Norms are shared expectations or rules of behavior. Norms are what are normal in a given social circumstance. For example, I lived in France for a year or so as a young man. The beaches were filled with completely naked swimmers (this is common in many places throughout the world). In France, nude beaches are normal. In the US, that would still be considered not normal, or deviant, as will be discussed later. In the 1990’s a young Berkley U. student attended about half of his 4-year degree program with not much more than a bandana around his waist (Google “Berkley Naked Guy” for more information). Even at a very liberal university like Berkley, a male nude student was eventually ruled unacceptable.
Norms guide our countless interactions on a day to day basis. All the subtleties of everyday life, what we expect for ourselves and others, are found in our commonly shared norms. George Simmel claimed that outsiders (you in another culture or someone else new in our culture) appear “remote” to locals because they respond differently, having different norms (see Simmel, G. (1950). “The Stranger” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed by Wolff, K. H.; NY Free Press).
Some norms are the basis of a Folkway, which is a traditional or customary norm governing everyday social behaviors. Folkways are the simple things in society such as how we eat our soup (with a spoon, chopsticks, or sipped from the edge of the bowl). They also include our greetings, clothing, rules of politeness, and hand gestures. Norms are also the basis for Morés, which are deeply held, informal norms that are strictly enforced.
Morés are much more important to people than folkways. They might include a strongly held belief against sexual exploitation of women and children; respect for religious edifices; abstaining from using street drugs; and in the cultures of millions of Muslims the clear boundaries between males and females which often prohibits average men from talking to women who are not their wives or in seeing the hands, feet, and face of women who are not their wives. Not following folkways may lead to ridicule while not following morés may lead to harsh punishments.
From our Values, Norms, Folkways, and Morés we derive our laws. Laws are codified norms or norms written and recorded from which the behavior of society’s members can be judged. The US Law Code is available on the Internet and can be downloaded free from http://uscode.house.gov/download/download.shtml . Your state laws are probably not as large, but are also on the Internet for you to study if so desired. Laws come in two varieties:Prescriptive Laws are laws that state what must be done and Proscriptive Laws are laws which state what is forbidden. If you want to drive, set up a small business, or not be in trouble with the IRS for failing to file taxes, then you must follow prescriptive laws. They tell you the rules of how things must be done.
Proscriptive laws tell us what we cannot do such as murder, rape, steal, etc. Violating these laws brings negative sanctions. A Negative Sanction is a punishment or negative reaction toward breaking codified norms (laws). Jail time, criminal record, fines, and penalties are just of few of the sanctions available to law breakers. Remember that folkways rarely become laws while many morés are codified.
Why are city, state, and national laws so different? The answer is simply that values vary from city, to city; state to state, and country to country. Because values change over time, laws change with them. Go to http://www.dumblaws.com/ and see if you can find a city which gives a $500 dollar fine for detonating a nuclear weapon within city limits; a city which made it illegal to carry an ice-cream cone in one’s pocket; or a city which made it illegal to have sex in the back of an ambulance while it’s on a rescue call.
Older laws prohibiting women from voting, driving, and owning businesses have been changed over the last century because our values today find such oppressive laws unreasonable and unacceptable. The values are socially agreed upon and are communicated via language.
Another interesting and indirect measure of cultural values, norms, folkways, and morés can be found on http://www.google.com/trends . Go there and search the phrase “family history”. Type it then hit search trends. Now go to the first box on the bar and select United States as a region. As of 12 March 2009, Utah was the state with the highest search of this phrase with Salt Lake City being the highest city.
Search the following phrases and see which states and cities score in the top 10: Ice cream; Pepsi; American idol; Mohammed; Jesus Christ; Dali Lama; Face Book; My Space, and dirt bikes. Indirectly you can measure the values and norms of a state or city by identifying their common search phrases.