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Study Notes

Deviation from Social Norms

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

This is one way of defining abnormality. The basic idea is that abnormality is when a behaviour does not fit within what is socially acceptable.

For example, in the UK it is a social norm to queue in a shop; to wait your turn. If someone walked into a shop, past the queue, and straight to the till, it would be regarded as an abnormal behaviour and classed as such under this definition.

This definition of abnormality is clearly dependent on the culture in which the behaviour occurs. The social norms across societies are not the same and therefore what is abnormal in one culture is not defined as abnormal in another. It is important to consider how deeply entrenched that norm is embedded within the culture and also how culturally important it is. Slight deviations from a norm may not be regarded as abnormal if the social norm is not considered important by the society.

Strengths of the definition

Flexibility: A strength is that it is flexible dependent on situation and age. A social norm is to wear full clothing whilst out shopping, but a bikini is acceptable on a beach. It is also socially acceptable to drink milk out of a bottle with a teat if you are a baby, but not as an adult.

Clarity: In most instances if you have lived within a culture for a long time, you will be aware of what is, and what is not acceptable.

Helps society: Adhering to social norms means that society is ordered and predictable. This is argued to be advantageous.

Weaknesses of the definition

Change over time: Although this definition allows for age and situation dependent behaviour, the changes in legislation mean that norms vary dependent on the time. This is sometimes hard to judge and means that there is a lack of consensus between generations. For example, homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness into the 1970s, whereas nowadays that is no longer the case.

Cultural differences: The fact that there is so much variation cross culturally can be a weakness of the definition as it is not always clear what is abnormal and what is not in cultures. It is only by being immersed in the culture for a period of time that the decision can be made.

Ethic differences: Social norms tend to be dictated by the majority within a culture and this means that there are sections of society where behaviour is seen as normal within an ethnic community, but not within the culture as a whole. This can lead to a lack of understanding from both the ethnic minority and the majority of people within a culture.

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