Norms and Values

By Charlotte Nickerson, published October 31, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


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 behavioural guidelines. They tell us what we believe is right or wrong, for example, but that do 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 behaviour.

However, there is often a lot of overlap between norms and values. For example, one of most 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:
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.

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.

Laws (legal norms): A law is an expression of a very strong moral norm that exists to explicitly control people’s behaviour. 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.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, October 31). Norms and Values. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/norms-and-values.html

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