Norms, Roles, and Status

Dr. C. George Boeree

In Russian: Социальные ожидания. Нормы, роли и статус (translated by Angelina Baeva)


Earlier, we talked about contrasts, beliefs, rules, and so on.  We focused in on traits and the inferences we make from them.  In this section, we are going to talk about another set of contrasts and the inferences they lead us to make.  I call these sociocultural or  shared  expectations, and they include norms, roles, and status.

It's one of the great mysteries of the world that, while the laws of nature (like gravity) "weigh us down," their very consistency, their orderliness, their predictability, allows us to use them for our own ends.  Knowing the laws of gravity and aerodynamics and so forth allows us to design and build airplanes that (in a sense) "free" us from those laws!  Our power comes from our knowledge of that background of order.

The social world is also orderly.  Social order doesn't have the necessity that physical order has, and while the force of law or custom may be powerful, ultimately we choose to conform or not.  "You cannot have sex with your mother" is a powerful injunction, but it's still not quite as powerful as "You cannot walk through a brick wall." (Kelvin, p. 21)

Nevertheless, just like in the physical world, in order to act in the social world, we need some order.  The social order is based on shared expectations (beliefs, rules, values) called  norms.

Norms are used as standards with which we measure the appropriateness of behaviors, perceptions, beliefs, and even feelings, within the social group to which the norms are relevant.  "Social group" may refer to an entire culture or society, a subculture or ethnic group, an organization or community, or even a club or gang.

The word norm is from the same root as "normal," and the simplest way of finding norms in some group or society is to see what the people consider to be normal.  Normal (if you remember your basic statistics) means "what is highly probable" -- and you could list various behaviors and ask people to rate them.  (These ratings are known as subjective probabilities.)

How often do you brush your teeth?  Never?  Once a year?  Once a month?  Once a day?  Twice a day?  Three times a day?  Every hour?  Continuously?  In our society, I believe, once or twice a day might be considered normal.  A child might skip a day; a dental hygienist might brush after every meal and snack.

But note:  A norm need not be what everyone says is right or good!  We probably all should brush three times a day, and floss as well, but we don't -- that wouldn't be considered "normal."  Criminals may be abnormal, but so are saints!

On the other hand, sometimes the norm is  not  what most people do.  It's interesting to compare what people  think  is normal with what actually is  normal (statistically) in private domains such as sexuality! Not long ago, for example, society’s norms still included taboos regarding masturbation, even while a majority of people engaged in the practice!

Norms, like habits, seem to maintain their own existence:  "The behavior 'prescribed' by an informal norm is prescribed because it is deemed to be valid.  This validity itself, however, is inferred from the frequency of occurrence of the behavior in question."  (Kelvin, p. 87)  So we brush our teeth once or twice a day because that is normal, and it is normal because we brush our teeth once or twice a day.

Note that one of the most common source of information about "frequency of occurrence" is tradition.  So a norm such as "boys will wear pants; girls will wear skirts" is justified by saying "boys were meant to wear pants; girls were meant  to wear skirts," and that in turn is justified by noting "It has always been so."

Beyond habit and tradition, a group or society may also reinforce norms with sanctions,  that is, with rewards and (especially) punishments.  Then, when norms and sanctions become formalized, they become rules, laws, judicial systems, penitentiaries, electric chairs, and so on.

The classic demonstration of normative behavior is Muzafer Sherif's.  If I shine a pin-point of light on a wall in an otherwise pitch-black room, it would appear to move -- an illusion called the  autokinetic effect.   If I were to ask you how far it moved, you could give a guess -- 5 or 6 inches, perhaps.  What Sherif did was to have a group of people view the dot and give their guesses outloud.  While at first the guesses might differ by a few inches, with each repeated presentation of the light, their guesses would come closer together -- that is, the group would develop a "norm."

