Sociology Norms
Christine Horne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0091


Norms are a fundamental concept in the social sciences. They are most commonly defined as rules or expectations that are socially enforced. Norms may be prescriptive (encouraging positive behavior; for example, “be honest”) or proscriptive (discouraging negative behavior; for example, “do not cheat”). The term is also sometimes used to refer to patterns of behavior and internalized values. Norms are important for their contribution to social order. Governments (and other hierarchies) and markets are argued to contribute to order, as are individual prosocial motivations. But the norms enforced through groups and networks also play an important role. Norms have long been used to explain behavior, but in recent years, scholars have increasingly focused on explaining norms themselves—in particular, their emergence and enforcement.

General Overviews

While many works mention norms and make general assertions about them, relatively few provide in-depth discussions. This section identifies some of these more detailed pieces. Elster 1989 explores social norms in the context of the larger problem of social order. A later work, Elster 2009, distinguishes norms from other types of rules and discusses the importance of emotions for norm enforcement. Hechter and Opp 2001 includes introductory chapters that discuss norms generally, as well as substantive chapters that focus on specific norms. Bicchieri 2006 defines and explains norms. Finally, Mollborn 2017 discusses norm sets in the context of teen sexual behavior.

  • Bicchieri, Cristina. 2006. The grammar of society: The nature and dynamics of social norms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Treats norms as expectations regarding others’ behaviors and internal motivations to conform to what one expects others to do. Relies on game theory and experimental evidence to explain norms.

  • Elster, Jon. 1989. The cement of society: A study of social order. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511624995

    The book focuses on social order; one chapter (pp. 97–151) discusses norms specifically. Elster argues that norms are shared and sustained through social sanctions. He distinguishes social norms from morals, laws, conventions, personal rules, habits, tradition, and psychological salience, and he provides empirical examples of norms.

  • Elster, Jon. 2009. Norms. In The Oxford handbook of analytical sociology. Edited by Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, 195–217. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Distinguishes social norms from moral norms, quasi-moral norms (triggered by observing the behavior of others), legal norms, and conventions. Discusses the role of contempt and indignation on the part of third parties, and shame and guilt of the deviant. Analyzes widespread norms, including those regulating rate-busting in the workplace, tipping, and standing in line.

  • Hechter, Michael, and Karl-Dieter Opp, eds. 2001. Social norms. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    In addition to an introductory chapter by the editors, four chapters provide perspectives on norms from sociology, the legal academy, economics, and game theory. Subsequent empirical chapters provide illustrations and analyses of a range of substantive norms, including norms in journalism, social movements, sex and marriage, and national self-determination.

  • Mollborn, Stefanie. 2017. Mixed messages: Norms and social control around teen sex and pregnancy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190633271.001.0001

    Develops the concept of norm sets and discusses norm rationales and norm conflict as well as strategies used by norm enforcers and norm targets. Describes how norms are communicated and navigated in families, schools, communities, and peer groups. Focuses on the empirical context of teen sexual behavior and pregnancy.

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