Norms and Values In Sociology: Definition & Examples

How Are Norms and Values Different?

Values are the basic beliefs that guide the actions of individuals, while norms are the expectations that society has for peoples” behavior. In other words, values tell individuals what is right or wrong, while norms tell individuals what is acceptable or not.

Values are more abstract and universal than norms, meaning they exist independent of any specific culture or society. Norms, on the other hand, are specific to a particular culture or society, and are essentially action-guiding rules, specifying concretely the things that must be done or omitted.

Additionally, values tend to be passed down from generation to generation, while norms can change relatively quickly.

In short, the values we hold are general behavioral guidelines. They tell us what we believe is right or wrong, for example, but that does not tell us how we should behave appropriately in any given social situation. This is the part played by norms in the overall structure of our social behavior.

However, there is often a lot of overlap between norms and values. For example, one of most of society’s norms is that one should not kill other people.

This norm is also a value, it is something that societies believe is morally wrong (McAdams, 2001).

Societies work or function because each individual member of that society plays particular roles and each role carries a status and norms which are informed by the values and beliefs of the culture of that society. The process of learning these roles and the norms and values appropriate to them from those around us is called socialisation.

What Are Norms?

Social norms are specific rules dictating how people should act in a particular situation, values are general ideas that support the norm”.

There are three types of norm we can distinguish:

  1. Folkways: These are fairly weak kinds of norm. For example, when you meet someone you know in the street you probably say ”hello” and expect them to respond in kind. If they ignore you, they have broken a friendship norm and this might lead you to reassess your relationship with them.
  2. Mores: These are much stronger norms and a failure to conform to them will result in a much stronger social response from the person or people who resent your failure to behave appropriately.
  3. Laws (legal norms): A law is an expression of a very strong moral norm that exists to explicitly control people’s behavior. Punishment for the infraction of legal norms will depend on the norm that has been broken and the culture in which the legal norm develops.

Norms shape attitudes, afford guidelines for actions and establish boundaries for behavior. Moreover, norms regulate character, engender societal cohesion, and aid individuals in striving toward cultural goals.

Conversely, the violation of norms may elicit disapprobation, ridicule, or even ostracization. For instance, while the Klu Klux Klan is legally permitted in the United States, norms pervading many academic, cultural, and religious institutions barely countenance any association with it or any espousal of its racist and antisemitic propaganda.

Consequently, we see the potency of a norm condemning certain viewpoints being promoted through informal means even in the absence of any equivalent formal counterparts.

What Are Values?

Values are beliefs that we have about what is important, both to us and to society as a whole. A value, therefore, is a belief (right or wrong) about the way something should be.

Values are essential in validating norms; normative rules without reference to underlying values lack motivation and justification. Meanwhile, without corresponding norms, values lack concrete direction and execution (McAdams, 2001).

While the common values of societies can change overtime, this process is usually slow. This means that these values tend to be appropriate for the historical period they reside in (Merton, 1994).

There are still commonly shared values within societies, but they become generalized, a more general underpinning for social practices.

Durkheim notes value consensus continues to exist in modern societies but in a weaker form because industrialization resulted in people having greater access to a greater variety of knowledge and ideas, e.g. through the mass media and science.


Barnard, A., & Burgess, T. (1996).  Sociology explained. Cambridge University Press.

Berkowitz, A. D. (2005). An overview of the social norms approach. Changing the culture of college drinking: A socially situated health communication campaign, 1, 193-214.

Bicchieri, C. (2011). Social Norms. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Boudon, R. (2017). The origin of values: Sociology and philosophy of beliefs. Routledge.

Carter, P. M., Bingham, C. R., Zakrajsek, J. S., Shope, J. T., & Sayer, T. B. (2014). Social norms and risk perception: Predictors of distracted driving behavior among novice adolescent drivers. Journal of Adolescent Health, 54 (5), S32-S41.

Chung, A., & Rimal, R. N. (2016). Social norms: A review.  Review of Communication Research, 4, 1-28.

Frese, M. (2015). Cultural practices, norms, and values Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 46 (10), 1327-1330.

Hechter, M., & Opp, K. D. (Eds.). (2001). Social norms .

Lapinski, M. K., & Rimal, R. N. (2005). An explication of social norms Communication theory, 15 (2), 127-147.

Merton, R. K. (1994, March). Durkheim”s division of labor in society. In Sociological Forum (Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 17-25). Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.

Moi, T. (2001). What is a woman?: and other essays. Oxford University Press on Demand.

Reno, R. R., Cialdini, R. B., & Kallgren, C. A. (1993). The transsituational influence of social norms. Journal of personality and social psychology, 64 (1), 104.

Sunstein, C. R. (1996). Social norms and social roles. Colum. L. Rev., 96, 903.

Young, H. P. (2007). Social Norms.