If Sherif put a "stooge" -- one of his assistants -- in a group and instructed him to give an inflated guess (14 or 15 inches, for example), the group would tend to make higher guesses in response to the stooge.  If the stooge stuck to his high guesses, he could bring the whole group up to his guess.  Sherif even found that the artificially high norms could last for several "generations" of subjects:  He would replace, after so many guesses, first the stooge, then others of the original group, with new people.  The high norm would only slowly disappear.

So, in the real world, we have many norms that are no longer terribly helpful or relevant, that nevertheless last and last.  There are lots of examples to be found in the relations between men and women!

Conformity to norms

We tend to think of conformity to norms as being bad somehow--a sign of weakness, stupidity, even fascist slavishness.  But, first of all, our lives are full of conformity to norms, much of which we don't even notice because we all conform!  After all, conformity to norms is normal, by definition.

Take clothing:  You may think of yourself as being highly individualistic, and may point out the great variety of styles around you.  But notice instead the similarities:  As you look around you at your fellow students, notice the jeans and t-shirts and preppy hand-me-downs.  And what would happen if one of you came into class in a tuxedo, a chiffon evening gown, a bikini, nothing, a kimono or sari, in the clothing of the opposite sex... well, that wouldn't be "right," would it--perhaps a sign of mental illness.  That is, we would make inferences, as in any act of person perception.

(Remember how wearing conventional clothes suggests to people that you are more trustworthy?  Unconventional clothes suggest the opposite.)

Secondly, imagine what it would be like if everyone wore, did, spoke without regard to "styles," "traditions," norms--without regard to others' expectations?  You'd be living in constant unpleasant unpredictableness.  You've all met "unusual" people, people from whom you never quite know what to expect:  Imagine if everyone acted that way.  The mild irritation would mount to unbearable levels.  It'd be what many people experience when they move to other parts of the world and don't know the norms:   culture shock.

Imagine further what it would be like for young children, who are only just  learning to anticipate people.  Childhood would be even more painful than it already is.  It is not for nothing that we maintain a certain comfortable regularity in our homes, that we don't act crazy in front of children, and that we all sometimes feel a nostalgia for the "simple life" of our home towns.  Developmentally, we grow "into" our individuality from a base of consistency.

There are a number of different ways of describing norms.  The simplest is to contrast   prescribed  and  proscribed  behavior.  Prescribed behaviors are the "musts," the obligations, the things that make you a member of the group.  Proscribed behaviors are the "must nots," the taboos.  Small groups will kick you out if you do these things (like "no shoes, no service").  Societies tend to imprison, institutionalize, excommunicate, exile, or kill you.

Another way refers to the ideas of normality and probability mentioned before:  The horizontal axis represents the variety of behaviors in question; the vertical axis the degree of normality:

We need to add only one thing:  a line that divides the acceptable from the unacceptable behaviors, so:

If we are looking at "appropriate dress for professors" as the behaviors, we might find tuxedos and evening gowns on one end of the curve, and swim suits or complete nakedness on the other end.  In between, anything from blue jeans to three-piece pin-striped suits might be acceptable.  And, perhaps, at the "peak" of acceptability, we might find the style I call "professorial chic" -- for men, patches on jacket elbows, knit tie, hush puppies...; for women, wool skirts, peter pan collars, sensible shoes....

Sherif developed a third way of describing norms that compromises between the gradual curve and the abruptness of "prescribed-proscribed."  There is a set of behaviors in a  latitude of acceptance  which are important to membership; there are also  latitudes of rejection  that include behaviors unacceptable to the group; and in between are neutral latitudes that include the irrelevancies:

A Lutheran, for example, might be comfortable with Episcopalian and Presbyterian church services, be non-committal about a Catholic mass on the one hand or a Methodist service on the other, place Greek Orthodox services beyond Catholic ones as sensual and mysterious, and Baptist services beyond Methodist ones as rather exuberant and excited.

