Social norms and how they influence social action






In the context of social theories under sociology, understanding human behaviors as well as their actions are very essential. This is especially when it comes to pursuing an understanding of the society from a critical point of view. Since the birth of knowledge and philosophy, in general, remarkable contributions from dedicated sociologist have been put forth to help understand the society from the social perspective. Some of these include Max Weber, Georg Simmel and mass theorists (Mosca, Pareto, Michels) among others such as Karl Max. The basic inquiry that can be  in sought of a sociological understanding of the society would demand a thorough understanding of the social norms concept.  In this regard, this paper explores what the social norms are, and how these influence social action. The discussion shall borrow heavily from fundamental concepts of sociology from renowned social theorists and scholars – Max Weber and Mass Theorists (Mosca, Pareto, Michels). This is as follows:

A brief on Social Norms

From the human context of interactions, social norms refer to accepted rules of behavior in a given group, community or their culture (s). Most important to appreciate is that these rules are not written down neither are they documented for any reference, but are natural to the society at hand. All members of such a culture (or group, community or a society), are expected to be adherent and conformant to such norms lest they are shunned by the community; or punished by being subjected to some form consequences (, 2015). Generally speaking, these norms, which are   as mores, are meant to serve a useful purpose through creating a proper foundation of correct behaviors. In a nutshell, social norms are the essential customs and/or conventions of a given community. These rules may be explicit, in which case, they are clearly spoken openly; or implicit, in which case they are not openly spoken about although when an individual  transgress them, they are revealed to him or her (Knuttila & Magnan, 2012).

In general, sociology is rooted in these norms which, virtually in social theory, are the driving forces leading to human actions. In the social theory context, human actions which have a primary subject of consideration from the actor(s)’ perspective, are regarded as social actors. These are outlined in the following section.

A brief overview of Social Action

The term “Social Action” has more meaning that it sounds. This is when considered from the Max Weber extensive definition. According to him, an action performed by an individual qualifies to be regarded as a social action when it becomes a subject matter in the conscience of the existence of the person who performs it. It also must have a definite intention of the actor him/herself. As mentioned earlier on, a social action has a  cause, which can be linked to social norms as it affects other parties in a wider society (Schiedermair, 2012). Max also considered social actions as having a range and that there are four types of actions. These are:

  • Instrument rational action– the actors have evaluated the actions prior to acting,
  • Value – rational actions– there is a benefit at the end of the action by an individual,
  • Affectual actions– are performed out of emotions depending on the emotional state of the actor
  • Traditional actions– social actions (either of the above three), repeated over time, thus becoming a tradition in a society.

All these have a subject matter which can be proved empirically and affects social relations in a society (, 2015).

How Social Norms influence Social Actions

In order to establish how social norms influence social actions, it is most appropriate to narrow down to a particular group say a social class in terms of the status held by such a group in a country for instance. At this juncture, this discussion shall focus on the political elite who are mostly rich in the society and happen to control the economic activities. For the purpose of this discussion, a postulate of social norms to these elites could be:

  • Wealth creation is justifiable,
  • Justice may be for future benefits,
  • Being corrupt to retain seats of power is justifiable,
  • Access to power and success is normal and justifiable,
  • Decision-making is solely ours and decisions can be for our benefits, e.t.c.,

With these postulates in mind, considering the Mass theorists (Mosca, Pareto, Michels) – “Circulation of Elites” and Max Weber’s theory – “Power, Domination, and Inequality”. These classical social theories offer an arguing platform which is   to the influence which power can have on human behavior in regards to social action. The political elites have the power to make rules and amend them. If we consider the postulated social norms, they will behave and thus act in a manner that reflects and replicates these social norms. This is supported by the Mass theorists (Mosca, Pareto, Michels), in their view of how elites are virtually recycled within the typical society, thus making it hard to replace them with non-elite groups in the society.

Social norms justify groups’ ego over that of other groups

According to Giddens & Held, 1982, the Classic Elite theorists (Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941), and Robert Michels (1876-1936), acknowledged the presence of powerful groups, “the elites” who were inevitable and controlled the entire societies thus compromising the virtues of democracy. Close to these theories was the Marxist theory which also acknowledged that economic ideologies emanated from powerful groups of individuals who controlled wealth. These elites thought that they were the best accomplishers in any field. They all were dominant minorities, but their say was the rule of the day in the society. They took the form of radical ruling classes, the political classes, aristocracies, and oligarchies. These had conflicting interests with the dominated majorities, the “masses”. Mosca was quick to point out the inevitable power polarization which he considered to be emanating from material, intellectual or even moral superiority of the ruling minority. This can be summed up to mean that the ruling elite (political elite), have a defined social status with “accepted” social norms among the elite group.

Social norms demean the logic of rational reasoning

In the modern society of today, cases of corruption, property grabbing, public incitement, and law infringements are a commonplace among these elites. They strive to choose their successors and democracy is virtually absent due to their social actions. Their actions are well matched to Max Weber’s definition as they are a concrete subject matter for their needs and consciences. Whatever they do is linkable to their social norms which are particularly encouraged by lust for power (Giddens & Held, 1982). This is   in contemporary elite theorists who have acknowledged extension of power command to include better education and better life skills and health care for the elites. These ensure that the dominated majority, “the masses”, never get a breakthrough to having justice, democracy leave alone fairness.

Social norms as a drive for selective succession (status retention)

In a fair consideration, the mass theorists have specifically been the best point of reference from which this discussion has drawn a great deal of supporting arguments in its attempts to illustrate how social norms influence social actions (Daloz, 2012). Max Weber’s reading serves best to define social action, which has altogether has been helpful. The classical elite theorists also pinpointed that revolutions held to better lives for the dominated majority were just but an avenue of recycling elites. This still present in today’s social contexts and it is an ironically disturbing social norm amongst the political elites.


A couple of social theories have been put forward since the early 1800s and are   in learning the human societies all over the world. The root of social theories can be considered to be the social action, which can then be considered to be an attribute of social norms (Ritzer, 2011). Another good reference to justifying this statement is the classical elite theories pioneered by theorists (Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels (1876-1936). Social status induces social norms which become part of life in terms of values, behaviors, accepted do’s and don’ts, which the involved group integrates into its way of life or culture (Giddens & Held, 1982). In order for any group to defend and uphold its social norms, its members act in ways that lead to social actions in the contexts of its members’ status. In other words, social norms influence human behavior, beliefs, speech and radicalize their zeal to defend and retain their identity in the social space. They become a rationalization of self-interests.






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Daloz, J.-P. (2012). The sociology of elite distinction: From theoretical to comparative perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Giddens, A., & Held, D. (1982). Classes, power, and conflict: Classical and contemporary debates. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Knuttila, K. M., & Magnan, A. (2012)Introducing Sociology: A critical approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schiedermair, Joachim. (2012). The Masses and the Elite: the Conception of Social Inequality in 1840s Scandinavian Literature. (Romantik: Journal for the Study of Romanticisms; Vol 1, No 1 (2012); 125-138.) Romantik: Journal for the Study of Romanticisms.

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