Norms can be either formal or informal. We define norms as formal or informal rules of conduct and behavioral expectations in social interaction.
In addition to norms being formal and informal, there are also what are called prescriptive norms and proscriptive norms.
EXAMPLEYou should sit quietly in a classroom. You should obey the law of society. These are prescriptive norms telling you what to do.
EXAMPLEYou should not talk while another is talking, or steal from the boss at work. These are proscriptive norms, because they tell you what you should not do, what kind of behavior should be avoided.
William Graham Sumner was an early American sociologist who died in 1910. Sumner held the first sociology professorship at Yale College. He developed the ideas of mores and folkways, terms that are still used today.
Mores are elevated norms with moral dimensions that are widely observed in society, for example, murder, incest, and child abuse. As members of society, you are morally obligated to behave in certain ways, and most people observe these behaviors. Most people don't go around killing each other or abusing children.
These types of awful behaviors in society are also taboo. Taboos are mores that have proscriptive bans on the worst conduct in society.
EXAMPLEYou might be familiar with the show To Catch A Predator, in which a decoy goes online and chats with somebody looking to solicit sex from an underage person. When the predator goes to meet the decoy, they find Chris Matthews waiting to trap him. This is an example of taboo behavior because you're not allowed to solicit sex from somebody who's underage.
Folkways, on the other hand (another of Sumner's terms), are norms that govern casual interaction, whose violation often has little consequence for the offender. Despite the lack of consequence, they're still widely observed.
This conversation doesn’t really reveal anything to either party, yet people engage in this kind of behavior all the time. To not do it would seem odd. These are simply day-to-day interaction with casual norms or folkways.
- “How was your weekend?”
- “Good. Yours?”
EXAMPLEIf you get invited to a dinner party, it might be thoughtful to bring an appetizer, bottle of wine, or small gift to the host. You're won’t be ostracized if you don't do it, but you might still do it because it is a widely observed folkway.
The better you are at learning all of these little subtleties, the more socially aware you are and the more likely you're going to have success. Nobody likes that coarse, uncouth, or crass person who doesn't seem to understand the subtle rules of interaction that the rest understand. The more familiar you are with all these things, the better off you're going to be, and you learn it through socialization, through watching others as you grow.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.