Definitions of abnormality: deviation from social norms - Psychopathology

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Definitions of abnormality: deviation from social norms


The deviation from social norms definition of abnormality implies that there is a ’correct’ and an ’incorrect’ way of behaving and that any deviation from the ’correct’ way is abnormal. The social norms, to which there is an expectation for individuals to adhere, are therefore a set of unwritten rules of what is acceptable behaviour, which have been constructed by society. There is an argument that these norms are set by the ruling elite within a society and are more a means of policing people and maintaining social order than an objective definition of what is normal and abnormal. The deviation from social norms definition permits a distinction between what is seen as desirable and undesirable behaviour, classifying those exhibiting undesirable behaviour as socially deviant. This gives society, through its controlling institutions, like the health service, the right to intervene in people’s lives in order to protect the rest of society and to ’treat’ social deviants so that they can become ’normal’ again and be returned to mainstream society. The definition can be seen as beneficial to abnormal individuals because deviants, such as those classed as sexually deviant, may be unable to recognise that their behaviour is maladaptive and therefore be unable to seek help by themselves. The deviation from social norms definition can also be seen to add a social dimension to the concept of abnormality, as it perceives the main purpose of mental health care as being to exclude from society individuals who are seen as behaving in unacceptable ways.

There are several types of social norms to which adherence is expected:

Situational/contextual norms, where certain behaviours are expected/not expected in certain situations. For example, it is acceptable for females to wear a bikini on the beach but not in the supermarket.

Developmental/age norms, where certain behaviours are expected at different times in one’s lifespan. For example, temper tantrums are perfectly acceptable for a 2-year-old to exhibit but not for a 40-year-old.

Cultural norms, where certain behaviours are acceptable/unacceptable in different cultural settings, like homosexuality being accepted in Western cultures, but not in African ones.


Image The social norms definition gives a clear indication of what is and what is not perceived as normal and this allows the relevant agencies, such as mental health practitioners, to know when they have a responsibility to intervene in people’s lives. This is beneficial because it means individuals will get the clinical help that they probably would not have sought themselves if left to their own devices.

Image The definition can be seen to establish norms of normality that apply in different circumstances, therefore giving a degree of flexibility that no other definition has. Situational norms, where the definition considers the social dimensions of behaviour, are where a behaviour seen as abnormal in one setting may be regarded as normal in another. For example, being naked in town is seen as abnormal, but not in a nudist colony. Developmental norms establish what behaviours are normal/abnormal at different ages. Playing hopscotch as a child is seen as normal, but not in adulthood. There are also cultural norms and gender norms, where normality changes across cultures and between genders, again showing the flexibility the definition offers.


Image Szasz (1960) argued that the definition is used to justify discriminating against sections of society as a form of social control. Some countries, such as China, categorise political opponents as being abnormal and then forcibly treat them in mental institutions.

Image There are individuals who adhere so strictly to social norms that they can be considered conforming neurotics. Such individuals fear rejection and ridicule so much that they conform rigidly to society’s norms and worry excessively about them. This is a form of abnormality, yet the individuals are not classified as abnormal by the deviation from social norms definition.

Image Social norms are not real in an objective sense, but are subjective, as they are based on the opinions of a society’s elite and are then used to police those seen as challenging social order. Also, social norms refer to moral standards that change over time, like homosexuality once being classed as a mental disorder. A truly objective definition would not have such variations. Additionally, those who deviate from social norms may simply be individualistic or eccentric, rather than abnormal.

Practical application

For positive social change to occur, it is often necessary for social norms to be broken. This is a form of minority influence, where a minority slowly wins a majority over by going against mainstream social norms and changing people’s belief systems. This is to be encouraged in organisations that require the formation of innovative ideas and practices.