Among the details that Sherif discovered in his research was that the more "ego-involvement" (i.e. passion) in the issues, the smaller the latitude of acceptance and larger the latitudes of rejection.  A very intense Lutheran might not find any services other than his own acceptable.

And people who find themselves at one extreme or the other of a range tend to be more ego-involved.  Extreme religious groups tend to be much fussier about what seems to others to be tiny details.  In some ways it is easier, psychologically, to be an extremist:  It takes less thought, less effort;  You  know.   Moderates, on the other hand, tend to more tolerant, and more confused.


Which brings us to some of the problems we find concerning norms.  One problem is the disagreement about norms that we find when two groups or societies necessarily interact.  Another problem is disagreement  within  a group or society as to the norms, or the latitudes, or the appropriate sanctions.  Many petty squabbles, and quite a few major wars, are based on the social friction that occurs when norms are not agreed upon.

Once upon a time, we lived in small, isolated, and rather authoritarian societies:  Norms were strong, tradition was strong, there was little conflict and little change.  Even today much of the world's people live in what developmental psychologistUrie Bronfenbrenner calls  monolithic  societies.

But nowadays, because of communications and education, we find ourselves more and more confronted with a great variety of norms -- what Bronfenbrenner calls pluralism.   The constant bickering typical of our society is one symptom.  But so is, according to Bronfenbrenner, the development of higher values!  It is difficult to develop a sophisticated value system for yourself if you haven't experienced a variety of value systems.

In monolithic cultures, norms are expected to be known and followed by everyone.     E. T. Hall calls this high context:  You have to be aware of millions of subtle little details in order to know what to do or how to read another person's behavior.  A child in a monolithic culture learns the rules with his mother's milk, and the rules tend to be quite unconsciously adhered to.  Japan is more monolithic or high context than we are, for example.

On the other hand, in pluralistic cultures, norms have to be pretty well spelled out -- what Hall calls low context.  There are fewer norms, they have to be consciously followed, and are often explicitly taught.  Our own culture, especially when you get out of rural areas or the urban neighborhoods, is very pluralistic and low context.


So, norms are shared expectations.  Usually we think of these shared expectations as referring to general behavior expected of everyone in the group.  But we can also have shared expectations concerning specific members of the group.  We may expect them, and they may expect themselves, to perform a certain function, to play a certain  role  in the group.  Roles are shared expectations concerning functions.

There are many different types of roles.  For example, many roles are  formal.   In large groups (organizations, societies), these formal roles have titles and are used to refer to some category of people.  "Doctor," for example, is a title we give to certain people, and we expect them to act in certain ways in certain situations.  And they expect themselves to act so, too.  Note that people who play certain roles may get together to form groups of their own, e.g. the American Medical Asociation.

There are also very tiny roles called low-level implicit positions that have no title, are very short-lived, are found only in certain highly specific circumstances, and may be quite flexible.  "Giving the bride away" at a wedding is an example:  It doesn't have its own title (like "maid of honor"); it occurs only at a specific point in the ceremony and lasts only a few minutes; it never carries over into, say, the reception; and the role, though usually played by the father of the bride, may be played by another person, or even by more than one person -- both parents, for example.

Then there are roles so broad they get confused with biology.  What is "woman," for example?  A certain chromosome arrangement?  Certain reproductive plumbing?  Or is it a way of being loaded with all sorts of cultural expectations?  It is more of the latter than most people realize.

One important thing about roles is that they come in pairs;  role-relations  are always  reciprocal.   We (non-doctors), when we find ourselves in certain situations in the presence of doctors, are expected to behave in certain ways.  Doctors expect it of us; onlookers expect it of us; and we ourselves expect it of us.  We take the role of patient.

This goes back to the idea of contrasts:  To have doctor you must have patient; to have teacher you must have student; husband-wife; parent-child..., and all in reverse as well.  Notice the embarrassment, or even pathology, of someone playing a certain role to the wrong person, or attempting to play it towards everyone.

