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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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The Big Data Value Chain

There are three types of company in the big-data value chain: the companies who collect the data, data-analytics companies, and data-ideas companies. This new ‘organisational landscape’ will change the power-relations between businesses enormously, at least according to Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier (2017)  in ‘Big Data’: The Essential Guide to Life and Learning in the Age of Insight;. 

‘Pure’ data companies are those which have the data, or at least access to it, but not necessarily have the right skills to extract the value from the data. A good example of such a company is Twitter, which has masses of data but licences it out to independent firms to use.

Data analytics companies are those with the statistical, programming, and communication skills necessary to mining insights from data – Teradata is a good exmaple of such a company.

Finally there are those companies with the ‘big-data mindset’ whose founders and employees have unique ideas about how to unlock and combine data to find new forms of value – for example, Pete Warden, the co-founder of Jetpac, which makes travel recommendations based on the photos users upload to the site.

Data analytics has recently been touted as being in the ‘prime position’ in the big-data value chain: there has been a lot of recent talk of the shortage of ‘data scientists’ in the age of ever increasing amount of data…. The McKinsey Global Institute has talked about this for example, and Google’s chief economist Hal Varian famously called statistician the ‘sexist job around’.

We have been given the impression that we are wallowing in data, but lack sufficient people with the skills to mine this data.

Cukier, however, thinks such claims are exaggerated because it is likely that this skills gap will close. Interestingly, in a recent talk on big data science, this view also seemed to be the consensus.

He predicts that what is more likely to happen is that firms controlling access to the data will start to charge more for it, and big data innovators will be be where the real money is…

Hyrbid Data Companies

Companies such as Google and Amazon stretch across all three links in the data value chain. Google collects data like search-query typos, uses it to create a spell-checker and employs people in-house to do the analytics. Such vertical integration is no doubt precisely why Google is today one of the world’s largest companies.

The New Data Intermediaries

Cukier also predicts that there are certain business sectors which will benefit from giving their data to third parties, because keeping it in-house will not be as beneficial to them as sharing their data and combining it with others – third parties are needed to facilitate trust – for example, travel firms will benefit from such an arrangement, not to mention the banking and finance sectors – where more data is better.

The Demise of the Expert

Cukier also predicts that big data analytics will see specialists in different fields being replaced with those with data-science skills able to manage whatever field based on data. He argues that ‘mathematics, statistics, perhaps with a sprinkling of programming and network science, will be as foundational to the modern workplace as numeracy was a century ago and literacy before that’.

Big Winners, Medium Sized Losers..

Large data companies such as Google and Amazon will continue to soar, but big data presents a challenge to the victors of small-world data such as Walmart, Nestle, Boeing…. How these will adapt remains to be seen.

There are, of course, opportunities for ‘smart and nimble start-ups’, but also individuals might start to sell their own data, possibly through new third party firms.

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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 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

 

 

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Sociology and Value Freedom

Can Sociology be value free

Value Freedom in Social Research refers to the ability of the researcher to keep his or her own values (personal, political and religious) from interfering with the research process.

The idea that ‘facts’ should not be influenced by the researcher’s own beliefs is a central aspect of ‘science’ – and so when we say that Sociology can and should be value free this is essentially the same as saying that ‘Sociology can and should be scientific’

Positivism and Value Freedom

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Positivist Sociologists such as August Comte and Emile Durkheim regarded Sociology as a science and thus thought that social research could and should be value free, or scientific.

As illustrated in Durkheim’s study of Suicide (1899) – by doing quantitative research and uncovering macro-level social trends Sociologists can uncover the ‘laws of society’. Durkheim believed that one such law was that too high or too low levels of social integration and regulation would lead to an increasing suicide rate. Positivists believed that further research would be able to uncover how much of what types of integration caused the suicide rate to go up or down. We should be able to find out, for example, if a higher divorce rate has more impact on the suicide rate that the unemployment rate.

So at one level, Positivists believe that Sociology can be value free because they are uncovering the ‘objective’ laws of how social systems work – these laws exist independently of the researchers observing them. All the researcher is doing is uncovering ‘social facts’ that exist ‘out there’ in the world – facts that would exist irrespective of the person doing the observing.

Positivists argued that such value-free social research was crucial because the objective knowledge that scientific sociology revealed could be used to uncover the principles of a good, ordered, integrated society, principles which governments could then apply to improve society. Thus, research should aim to be scientific or value free because otherwise it is unlikely to be taken seriously or have an impact on social policy.

Being “value free” is sometime described as being objective: to uncover truths about the world, one must aspire to eliminate personal biases, a prior beliefs, and emotional and personal involvement, etc.

