be good and even admirable, few societies could tolerate the chaos that would result from every person doing whatever he or she pleased. Social control refers to the methods that societies devise to encourage people to observe norms. The most common method for maintaining social control is the use of sanctions, which are socially constructed expressions of approval or disapproval. Sanctions can be positive or negative, and the ways societies devise to positively or negatively sanction behaviors are limited only by the society’s imagination.

Positive Sanctions

A positive sanction rewards someone for following a norm and serves to encourage the continuance of a certain type of behavior.

Example: A person who performs well at his or her job and is given a salary raise or a promotion is receiving a positive sanction. When parents reward a child with money for earning good grades, they are positively sanctioning that child’s behavior.

Negative Sanctions

A negative sanction is a way of communicating that a society, or some group in that society, does not approve of a particular behavior. The optimal effect of a negative sanction is to discourage the continuation of a certain type of behavior.

Example: Imprisoning a criminal for breaking the law, cutting off a thief’s hands for stealing, and taking away a teenager’s television privileges for breaking curfew are all negative sanctions.

Norms and Consequences



Consequences for violation


Wearing a suit to an interview

Raised eyebrow


Only married couples should live together

Conflicts with family members, disapproval


Laws against public nudity

Imprisonment, monetary fine


Eating human flesh

Visible signs of disgust, expulsion from society

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