Norms (from Latin norma, a square, used by carpenters, masons, and other artificers to make their work rectangular) are either statistical or ideal. In the statistical sense, the norm is the average. In the ideal sense, however, a norm prescribes or expresses an ideal pattern or standard of behavior in a given social group or social context to which conformity is expected. Confusion between these two kinds of norms should be avoided. Under certain circumstances, it may be normal in the statistical sense to transgress norms of an ideal nature.
Cultural and social anthropology are mainly interested in ideal norms. Norms as standards of behavior are an essential part of any culture. They provide a system of order and orientation. Nevertheless, they are subject to transformations and may differ from culture to culture. Moreover, societies develop not only several types of norms (such as folkways, mores, and laws), but also sanctions to help enforce the norms, reward conformity, and punish deviance.
One of the tasks of the cultural or social anthropologist is to describe the contexts that distinguish acts of deviance from acts of conformity in a particular community, and to reconstruct the social and cultural norms that generate such judgments. In addition, an anthropologist who works in different social or cultural contexts requires knowledge and sensitivity to social or cultural norms.
Norms, Culture, and Socialization
Ideal norms expressing standards of behavior are part of any society and culture. In many respects, humans are not genetically programmed for one pattern of behavior, but rather have the capacity to learn many different patterns. Any given society institutionalizes a specific set of behaviors selected from the wide range of possibilities. Behavior that may be seen as appropriate in one culture may be called scandalous in another. For example, gender norms define appropriate behavior for men and women. In some societies, young girls are given their own house in which they are allowed to play “wife” with boys they choose. In others, girls are not even allowed to talk to boys. Gender norms define not only appropriate sexual interaction but also behavior, even to the extent of appropriate vehicles for transportation. In many African countries, motor vehicles are driven primarily by men. In some countries, certain vehicles are even taboo for women to drive. At times, these may be motorcycles, and at others, trucks or cars.
In the socialization of (young) people to the norms of a society, most of the cultural symbol system that carries these norms is passed on without being explicitly taught.
Types of Norms: Folkways, Mores, and Laws
Social and cultural norms vary immensely regarding importance and the intensity of the reaction when they are violated.
Folkways are conventional norms of custom generally regarded as useful but not essential to society, and they are fairly weak kinds of norms. For example, when people of Western societies who know one another meet in the street, they probably say “hello” and expect the other one to respond in kind. Likewise, people are expected to be courteous to pregnant women and to eat with a knife, fork, and spoon. Violations of these norms may bring about only mild forms of censure or punishment. One may be reprimanded or considered boorish, rude, impertinent, a nuisance, or an eccentric.
Mores are norms of custom generally regarded as more important for the welfare of a society than mere folkways. They often express high values and are associated with strong feelings of right or wrong, morality or immorality. Their violations may inspire intense reactions and some type of punishment, because violation would endanger the basic stability of a group. Examples in Western societies include the incest taboo, sexual abuse of children, and murder. Someone who violates fundamental mores will be considered socially unacceptable and may be expelled, banished, exiled, or imprisoned. In some societies, the breach of certain mores may even be met with the death penalty. Mores are set up, maintained, and enforced by public sentiment.
Laws are norms whose violation is met (by a state authority) with sanctions that are publicly acknowledged, socially approved, and—at least in principle—consistently applied. Some theorists stress the characteristic that laws must be formally chosen by a state and backed up by punishments for failure to conform to them, with particular social agencies designated to do the enforcing. The formulation of law has long been considered a defining feature of state-level societies. Many fundamental social institutions in state-level societies are bound up with a concept of law; examples include the sovereign authority to create law, courts established to try disputes, and a police power to prevent or punish illegal acts. Whether the absence of these institutions implies the absence of law has posed a fundamental problem for the anthropology of law, insofar as cross-cultural understandings of political institutions and of social control are concerned.
