What is Normal?

The concepts of ‘normal’, and ‘normality’, and the question of what counts as ‘normal behaviour’ has long been of interest to sociologists. Sociologists from different perspectives have very different approaches to answering the basic, but fundamental question, ‘what is normal’?

For the early positivists such as August Comte and Emile Durkheim, uncovering the existence of social norms (or typical patterns of behaviour) was central to their early positivist sociology. However, contemporary sociologists are more likely to question whether or not there is such a thing as ‘normal’ in our postmodern society.

Source: Google Ngram’s viewer

Interest in the word ‘normal’ started to grow in line with early Positivist sociology, peaked during the ‘heyday’ of structuralist sociology in the 1940s-70s and has been in decline since the (contested) shift to postmodern society from the 1980s… 

What is Normal?

‘Normal’can be defined as any behavior or condition which is usual, expected, typical, or conforms to a pre-existing standard.

‘Normal behaviour’ may be defined as any behaviour which conforms to social norms, which are the expected or typical patterns of human behaviour in any given society.

It follows that in order to establish what ‘normal’ behaviour is, sociologists firstly need to establish what social norms are present in any given society.

This is actually more difficult than it may sound, because social norms exist at ‘different levels’ of society (at least for those sociologists who actually believe social norms actually exist!)

Some social norms exist at the level of society as a whole, known as ‘societal level norms’, which tend to be very general norms, such as ‘obeying the law most of the time’ or ‘children being expected to not talk to strangers’.

Other norms are context-dependent, and are specific to certain institutions – for example the specific norms associated with sitting a formal examination within an educational setting, or those associated with a funeral. (In some respects the two examples are quite similar!)

Social norms can also vary from place to place, time of day, and different norms may be expected of people depending on their social characteristics: their age, or gender for example.

Given all of the above problems with establishing the existence of social norms, postmodern sociologists have suggested that we need to abandon the concept of normality all together, and just accept the fact that we live in a society of individuals, each of whom is unique.

However, many contemporary sociologists disagree with this postmodern view, given then fact that there do appear to be certain patterns of behaviour which the vast majority of people in society conform to.

The remainder of this post will consider a range of examples of behaviours which might reasonably be regarded as ‘normal’ in the context of contemporary British society….

How might sociologists ‘determine’ what is ‘normal’?

As far as I see it, there are a number of places sociologists can look, for example:

  1. They can simply start out by making observations (possibly backed up by ‘mass observation’ data) of daily life, which will reveal certain General norms of behavior.
  2. They can use statistical data to uncover ‘life events’ or actions that most people will engage in at some point during their ‘life-course’.
  3. They can look at statistical averages.
  4. They can look at attitude surveys and field experiments to find out about typical attitudes towards certain objects of attention and typical behaviours in specific contexts.
  5. They can simply look at the most popular tastes and actions which the majority (or ‘largest minority’ of people engage in.

Below I discuss the first three of these…

Normal behaviour in daily life….?

Simple observations of daily life (backed up with a few basic surveys) reveal there are several social norms that the vast majority of the public conform to. For example:

Wearing clothes most of the time

Despite the fact that according to one survey as many as 1.2 million people in the UK define themselves as naturists (which is about as many as there are members of the Church of England), only 2% of people report that they would ‘get their kit off too’ if they came across a group of naked people playing cricket on a beach while on a coastal ramble’.

If you were walking along the coast on a hot day, and you came across a group of naked people sunbathing, swimming or playing cricket, would you:

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Brushing your teeth at least once a day

96% of Britons brush their teeth at least once a day, with only 2% of people saying they don’t brush at least once daily, and 2% of confused people saying they don’t know how often they brush.

Ignoring other people on public transport….

You probably don’t think about it very much, but nearly all of us do it – ignoring other people on public transport. So much so that if you type in ‘avoiding people on public transport’ to Google, then the first search return is actually a link to ‘how to do it‘… from ‘sitting by yourself and putting a bag on the seat next to you’ to (most obviously) using your mobile phone or eating something. There’s even advice on how to ‘disengage’ from conversation, just in case some deviant is socially unaware enough to talk to you.

The limitations of establishing ‘normality’ from such ordinary, everyday behaviours…

While most of us engage in such behaviours, is this actually significant? Do these ‘manifestations of similarity’ actually mean anything? Most of us brush our teeth, most of us ignore each other on public transport, most of us wear clothes, but so what?

All of these manifestations of ‘normality’ are quite passive, they don’t really involve much of a ‘buy in’, and there’s still scope for a whole lot of differences of greater significance to occur even with all of us doing all of these ‘basic’ activities in unison…

Life Course Norms…?

It’s probably not as simply as ‘normal life in the U.K.’ as equating to having a 9-5 job, a mortgage, a fuck off big television, walking the dog, paying taxes and having a pension….

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But it possible to identify some ‘life-events’ that the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom (or at least England in some of the examples below) will experience at some points in their life. All of the examples below are take from across the A-level sociology syllabus…

Most children in the United Kingdom will go to school….

According to World Bank data, 98.9% of children in the United Kingdom are enrolled in school, so it’s reasonably fair to say that ‘it is normal for children in the UK to go to secondary school’.

NB – it’s probably worth pointing out that ‘secondary school enrollment is much more common in the UK compared to the United States, and especially Uruguay, and various other less economically developed countries.

Of course the fact that nearly 99% of children are enrolled in secondary school in the UK tells us nothing about their experience of education, or how long they actually spend in school, but nonetheless, being enrolled and being subjected to the expectation to attend secondary school in the UK is one of the most universal experiences through the life-course.

Most people in the U.k. will engage in paid work or live with someone who has engaged in paid work at some point in their lives

Only 0.8% of 16-64 year olds live in households where all members have never worked. These figures don’t actually tell us how many people have never worked, but we can say that 99.2% of the adult population has either worked, or is currently living with someone who has, at some point in their lives, worked.

Most people will live until they are over 50

Source: ONS, based on registered deaths

‘Only’ 9.2% of men and 5.7% of women will die before the age of 50, according to ONS data averaged over the last 20 years.

Limitations of establishing ‘normal’ behaviour from these trends 

The limitations of deriving an idea of ‘normality’ from life-course data is that you are much less likely to find norms across the generations rather than in one specific age-cohort. More-over, one of main reasons postmodernists argue that it is no longer appropriate to talk about social norms today is that there is a trend away from shared norms in many areas of social life and a movement towards greater diversity.

Social Norms based on statistical averages 

A third method of determining what is ‘normal’ is to look at the ‘median’ value of a distribution, that is the value which lies at the midpoint.

In social statistics, it is very like that the median will provide a more representative average figure than the mean because a higher percentage of people will cluster around the median compared to the mean.

Median disposable household income in the UK in 2017 was £27,300

average household income ONS data 2017

Source: Household disposable income and inequality in the UK: financial year ending 2017

Average household size in the UK in 2016 was 2.4 

Source: ONS

Limitations of establishing ‘normal behaviour’ from medians or means

Is the median the ‘best’ way of establishing ‘what is normal’? Even though it’s the figure around which most people cluster, there can still be enormous differences in those at both ends of the distribution.

As to the mean, as with the household average above…. this might be useful for establishing trends over time, but surely when we look at ‘today’, this is meaningless… there are no households with 2.4 people in!

So… is there such a thing as normal?

While it is possible to identify ‘norms’ using various methods, hopefully the above examples at least demonstrate why postmodernists are so sceptical about the concept of normality today!

 

 

 

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