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A norm is a rule that governs a pattern of social behaviour. Examples of norms include laws, moral principles and guidelines, customs, and the rules of etiquette, but also may express desirable values and goals. “Norm” has two meanings, which in practice it is important to distinguish. On the one hand, a norm may encapsulate the usual behaviour within a society (and is thus a norm in the sense of being statistically normal behaviour). On the other hand, the norm is a pattern of behaviour that is desired or prescribed, whether or not actual behaviour complies with this ideal. Norms, especially in this latter sense, will be accompanied by positive and negative sanctions – rewards for conforming and punishments for breaking norms. The nature of the sanction will vary, from mild approval and a hard stare to, for example, large financial rewards and lengthy prison sentences, depending upon the sort of norm involved.


The idea that individual human beings learn the norms of their society through early upbringing (or socialisation), helps to explain how individuals become competent social agents, who by and large conform with the expectations of their culture. The early sociology of Durkheim emphasised the costs of a loss of norms. without the guidance of norms, a person’s life loses direction and becomes meaningless. However, a danger with this approach is that it tends to assume that norms exist independently of any particular social event (and that there is no ambiguity as to which norms apply here and now), and that there is a general consensus in society about its norms.



What are the cutural norms of medicine, in both senses as described above?