1 February 2019

Social Norms and Health: is a cross-disciplinary vision possible?


Shared ideas about how we should behave have an important influence on our health. How we maintain our appearance, what we eat, how we move around our neighbourhoods and what we do to look after ourselves when we are ill, are all affected by ideas about what is appropriate behaviour. This will vary considerably depending on, amongst other things, our age, ethnicity, gender, religion and social status. Such matters of individual preference are shaped by the ideas of those around us – by our parents, teachers, friends and neighbours. Such conventions are not formal rules, like laws or regulations, and so going against them may, at times, result in little more than social awkwardness, but they nevertheless, shape our behaviour. In other cases, social norms may be so strongly entrenched that flouting or ignoring them might come at great cost.

Sociologists and social psychologists often refer to such informal conventions as ‘social norms’. One sociologist defined a norm as: ‘a statement specifying how a person is, or persons of a particular sort are, expected to behave in given circumstances – expected, in the first instance, by the person that utters the norm. What I expect of you is what you ought to do.’ [1]

This definition raises questions about the dual aspects of norms. On the one hand a norm can describe what a particular kind of person might do, an average response to a specific situation. But norms also have a prescriptive aspect – a norm is not just an average response, but how a person is supposed to behave in given circumstances. To make this distinction clear, some authors reserve the term ‘social norm’ for these prescriptive (‘normative’) expectations, and use the term ‘descriptive norm’ for other less demanding requirements.[2] However, whether individuals’ behaviour corresponds to any set of expectations is always an open question that needs empirical investigation.   

As a bioethicist and a sociologist interested in the ethics of public health, we think that norms may provide additional description and explanation of people’s health-related behaviours to those used in current health policy. Neither approaches which explain everything in terms of individual choice (ignoring the contexts in which those choices are made), nor those that see individuals as blindly responding to their environments seem entirely satisfactory. Thinking about the operation of social norms in relation to health allows us to develop better understandings of people’s behaviour, and explain how certain behaviours are important to our identities.

In order to develop these ideas further we organised an interdisciplinary workshop in early September 2019. Our participants included ethicists, psychologists and social scientists. These researchers presented their work on topics such as the cost of beauty practices, healthy eating behaviour, public health campaigns on anti-microbial resistance, toilet use and vaccination refusal. Over two days we listened to this diverse and very rich range of collection of case studies and discussed our very different theoretical approaches to norms. As with many interdisciplinary conversations, one early challenge was to be clear about the terms we were using – including what we meant by the term ‘norm’. We also found that some disciplines allow researchers to develop strongly normative conclusions, whereas in other areas description is much more highly valued.

At the end of the event we felt like we had only just begun to address a complex topic and were left with a series of questions for further investigation. These include:

  • Given that various disciplines define and approach social norms differently, how do we achieve cross-disciplinary dialogue?
  • To what extent should we take a critical or normative approach to social norms?
  • When and how do norms change, and can we direct these processes?
  • Should we design public interventions that work with existing norms? Or, should we also aim at changing them?
  • What happens when norms conflict?

[1] George Homans (1974) Social Behavior: its elementary forms (2nd edition) (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World).
[2] Christina Bicchieri (2017) Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

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