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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’.

[poll id=”2″]

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….

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/W9ZNKGrpnKM” frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>

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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Meet the Natives (Sociology on T.V.)

Meet the Natives involves five people from a tropical island visiting a ‘strange land called England’, where they find many of the customs unusual.

At various points throughout the video the ‘natives’ from Oceania have problems understanding British dinner rituals, the food we eat, housework/ the amount of stuff we have and even the concept of wearing clothes.

Videos like this are a great way to introduce the ‘sociological imagination’ to students, because they are shot from the perspective of ‘the outsider’ and remind us that many of our taken for granted activities are actually quite unusual….

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An Introduction to Sex, Gender and Gender Identity

The aim of this post is to provide a very brief introduction to the very complex topic of sex, gender and gender identity. 

Sex, gender and gender identity: basic definitions

  • Sex refers to the biological differences between men and women
  • Gender refers to the cultural differences between – it is to do with social norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.
  • Gender Identity is an individual’s own sense of their own gender. Their private sense of whether they feel masculine, feminine, both or neither, irrespective of their biological sex.

Biological differences between men and women

At first glance, there appears to be some fairly obvious biological differences between men and women – most obviously:

  • Reproductive organs – women have eggs and wombs and men produce sperm which fertilizes eggs – no need to go into the joys of exactly how this is done at this stage, suffice to say that in terms of the physical reproduction of the species men have a fairly easy time of it, women are the ones who have to carry the babies inside of them, and suffer the physical trauma of childbirth.
  • Women can lactate, men can’t, meaning women are the only sex who can produce food for their young offspring.
  • On average men are physically stronger, and can run faster than women.
  • Women typically cannot reproduce over the age of 50, while men can perform the reproductive function until much later on in their lives.
  • On average, women live longer than men
  • There are also hormonal differences – most obviously men have higher testosterone levels – which some scientific studies have linked to their higher levels of aggression.

Traditional Gender Roles and Norms

In the 1950s Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that these biological differences meant there were ‘natural’ social roles that men and women should fulfill in society –

  • women should perform the expressive role, or caring and nurturing role.
  • men should perform the instrumental role, or the ‘breadwinner’ role – going out and earning money.

Such ideas formed part of the common sense’ way of viewing relations through much of the 20th century, with most people seeing maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity as a binary relationship – with men being seen as the opposite of women.

Criticisms of the male-female gender divide

Successive Feminists movements have spearheaded criticisms of traditional gender roles in society, arguing that stereotypical ideas about the roles men and women should occupy, and the norms they should subscribe to, have systematically disadvantaged women.

One of the key Feminist ideas is that gender is socially constructed, that gender roles and norms are not determined by biology, but are shaped by society, and some of the best evidence of this fact lies in the enormous variation in gender roles between different cultures – simply put, if you can find just a handful of examples of men and women occupying different roles, having different amounts of power, and acting differently in different cultures, then this disproves the theory that there is some kind of ‘natural’ link between biological sex and gender.

Feminists have effectively spearheaded campaigns for greater gender equality and diversity of gender roles, and the last century has seen a blurring of boundaries between male and female roles and norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.

And, of course, the fact that gender roles and norms have changed so much so rapidly adds further weight to the fact that gender is socially constructed rather than biologically determined.

Criticisms of the binary opposition between male/ masculine and female/ feminine

Contemporary Feminism has criticized the binary opposition between male and female, arguing that every aspect of sex and gender are in fact sliding scales rather than opposites – as illustrated by the Genderbread person:

Genderbread-Person.jpg

The genderbread person was developed by Sam Killerman, who argues that gender identity incorporates not only one’s biological sex, but also one’s sexuality, one’s sense of social-identity and how one feels about one’s self – gender identity is thus fluid and complex, rather than static and binary binary, as explored further by Sam Killerman in the TED talk below.

Hegemonic masculinity and femininity in contemporary society  

Of course just because we are more accepting of gender diversity in contemporary society, this doesn’t mean that the old stereotypes have disappeared –  biological males are still ‘called upon’ to act in a typically masculine way, and biological females are still called upon to act in typically feminine ways, which at least in part explains why there are still clear gender inequalities in society today.

 

 

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An Introduction to Culture, Socialisation, and Social Norms

In sociology, it is essential to understand the social context in which human behaviour takes place – and this involves understanding the culture in which social action occurs.

Culture is a very broad concept which encompasses the norms, values, customs, traditions, habits, skills, knowledge, beliefs and the whole way of life of a group of people.

To give two specific, and classic definitions of the term culture:

  • Ralph Linton (1945) defined the culture of a society as ‘the way of life of its members: the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’.
  • Clyde Kluckhohn (1951) described culture as a ‘design for living’ held by the members of a particular society.

To a large degree, culture determines how members of society think and feel: it directs their actions and defines their outlook on life. Culture defines accepted ways of behaving for members of society.

In order to survive, any newborn infant must learn the accepted ways of behaving in a society, it must learn that society’s culture, a process known as socialisation, which sociologists tend to split into two ‘phases’ – primary and secondary.

