Classifying Social Norms

36 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2003

See all articles by Ann E. Carlson

Ann E. Carlson

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


In this book chapter, I develop a typology of social problems at which social norms management and research might be directed. Much of the recent legal literature on law and social norms speaks of social norms generically and fail to distinguish among types of social problems. Yet a focus on different categories of social problems helps clarify important questions. How and when, for example, do social norms emerge to solve a social problem? What role can and should governments play in developing social norms as a regulatory tool? How should courts treat independently developed social norms? I suggest that the answers to these questions vary depending on at least two important characteristics: group size and the strength of economic or other interest among group members in resolving a social problem. I identify four types of social problems relevant to the development and management of social norms: "large-number, large-payoff" social problems, of which smoking and seat belt use are examples; "large-number small-payoff" collective action problems, which often involve the management of commons resources and include carpooling, recycling and blood donation; "small-group, large-payoff" problems, including Robert Ellickson's famous cattle ranchers; and a subset of small-group, large payoff problems involving commons resources, most thoroughly studied by Elinor Ostrom. Within some of these categories - small-number, large-payoff problems, for example - norms may arise internally to help resolve group problems and government may play little role in either facilitating or enforcing those norms. For other categories - large-number, large-payoff problems in particular - governments may seek to shape new norms to overcome bad behavior (or even bad norms) (drunk driving and smoking illustrate the point). The classifications, then, focus analysis on questions that may be of special import to one category of problem yet of little importance to another. By cataloguing and organizing social problems and the role social norms may play in resolving them the book chapter is meant to sharpen analysis, discussion, and debate about each particular group of problems.

Keywords: Social norms, environmental law

Suggested Citation

Carlson, Ann E., Classifying Social Norms. Available at SSRN: or

Ann E. Carlson (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

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