Questions

  1. Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?

  1. Is it possible to completely objective/value free?

The ‘New Right’ – Sociology is not value free – it is left wing propaganda!

Value freedom and Sociology: ‘right wing’ perspectives..

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sociology came under attack for its ‘left-wing’ bias. Originally criticized for its inclusion in teacher training programmes, it was further suggested that teachers were indoctrinating their students with Marxist propaganda. David Marsland is particularly associated with the idea of Sociology as a destructive force in British society, exaggerating the defects of capitalism and ignoring its many benefits:

‘Sociology is the enemy within. It is an enemy that sows the seeds of bankruptcy and influences huge numbers of impressionable people… Sociologists are neglecting their responsibility for accurate, objective description and biasing their analyses of contemporary Britain to an enormous extent… huge numbers of people are being influenced by the biased one-sidedness of contemporary Sociology.’

In ‘Bias against Business’, Marsland suggests that many Sociology textbooks ignore the central features of capitalist economies Concentrating on job dissatisfaction and alienation:

‘Its treatment of work is consistently negative, focussing almost entirely on its pathologies – alienation, exploitation and inequality. It underestimates the high levels of job satisfaction which empirical research has consistently identified. It de-emphasises the enormous value for individual people and for society as a whole, in the way of increased standards of living and enhanced quality of life work provides. It neglects for the most part to inform students about the oppressive direction of labour of all sorts of socialist societies, or to keep them in mind of the multiple benefits of a free competitive labour market. It treats the need for economic incentives with contempt.’

Feminism – Sociology is not value free because it is biased against women

Feminists are critical of the ‘value-free’ scientific claims of ‘malestream’ Sociology, arguing that it is at best sex blind and at worst sexist, serving as an ideological justification for the subordination of women. Anne Oakley (1974) claims that ‘Sociology reduces women to a side issue from the start.’ While Sociology claims to put forward a detached and impartial view of reality, in fact it presents the perspective of men.

Feminist responses to the male bias in Sociology have been varied; on the one hand there are those who think that this bias can be corrected simply by carrying out more studies on women; a more radical view (arguing along the same lines of Becker’s ‘Whose Side are We On’) suggests that what is needed is a Sociology for women by women; that feminists should be concerned with developing a sociological knowledge which is specifically by and about women:

‘A feminist Sociology is one that is for women, not just or necessarily about women, and one that challenges and confronts the male supremacy which institutionalizes women’s inequality. The defining characteristic of feminism is the view that women’s subordination must be questioned and challenged… feminism starts from the view that women are oppressed and that their oppression is primary’. (Abbott & Wallace 1990).

Interpretivism – Sociology Cannot and Should not aim to be value free

There are three main Interpretivist Criticisms of ‘Positivist’ Sociology – from Gomm, Becker and Gouldner:

Gomm argues that ‘a value free Sociology is impossible… the very idea is unsociological’. He argues that Sociologists react to political, economic and social events – and what is seen as a political or social ‘issue’, a social ‘problem’ is dependent on the power of different groups to define and shape reality – to define what is worthy of research. Consequently, it is just as important to look at what sociologists do not investigate as what they do – Sociologists are not necessarily immune to ideological hegemony.

Gomm argues that social research always has social and moral implications. Therefore Sociology inevitably has a political nature. For the sociologists to attempt to divorce him/herself from the consequences of his/her research findings is simply an evasion of responsibility. Gomm further suggests that when the sociologist attempts to divorce himself from his own values to be scientific, to become a ‘professional sociologist’ he is merely adopting another set of values – not miraculously becoming ‘value free’ – what Positivists call value freedom often involves an unwitting-commitment to the values of the establishment.

‘The truth is, of course, not that values have actually disappeared from the social sciences, rather that the social scientist has become so identified with the going values of the establishment that it seems as if values have disappeared.’

Gouldner, along similar lines to Gomm, argues that it is impossible to be free from various forms of value judgment in the social sciences. Those who claim to be value free are merely gutless non-academics with few moral scruples who have sold out to the establishment in return for a pleasant university lifestyle.

Gouldner suggests that the principle of value freedom has dehumanised sociologists: ‘Smugly sure of itself and bereft of a sense of common humanity.’ He claims that sociologists have betrayed themselves and Sociology to gain social and academic respectability; confusing moral neutrality with moral indifference, not caring about the ways in which their research is used.

Howard Becker, in ‘Whose side are we on?’ takes this argument to its logical conclusion arguing that since all knowledge is political, serving some interests at the expense of others, the task for the sociologist is simply to choose sides; to decide which interests sociological knowledge should serve. Becker argues that Sociology should side with the disadvantaged.