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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.