Primary socialisation takes place in the family: the child learns many social rules simply by copying its parents, and responding to their approval or disapproval of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour, which is taught through a variety of rewards and punishments, such as simple praise, treats, smacking and the naughty step.

Secondary socialisation takes place outside of the family in other social institutions including the education system, the peer group, the media, religion and the work place.

Many (though not all) sociologists argue that the norms and values we pick up through these institutions encourage us to act in certain ways, and discourage us from acting in others, and, just as importantly,  they ‘frame’ our worldviews in subtle ways – encouraging us value certain things that other cultures might think have no value, or discouraging us to ask certain ‘critical questions’.

Just some of the ways these institutions might subtly shape our behaviour include:

  • Religion – reinforces basic moral codes such as ‘not killing’, ‘not stealing’, and the value of monogamous relationships, sanctioned by marriage.
  • Education – teaches us the value of tolerating people with different views from ourselves, the value of teamwork and the idea of the individual work ethic – ‘if I work hard I can achieve’.
  • The Media – through advertising, it teaches us that high levels of consumption of products are normal, and through the over-representation of skinny, beautiful, young people, it encourages to spend time and money to look good.

Socialisation is not simply a process in which individuals just passively accept the values of a society – children and adults actively reflect on whether they should accept them, and some choose to actively engage in ‘mainstream’ culture, others just go along with it, and still other reject these values, but those who reject mainstream culture are very much in a minority, while most of us go along with mainstream norms and values most of the time. 

Socialisation and the process of learning social norms

Part of the socialisation process involves learning the specific norms, or informal rules which govern behaviour in particular situations.

There are literally hundreds (and probably thousands) of social norms which govern how people act in specific places and at specific times – the most obvious ones being dress codes, ways of speaking, ways of interacting with others, body language, and the general demeanor appropriate to specific situations.

Social norms are most obvious at key events in the life course such as weddings and funerals, with their obvious rituals (which would be out of place in most other situations) and codes of dress, but they also exist in day to day life – there is a ‘general norm’ that we should wear clothes in public, we are generally expected to turn up to school and work on time, to not push in if there’s a queue in a shop, and we are also generally expected to politely ignore strangers in public places and on public transport (1) (2)

Norms also vary depending on the characteristics of the person – for example, whether you are male or female, or young or old, but more of that later.

Cross cultural differences in social norms

One of the best ways of illustrating just how many social norms we have in Britain is to look at examples of other cultures which are far removed from our own – such as traditional tribes who still exist in parts of South America, Oceania, Asia, and Africa. By reflecting on how different the norms are in these other cultures, we get a good idea of just how many aspects of our day to day lives we take for granted.

For example the San Bushmen of Southern Africa have very different norms surrounding material culture – because they are hunter gatherers, they own very few items, and traditionally their economy was a gift economy, rather than a money economy. Thus, in this culture, money has no value, and ‘stuff’ is simply a burden.

San Bushmen.jpg
The San Bushmen (although their traditional culture is much changed from 100 years ago)

The Sanema, who live in the rain forests of Brazil and Venezuela, have a radically different belief system in which dreams are as important as ‘waking reality’:

The Sanema believe in a dream world inhabited by the spirits of everything around them. The trees, the animals, the rocks, the water all have a spirit. Some can be used to heal, others to bring disaster and death.

Four out of five Sanema men are practicing shamans and it is in their dreams that the spirits visit them. The main work of  the shamen is to dispel the evil spirits they believe cause illnesses, and to do this they induce a trance by taking powerful hallucinogenic drug, sakona, made from the dried sap of the virola tree.

In Sanema culture, it is perfectly usual for these shamans to be off their faces on hallucinogenic drugs, ‘warding off evil spirits’ in the middle of the day, while other people go about their more ‘ordinary’ (by our standards) business of cooking, washing, cleaning, or just chillaxing (typically in hammocks).

Sanema Tribe
Bruce Parry and a Sanema shaman off their faces on hallucinogens – it’s normal there!

There are many other examples that could be used to illustrate the extreme variations in social norms across cultures – such as differences in how cultures treat children, or differences in gender norms, the point is that none of these behaviours are determined by biology or physical environment – we’re all pretty much the same as a biological species – these cultural differences are simply to do with social traditions, passed down by socialisation.

Historical differences in social norms 

Social norms also change over time – the most obvious being how norms surrounding childhood and gender have changed, as well as norms surrounding expenditure and consumption.

The fact that social norms change over time again shows that biological differences cannot explain historical variations in human behaviour, and also raises the important point that individuals have the freedom to change the norms they are born into.

Related Posts 

(1) To illustrate just now many social norms govern our lives, you might like to read this post: how social norms structure your day (forthcoming post)

(2) Some sociologists (and sociologicalish commentators) are very critical of many of our social norms – suggesting variously that they are just not necessary, too restrictive of individual freedom, or even downright harmful – for more on this – see this post: Social Norms – the unnecessary and the harmful (forthcoming post).

Sources used to write this post

Haralambos and Holborn (2013): Sociology Themes and Perspectives