In my definition I mentioned functions.   For roles to be meaningful to people, they must have a function, a purpose, a task in the society or group; they do not refer to accidental or haphazard behaviors.  The doctor is there for a purpose, as is the patient.  It is the task or function that becomes our standard for evaluating the role-player:  One can be a good doctor or a bad one, a good patient or a bad one, and so on.

But I must point out to you that many, perhaps most, of the behaviors associated with a role are more  symbolic  of purpose than truly purposeful -- although the symbolic is always "purposeful" in that it tells us that a role is present.  Why does the doctor wear a lab coat and write illegibly?  Why does the banker wear a suit?  The bride a wedding dress?

I also keep mentioning  situations.   Roles typically express themselves in the context of certain situations.  At the hospital, in the examining room, at the scene of an emergency...these are appropriate situations to engage a doctor-patient role relationship.  If the doctor asks you to remove your clothing at a cocktail party, you may be suspicious.

Roles also typically express themselves in the  context  of a performance.   The doctor has examining room routines, the banker has certain paperwork, the bride has her wedding....  Notice again the amount of symbolism in the performance, beyond the actually task.

The performance may, however, be much more than symbolic:  It may have functions of its own.  Much of the examining room ritual, for example, is devoted to de-sexualization.  We go out of our way to guarantee asexuality:  The nurse at the door, the air conditioning one setting too cold, the cold, hard, plastic table with paper on it, the cold stethoscope, the rubber gloves, the uniforms, the diplomas on the walls... all help in making the intentions clear.

The lack of warmth exhibited by surgeons is another example:  In order to deal with the realities of surgery, it seems necessary for most surgeons to keep themselves emotionally detached from the people they cut into!  Note the age-old rule among surgeons that they never operate on family members.

Roles may have some specific  prerequisites:  to be a doctor, a certain education is expected, along with experience, licensing, etc.  To be a bride, you must be a woman of a certain minimum age, not married to someone else, etc.  Likewise, roles may also have certain  consequences:  The MD degree opens up a certain range of possibilities;  being a bride results in a specific new role, that of wife.


There are plenty of opportunities for problems regarding roles.  First, we can have misunderstandings between people.  For example, we may not realize we are supposed to be in a certain role relation -- like when one of you thinks you're lovers, but the other doesn't.  Or we may not know what the role entails, what the rules are, what others expect of us.  Or we may both "know" but not agree!

Another source of trouble is that we normally have multiple roles in our lives, and these can conflict.  A man, for example, may be a father and a policeman -- tender and loving in the morning, tough and hard-nosed in the evening.  Normally, this is not a problem--there are different people involved, situations, times...   But what happens when the policeman catches his own son dealing drugs?  Conflict!

Even one  role can actually be many roles, depending on the contrasting role:  A doctor acts one way towards patients, another towards nurses, a third way towards administrators, another way towards fellow doctors.  But what happens when his patient is a fellow doctor?  Or when his administrator tells him he must watch the budget while his nurses point out his humanitarian concerns?  Conflict!

Finally, an individual can become confused about his or her roles.  In the example of the policeman, what would happen if he began to act fatherly to all the juvenile delinquents on his patrol?  Or if he began to bring home the tough cop role to his wife and kids?  Many people have the problem of not being able to leave the job at work.


Status is such a useful word, it is a pity that it is used in so many different ways.  For our purposes, let's define it as "shared expectations regarding influence."  Here's a fuller definition from Sherif:  "Status is a member's position (rank) in a hierarchy of power relations in a social unit (group or system) as measured by the relative effectiveness of initiative (a) to control interaction, decision-making, and activities, and (b) to apply sanctions in cases of non-participation and non-compliance."  Whew!

I used the word influence.  This is what someone has when others change their beliefs or behaviors to fit his or hers.  But, as you are no doubt aware, there are two kinds of influence:  In the first kind, there are sanctions involved, either the use of them, the threat, or just the potential.  This is called power.

