Discuss social norms and social roles as they apply to groups. When does the power of norms to shape behavior become clear and how does a group treat members who violate norms?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Social norms are behaviors that are considered acceptable and, often expected within groups or societies. Many norms are rather implicit, and new members of a society or group learn these from observation and imitation and approval and disapproval by either the leaders of the group or the general members. Adherence to social norms is considered conformity, a state that allows admittance and continued acceptance in a social group. Those who are non-conformists and do not adhere to social norms are often rejected or isolated by the social group. For instance, if a person is a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, a national fraternal organization, he or she must go through an initiation in order to become a member; then, the member must attend meetings in order to be an active members, and while at meetings must adhere to certain accepted behaviors, rules which have been distributed to members. Failure to observe rules of courtesy and decorum can result in expulsion from the organization.

Certainly, the power of norms to shape behavior is very apparent when a new person enters a group and can observe individual members of the group behaving in a manner which is consistent with the behaviors of others. Here is what Saul McLeod states about norms:

Norms provide order in society. It is difficult to see how human society could operate without social norms. Human beings need norms to guide and direct their behavior, to provide order and predictability in social relationships and to make sense of and understanding of each other’s actions. 

Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment of 2008 was conducted to examine how quickly people would conform to strict and closed environment with expected social norms. The "inmates" and "prisoners" quickly adapted to their positions of submission or aggression; in fact, some of the guards became too aggressive, and the experiment was terminated earlier than planned. At any rate, this experiment illustrates the power of social pressure and social norms. Perhaps as Emerson wrote in his essay "Self-Reliance," at times conformity can be dangerous to individuality:

Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

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