Social norms: What happens when they become more abstract?



“Social norm” has been an important concept for sociologists, and shifts towards an increased attention to the role of costs and benefits for social behavior did not displace this concept but may have even boosted its importance (see Opp 1983). Still, much needs to be done, as Hechter and Opp’s book on social norms testifies in 2001. “Phenomena like cooperation, collective action, and social order cannot readily be explained on the basis of the rational egoistic behavioral assumptions that are typically countenanced by rational choice theorists…In their (the theorists’, S.L.) quest for explanations of these ostensibly problematic outcomes, social norms have come to occupy pride of place.” (Hechter and Opp, 2001, p. xii). Hechter and Opp go on to say that as much less is known about the emergence of social norms than about their effects, they focused their book on the emergence, just as Opp had done almost twenty years earlier (Opp 1983). I submit that there is a third topic concerning social norms that has received even less attention than their emergence: the way they work. There is a very specific reason why I am interested in this neglected topic. It concerns a puzzle right at the heart of classical sociology but not really recognized or given much attention. Ever since Durkheim’s book on suicide ([1897]), sociologists have been fascinated by the idea that social norms in modern market societies increasingly become vague or vanish and thus cease to regulate behavior in a vacuum of chronic anomie. They don’t state anymore what should be done or not done or, if they do, they contradict each other; in many cases they even become a matter of personal taste or vanish altogether. As a consequence, the social bond is broken, society becomes excessively individualized etc. But there is also a different thesis on social norms in his earlier book on the division of labor (1964 [1893])1 As societies become larger (due to fusion between smaller societies), the social norms have to cover increasingly a larger diversity of people and circumstances and, as a consequence, they become more abstract. “They rule only the most general forms of conduct and rule them in a very general manner, saying what must be done, not how it must be done.”


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© VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften | GWV Fachverlage GmbH, Wiesbaden 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universität GroningenNiederlande

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