Belle Lettre asks me what the word “normative” means in sociology.  Norms figured heavily in my lecture on “Morals” just last week, so why not:

“Normative” has two separate senses and what is considered the primary usage differs.  Commonly elsewhere but less commonly among sociologists, “normative” is most often seen to precede “theory”, “statement”, or “claim.”  A normative statement is a statement about how the world ought to be, to be distinguished from a “descriptive”, “explanatory” or “positive” statement that is an intended characterization of what the world is.

More commonly in sociology, “normative” means “sustained by social norms.”  Norms, in turn, are socially held ideas about appropriate conduct.  “Socially held” reflects that individuals can recognize that norms have a status apart from their own personal beliefs about appropriate conduct.  Speaking casually, norms are what everybody knows everybody knows about what is appropriate behavior.  Norms are sometimes codified as laws with violations handed by the justice system, although there is no necessary or obvious relationship between norms and laws.  Because they are ideas about appropriate conduct, norms are closely bounded up at least with informal sanctioning, which can encompass any way in which violations of norms are treated negatively and/or behavior consistent with norms is treated positively.

Deviance, as Belle Lettre’s friend notes, is often defined precisely as deviation from norms.  The preference for “deviance” over, say, “crime” or “perversion,” is that one can treat behavior deviating from a norm as one matter and how exactly that deviation is interpreted by others as another.

Anyone with a different take?


  1. Posted January 30, 2008 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Oddly enough I feel like I grew up with this second definition of normative, the one meaning “related to norms.” I remember reading about “normative philosophies” and “normative theories” later and remember having to look up the word to discover that those were theories that prescribed (and proscribed) certain behaviors. Now that I’ve been studying poli sci for three years I’d actually forgotten I ever knew a different definition.

    The “related to norms” definition seems more intuitive now that I remember it exists.


  2. Posted January 30, 2008 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Um, yeah, I didn’t know it had a different definition. Guess I’m really a sociologist.


  3. Posted January 30, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! This really cleared that up! I had no idea about the common definition for sociology.


  4. Posted January 30, 2008 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    I was not aware of this first definition, either. This may explain why some of my students were confused when I used the term “normative” in class.


  5. Posted January 30, 2008 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    The other sense of the word is really, really common in political science (my undergraduate major) and law school (technically I’m a lawyer) and it is used _all the time_ in Law and Society (the PhD stuff I’m doing).


  6. Posted January 30, 2008 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Actually by “law school” I mean legal theory, jurisprudence, and of course political theory.

    I can’t remember seeing it much in literary criticism or theory though, and I did that too.


  7. Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Am I the only one who finds it amusing that we are having a discussion about the normative use of normative? It’s like Goffman meets M.C. Escher.


  8. Posted January 31, 2008 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    It’s either recursive, or meta, or both!

    I especially like the drawing hands one.


  9. Posted January 31, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m a sociology grad student with a poli sci undergrad degree, and I’m more inclined to use the first definition.

    And here I thought I had rid myself of all that poli sci stuff.



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