OK.  This gets a bit technical, so it’s easiest to start with a couple of definitions first.

normative [ˈnɔːmətɪv]


  1. implying, creating, or prescribing a norm or standard, as in language normative grammar

  2. expressing value judgments or prescriptions as contrasted with stating facts normative economics

  3. of, relating to, or based on norms




  1. A slight change in position, direction, or tendency:shift in public opinion

  2. [mass noun] Astronomy the displacement of spectral lines. See also red shift.

  3. (also shift key) a key on a typewriter or computer keyboard used to switch between two sets of characters or functions, principally between lower- and upper-case letters.

  4. short for sound shift.

  5. North American the gear lever or gear-changing mechanism in a vehicle.

  6. [mass noun] Building the positioning of successive rows of bricks so that their ends do not coincide.

  7. Computing a movement of the digits of a word in a register one or more places to left or right, equivalent to multiplying or dividing the corresponding number by a power of whatever number is the base.

  8. American Football a change of position by two or more players before the ball is put into play.

So by combining these definitions and putting it very simply -  a ‘normative shift’ occurs when norms change.  So this leads to the next question…

What is, or what are, norms?

The word ‘norm’ is derived from the Latin ‘norma’ which loosely translated means ‘rule’.  Today though it’s generally used to describe a rule or belief that is generally held to be standard for a large group of people, or for the most common social attitude.  ‘Norm’s’ don’t tend to be specifically defined like rules or laws, instead they are upheld and maintained as a kind of loose understanding that everyone conforms to as acceptable.  For example, I’ve come up with the following list that could be considered modern norms for a Western society (which, reflecting my biases is probably mostly for the UK):

  1. The expectation that agents of the state (such as the civil service, police officers, politicans, military) will maintain levels of ‘good conduct’.
  2. Every person is entitled to their own ‘space’.
  3. Every person, regardless of their class, colour or creed is afforded the same level of rights.
  4. Children, ill, elderly or disabled people should receive a level of support in line with their needs to help them lead normal, healthy lives.
  5. Every person should be entitled to a healthy life.

You’ll see just listing a number of what I believe western norms to be, highlights how loose these things are. I believe these things are important, I think most other people in my rough locality would agree to them.  Say then, I widened my area – moved say from my town to the county of Oxfordshire.  Then its probably a fair estimate to say that around 80% of the population would agree with most of the statements I’ve made.  Then, if I widened things further and looked at the whole of the UK, then there would probably there would be slightly less agreement, but generally most people would hold to these, for the UK at least.

Who sets norms?

So the list above could be the sort of norms that are typical for a Western State like the UK.  Using the UK as an example, this has established institutions and a democratic system of governance.  This means that generally, there is a system of checks and balances through the rule of law and accountable government, through which the loose system of ‘norms’ are generally monitored.  This isn’t really by any kind of official analysis, more of a general awareness of what is generally held to be ‘right’.

Just how loose this is can be illustrated by looking at how norms can vary internationally.  If I took this list of agreed norms to another country, it would probably quickly expose a different logic, or at least highlight some of the assumptions behind loosely agreed ‘norms’.  For example, in India or China, norm 3, however simply it’s presented, could be an issue.  Family bonds and arguments over the protection of traditions and lifestyles could take prority in different contexts where class, caste or ethnicity and culture could be perceived to be more important to the bulk of the populace.

Internationally, norms can vary.  But, if they are loose, if they are not fully defined and specific – like a law for example, how can they be agreed?  Put simply, they can’t.  They reflect the general consensus of belief and they can change; they can change slowly or they can change quickly.  Historically there are many instances of this – for example, issues of equality – attitudes to gender or homosexuality or the acknowledgement that smoking is bad for your health, are all examples of how dominant norms have changed.  In the West, they are perhaps subject to the most scrutiny during an election.  It is at this point, where politicians spend most of their time and effort, fathoming what it actually is that people believe and what they ascribe to.  This is often when things change at there quickest, because it is at that time when the future leaders assess what the most pertiinent norms are of their people and the national mood to help their party win.