The anthropology of law describes the definitions of crimes in particular cultures and the procedures through which cases are adjudicated and remedies applied in particular communities. Some anthropologists claim that an anthropological approach to law must be relativistic in recognizing the variety of cultural settings in which lawmaking occurs. A variety of approaches have been taken to the problem of defining the domain of law and the application of a concept of law to those societies, such as tribes, that lack clear, centralized political institutions. These approaches differ in the distinction drawn between laws and more general social norms. One solution has been to retain an essentially Western concept. This was the position of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955), who argued that simple societies have no law, although all have customs that are supported by sanctions. Another approach has been to merge law into the domain of custom. This view states that although norms obeyed by indigenous peoples have been refused the name of laws, customs that are fixed and generally obeyed are indistinguishable from laws. Holding this view, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) equated law with the field of effective social constraint. A third approach takes law to be culturally universal, yet distinguishable from a more general field of custom or social sanction. For E. Adamson Hoebel (1906-1993), a social norm is legal if its neglect or infraction is regularly met, in threat or in fact, by the application of physical force by an individual or a group possessing the socially recognized privilege of so acting. In this sense, the norm of traditional Inuit culture that a recidivist murderer may be executed by the kin of one of her or his victims—who seeks and obtains, in advance, community approval for this act—would constitute a legal norm. In addition to this general theoretical debate, ethnographic studies of law have been conducted. To name only two famous works, Karl N. Llewellyn (1863-1962) and Hoebel analyzed the character of Cheyenne legal reasoning in The Cheyenne Way (1941). And Max Gluckman (1911-1975), a South African anthropologist, provided detailed evidence regarding legal reasoning and standards of justice among the Barotse of Zambia in The Judicial Process Among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia (1955). A main topic of contemporary legal ethnography of U.S. law is how difficult it is to “get justice” in light of the disempowerment on the basis of race, class, gender or ethnic origin.
Deviance and Sanctions
The opposite of conformity to social and cultural norms is called deviance. Deviance includes psychopathology, crime, rebellion, or the simple violation of social conventions. An action accurately coded as a social misdemeanor—crime, rebellion, and so on—could be coded as conformity in another. For example, there is a danger that conformity to the norms of one culture will be misinterpreted as a symptom of mental illness in another. A Hopi woman who reports conversing with her dead husband may be thought to be hallucinating by an unsophisticated Anglo-American psychiatrist, despite the fact that her behavior is highly appropriate in the Hopi context. In general, one of the ethnographic tasks of the social anthropologist is to describe the contexts that distinguish acts of deviance from acts of conformity in a particular community, and to reconstruct the social and cultural norms that generate such judgments. The study of psychopathology, in particular, is one task of medical or psychiatric anthropology.
Crimes are deviant acts that violate the legal norms of a particular community and for which there are legal remedies, such as punishment or compensation. Again, the appropriate kind of remedy may differ from culture to culture. In some East African cultures, for example, intergroup homicide is treated not as a punishable act of deviant behavior by an individual, as it is in Western societies, but as something like a debt that can be compensated through payment by the group responsible for the killing.
Rebellion is a form of deviance conspicuously antagonistic to authority or intended to overthrow a hierarchical status system. In some societies, the phenomenon of a ritual of rebellion can be found. In such rituals, roles are reversed, such as those of commoners and their king. Gluckman argued that such rituals serve the function of renewing the existing social order, while appearing to overthrow it. Likewise, historians of early modern Europe have examined the extent to which annual rituals like the European carnival expressed real social protest.
Sanctions are responses to both conformity and deviance. They function to maintain social order and social control by rewarding conformity and punishing deviance, thus reintegrating a society after a breach. They are based on collective norms and reflect a shared sense of wrongdoing. Negative sanctions are punishments of varying degrees, ranging from disapproval, gossip, and imprisonment to execution. Positive sanctions are reinforcements or rewards, such as words of praise, bestowal of honors, or canonization. Moreover, some theorists distinguish between formal sanctions, which are imposed by the state, and informal sanctions, which are imposed by members of a community. Respective studies have shown that formal sanctions are used most often in urban settings and include arrest and imprisonment, whereas in rural areas, informal sanctions, such as gossip, are more prevalent. In addition, one may distinguish sanctions by whether they address the body or the psyche. Whereas physical sanctions, such as beating, bring about physical pain or pleasure, psychological ones, such as rewards, address the feelings and emotions.
For native members of a particular society or culture, their norms are usually a matter of course and, much like the rules of grammar, go unnoticed until they are violated and met with sanctions.
- Barfield, T. (Ed.). (1997). The dictionary of anthropology. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
- Freilich, M., Raybeck, D., & Shavishinsky, J. (Eds.). (1991). Deviance: Anthropological perspectives. New York: Bergin and Garvey.
- Merry, S. E. (1990). Getting justice and getting even: Legal consciousness among working-class Americans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Winthrop, R. H. (1991). Dictionary of concepts in cultural anthropology. Westport, CT: Greenwood.