Social Norms Simplified

Social Norms Simplified

What is a social norm?

A social norm is a shared belief on what others in a group actually do (i.e. what is typical behaviour); what others in a group think they ought to do (i.e. what is appropriate behaviour). These social norms, often unspoken, shape the expectations within a group of people, which act as a reference for all. An example of a social norm that is widely prevalent, yet never openly discussed, is the fact that a good woman should respect her husband’s authority. This norm is what both men and women base themselves on and when this expectation is not met, there is high acceptance of violence from both men and women.

Can you explain how these norms came into being?

We live in a patriarchal world, where most decisions are made by the men in the family. If you step outside the family and look at communities or for that matter the polity, the decision-making power mostly lies with men. This automatically leads to the assumption that women and girls have lesser value in society, communities and families. This de-valuing of women and girls has an impact on the actual practices that exist in society, be it in posh parts of Delhi or rural Tamil Nadu.For example, the preference for a son results in sex-selective abortion and a skewed sex ratio; demand for dowry; limited access of girls to education and sometimes even poor nutrition for girls.

Why is it important to address social norms as a problem?

Gender inequality which often leads to violence against women and girls is a complex phenomenon. It is difficult to hold one single factor responsible for it. Our textbooks show images of women in the kitchen and men as farmers, but in reality women constitute over 40% of the agricultural labour in India. Our advertisements have shown that women need to be fair skinned to attain success in life. Our films send signals to impressionable young boys that by stalking a girl, they can get a girl to fall in love with them. So all these factors are linked in perpetuating gender inequality and violence against women and girls. Without changing these unwritten rules and expectation, we will not be able to make much progress. If we want to achieve gender equality, women need to be valued as much as men.

How can we change social norms?

The first step towards this change is to be aware of the existing social norms. Second would be to acknowledge them as a problem. Third and final step is to address them in a constructive manner. All of this is possible if we- on an everyday basis- question existing attitudes, norms and behaviours. The end result to changing social norms is really a behavioural change of individuals and groups. We, at Oxfam India, are trying through grassroots programmes and campaigns to not only challenge these norms but at the same time, enable an environment to form new positive norms.

How soon can we hope to achieve this change?

A change in social norm is a long term process, as it is a change in behaviours of individuals and collectives. This involves a great deal of self-reflection and honesty, something that is not easy to do in a short span of time. When a critical mass of individuals displays changed behaviour that is when social norms will change. That’s our goal.


By Julie Thekkuden, who is leading the Gender Justice programme at Oxfam India, explains gender-based social norms in India.

General FAQs

What is meant by social norms?

Social norms are excepted behaviours which individuals of particular groups or cultures have to follow. Social norms are assigned to people based on gender, ethnicity, culture, or race. They are unwritten rules of the society, sometimes maybe written, which determine how each individual behaves.

What are social norms and values?

Social norms are rules to which individuals must confirm to and behave according to those rules whereas values are concepts which individuals believe are important to them and determine their behaviour based on those values. For example, being honest is a value and the expectation that an individual will not steel is a norm.

What are the 4 types of norms?

The four types of social norms are: folkways, mores, taboos, and laws.
Folkways are standard behaviours which people follow in their everyday life, while interacting with the society. They may or not be aligned with morals. Example, standing in queue at the cash counter of a store.
Mores are more strict forms of behaviour and determine moral obligations. Violating mores is not illegal but often offends people. For example, wearing black or coloured clothing in a funeral where the concerned culture may expect people to wear white as a sign of mourning.
Taboos are extremely negative social norms and one must follow them strictly. Violating taboos results in completely getting excluded from the society and a feeling of disgust from those around. For example, homosexuality is a taboo in many eastern cultures. A homosexual person faces extreme discrimination and inhumane treatment by those considering homosexuality a taboo.
Laws are formal rules enacted by the state to which citizens must abide by. Violating rules results in legal action by the state against the violators. For example, physically injuring another person is against the law, and those committing the act face legal action.


What is an example of a social norm?

A social norm is a behaviour to which an individual must confirm to. Example, a woman is expected to carry out household chores and take care of children and sick family members and a man is expected to be the sole earner for his family. This is an example of social norm based on a person’s gender.

How are social norms enforced?

Social norms maybe enforced by verbal or non-verbal cues. They are passed from parents to offsprings, taught by teachers, or learnt by observing one’s surroundings. For example, a young girl may learn to dress up in the way social norms expect her to by observing other girls around her or directly being taught by her parents. A young boy, who is expected to learn to hide his emotions, maybe taught so by his parents or may learn by taking cues from other boys around him.

What is the purpose of a social norm?

Social norms aim to enforce “correct” behaviour in an individual and create order in the society. Social norms help create predictability and help people make sense of their surroundings. When people are expected to behave a certain way there is a sense of assurance. For example, the norm according to which one is expected to arrive on time at work creates order in an organisations and a mutual understanding among employees.


Gender Justice

We campaign to change patriarchal mindsets that influence violence against women  

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