No one really sets what a norm is, we all kind of agree on something and this is where it gets really interesting.  Although it is during elections that the knowledge of norms are tested – authorities and people with power generally have to assess what is the common belief – what the common norms are.  This is generally referred to as being ‘in touch’ and this is quite an important thing for any organisation.  Increasingly, it seems that the values and norms of the leadership should generally reflect those of their workforce and vice versa.  This could account for why companies often invest a lot of time and money in developing a culture that enables every employee to understand and feel like they fit into the main vision and that they can believe in what they are part of.  Generally, if companies, or political parties even, don’t do this, or if they becoming very badly out of touch with the collective norms of their workforce change can happen.  And, for those in power, its not generally a pleasant experience.

‘Normative shifts’

A normative shift occurs when the dominant group view of something changes.  A sudden ‘watershed’ moment occurs and practices are suddenly exposed as being morally dubious or out of step with society.  Practices that yesterday were acceptable are now archaic, or worse, morally corrupt.  Usually, the conditions leading up to such an event take time to build, until they reach a kind of ‘critical mass’ or ‘tipping point’.  And often, this occurs around something that is generally a bit of a grey moral issue, which ticks along until it suddenly erupts into a real problem.

For example, consider the following situation.  The average wage in a country is, say, 20,000 Euros.  An elected representative of the state earns 80,000 Euros.  As a result, it is felt that politicans earn too much.  Sensing the mood of the populace, the ruling party caps the pay of politicians at 80,000 Euros with no pay rises for five years.  This is acknowledged and MP’s are compensated by having an expenses system that means they are afforded certain benefits; as are many other state servants.  Essentially, they are allowed support and renumeration for living around the centre of government.  This system starts out and people make their claims for travel, accomodation and food.  Over the next ten years, parliament votes again to not increase pay.  So gradually, it becomes an unwritten rule, or a norm, that instead of being well paid – (say, for example, at this point a politician’s peer in the financial sector, earns 160,000 Euros) – politicians have a generous benefits system.  People start to understand that this is where extra money is made available to them and they spend it.  And gradually, year by year the claims get more extreme and outrageous.  Then suddenly, almost overnight, there is a recession.  MP’s are still earning 80,000 Euros but the average wage is now 15,000 Euros.  Suddenly, what a politician held as being cheap is a lot of money and what they are claiming as a benefit becomes a source of outrage to their electorate.  Everyone claiming expenses is now a subject of scrutiny.  It is at that point that the context has changed – a normative shift has occurred and the leadership is now exposed to scrutiny.

In the past, before the days of open governance, the standards of norms would have been enforced and maintained behind closed doors.  Often, if society became too unhappy, there would usually be a crack down, and this would generally be done at the expense of two or three of the worst offending individuals in the group, who would be ‘made an example’ of.  So, back in the day (and let’s say the day is up to around 2005), when a ‘normative shift’ occurred, the response was generally concieved behind closed doors with power structures generally policing themselves.

So what?

What I’ve described above isn’t new.  It’s just a description of how change happens.  But, if you look at the current trends of big data and the increasing importance of open data, coupled with the increased speed with which people access and demand information it presents some significant challenges for many institutions.  The expectation for institutions to remain ‘in touch’ will remain – presenting a number of difficulties especially if norms become increasingly diffuse and complex and the public expectation continues to demand quicker and quicker resolutions.  It will also be increasingly difficult for power structures to ‘self-police’ as the public demand and expectation for pertinent information around accountability rises.

In the future it will be increasingly important for institutions to illustrate both how they ‘police’ themselves morally and to keep pace with public norms.  Private companies will be held to task by share price – which is likely to be affected by adverse publicity if bad practices are highlighted.  Government decision making is likely to continue to come under constantly increasingly political and public scrutiny.   Thankfully, systems of democracy, will generally have the robustness to cope with this greater demand for transparency and accountability.  However, it is likely that closed decisions made within the depths of power structures – either for security or commercial reasons – will be increasingly contested.