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Group Norms


Explanations > Groups > Group Norms

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Group norms are the often-unwritten rules by which groups know how to behave in a range of situations, from eating a meal to interacting with outsiders.

Typical norms include:

  • Talking critically about out-group people.
  • Working all hours on group activities.
  • Helping others in the group when asked (or even without having to be asked).
  • Not criticizing group leaders.
  • Use of particular language when talking.


Although norms are useful for enabling efficient operation, they are probably more important for creating group cohesion. The use of norms also sends signals to other group members. It says 'I know the secret rules' and 'I am like you'.

Creating norms

So how do norms appear or get changed? Sometimes it is simply a matter of decree. A social leader decides something and it is so. Sometimes a way of behaving comes from copying of a leader (and sustains long after the leader is gone). Sometimes something happens and tentative rules are suggested. Pro and con factions form, there is public debate, decisions made (often over time), and eventually the norms emerge.

Group members often cannot explain exactly why they do things in certain ways, only that this is the way things are done. This can lead to peculiar practices as long-forgotten purposes result in redundant actions.

Entry and learning norms

Entry and acceptance into the group is a problem in that it may well be unclear whether applicants will easily comply to group norms. Entry rituals may well apply where the applicant demonstrates agreement norms (including street gangs requiring entrants to commit criminal acts).

There will also be a period of observation and correction to ensure the new person learns and obeys the norms. If they are found to be wanting then they may be punished or ejected.

A typical scenario is that a new person says something that should not be said. This is followed by a brief silence where nothing is said but looks are exchanged. This is sometimes called a 'plop' and the wise person does not say it again.

Sustaining norms

Norms which are not written are typically learned by experience and verbal hints (that are often embedded in 'normal' speech).

A particularly clever norm is that norms must not be discussed or criticized. This effectively ensure norms are sustained.

A person who transgresses norms may be gently or sternly reminded by individuals who have a 'mind guard' role, where they take offenders aside and remind them of their duty.

Various punishments may be available (which are included in the norms), from being gossiped about to required to perform penances. If a person transgresses consistently or offensively, then the ultimate punishment is being banished from the group.

See also



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