Flashback Friday.

Sociologists distinguish between the terms norm, normal, and normative.

  • The norm refers to what is common or frequent.  For example, celebrating Christmas is the norm in America.
  • Normal is opposed to abnormal.  Even though celebrating Christmas is the norm, it is not abnormal to celebrate Hanukkah.  To celebrate Hanukkah is perfectly normal.
  • In contrast to both of these, normative refers to a morally-endorsed ideal. Some Americans make a normative argument that Americans should celebrate Christmas because they believe (wrongly) that this is a Christian country.

A thing can be the norm but not be normative. For example, a nuclear family with a married man and woman and their biological children is normative in the U.S., but it is certainly not the norm. Likewise, something can be normal but not the norm. It’s perfectly normal, for example, to date people of the same sex (so say the scientists of our day), but it’s not the norm. And something can be both normal and the norm, but not be normative, like Americans’ low rates of physical activity.

These three terms do not always work in sync, which is why they’re interesting.

I thought of these distinctions when I looked at a submission by Andrew, who blogs at Ethnographer. Bike lanes in Philadelphia used to be designated with this figure:

Today, however, they’re designated by this one:

Do you see the difference? The new figures are wearing bike helmets. The addition is normative. It suggests that bikers should be wearing bike helmets. It may or may not be the norm, and it certainly isn’t normal or abnormal either way, but the city of Philadelphia is certainly attempting to make helmets normative.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.