Power has several sources.  First, it may be rooted in skill , the knowledge you have that allows you to influence others.  A master chess player controls his opponent by using his superior understanding of tactics and strategy; a master politician does the same through persuasion, manipulation, and gamesmanship.

Power can also derive from resources:   If you have wealth or weapons at your disposal, you have greater opportunity to apply sanctions.  A gun makes for great obedience on the part of others.

And power can derive from legitimacy.  Most people with power don't actually possess that much talent or resources.  They are acknowledged as having power, and therefore influence, and therefore status, by others, who in turn have skills, resources, or legitimacy of their own.  It serves their purposes to support the one, as it once served English barons to have a king:  It provides a social order to work within.

The second source of influence is respect.  This is "power" that is given to you by the people you influence; Rather than complying because of fear or greed, they follow you because of their admiration.

This too has several roots:  The most powerful is the admittedly vague concept of attractiveness, often called "referent power."  We give respect to people for the irrational reason of physical attractiveness, as well as the more rational reason of personal attractiveness.  And we find them attractive not only on the basis of what they are, but on the basis of what they are in relation to us--i.e. their similarities to us.  More of this in the future.

Another basis for respect is expertise ("expert power").  Skills and knowledge relevant to the task are a very rational reason to be influenced by someone.  Note the difference here between the skills mentioned under power and those mentioned here:  The first involve skills at influence, rather than at the task at hand.  But notice that, when we compete with someone, the task is the competition, the influencing, and we may very well respect the other's ability to beat the pants off us!

And a last basis for respect is trustworthiness, a sense that the person is honest, has the best interests of others in mind, has no ulterior motives.

It is interesting to look back at recent presidents to see what might have been the basis of their success in becoming elected to the office:  Kennedy and Reagan were certainly attractive, each in his own way.  Johnson and Nixon were hardly that, but were considered expert politicians.  Carter and Ford, in sharp contrast with Johnson and Nixon, were seen as trustworthy.  I can't pin down Bush and Clinton so easily, perhaps because they haven't had time to become stereotyped in my mind as yet.  But it isn't difficult to analyze the relative importance of the three characteristics for aspiring presidents!

There is one more basis for status and influence which doesn't clearly fall under either power or respect:  Tradition.  Status is clearly an aspect of norms in this regard.  Why do you follow this person?  I've always followed them.  How else to explain the British monarchy, or the die-hard Republican or Democrat who has always voted so, regardless of the issues, the candidate's qualifications, or any other relevant concern.

There are a number of points one should keep in mind about status:  First of all, status is characteristically a part of a broader role, so all the things we've said about roles apply.  Most roles involve some status differentiation (e.g. parent and child), and some roles are mostly a matter of status (e.g. chief, chairperson, president, etc.).

So, status involves the reciprocal nature of roles:  In order to be king, you must have subjects; in order to be a doormat, you must have someone to walk all over you....  And it partakes of the symbolic, ritualistic character of roles, perhaps even more so, inasmuch as most pageantry celebrates status!


Status also has its share of problems -- perhaps more than its share!.  First, there is uncertainty as to relative status.  Just like roles, status is "in the minds" of the people involved, and so always hard to measure.  The results of this uncertainty are all the power struggles we see around us every day.

A set of problems more unique to status derive from the distinction between status based on power and status based on respect:  Sometimes people have no respect for the legitimate authority (national and office dictators, for examples); other times, we find the people we respect unable to achieve the power they need to get things done.

Generally, low status means low freedom:  "The predictability of one's behavior is the sure test of one's own inferiority" (Crozier, 1964, quoted in Kelvin, p. 158).  But influence also means responsibility.  So status may in fact involve a restriction of freedom as well as the increase of freedom we normally expect with status.  If your status is based on legitimacy, you must do right by all those who give you that legitimacy; if your status is based on respect, you must behave in a manner that upholds that respect; and if your influence is based purely on your wits and strength, you can never rest!

Copyright 1999,  C. George Boeree