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  • Externalities, Social Networks, and the Emergence of Norms: A Critical Analysis and Extension of James Coleman’s Theory
  • Karl-Dieter Opp (bio)


Norms are pervasive in everyday life. They specify what is allowed, prescribed, or prohibited. Many norms are stated explicitly, such as laws, which are often well known. This holds for many paragraphs of the penal code. Most norms, however, are not explicitly formulated, and sometimes we are not even aware of them. For example, when people meet and have a conversation, it is the rule to keep a certain physical distance from each other. This rule is automatically followed, and many are not aware of it. When we encounter a friend, we address him or her in a certain way, we talk about specific themes (and not about others), and say goodbye using certain linguistic expressions. In former times, duels took place according to specific rules. The study of social norms—be they formal or informal—is a central theme of all social sciences. In sociology, for example, a classic study is William Graham Sumner’s Folkways (1906), which provides a detailed description of a great number of norms. [End Page 167]

One of the goals of social scientists is to find out what the existing norms in a society are, how they differ among groups, and how they change over time. These are descriptive questions. Another goal is explanation. One wants to know the conditions for the emergence of norms. For example, how can we explain the emergence and change of norms or systems of norms (sometimes called “institutions”) such as table manners, norms at the workplace, or norms about the behavior of men toward women? Another question concerns the explanation of the effects of norms. In answering this question it is assumed that norms have come into being, and the effects of their existence are explored. For example, if tax law is changed so that more income tax must be paid, one may ask about the effects this has on tax evasion.

Most existing theories of norms deal with their effects. In this essay, we address the origins of norms. One of the most important theories about norm emergence was proposed by James S. Coleman (1990, chaps. 10 and 11). This theory is widely discussed in the literature (Berger 1998; Braun and Voss 2014, 82–89; Cherkaoui 2007; Elster 2003; Ermakoff 2017, 176–78; Frank 1992, 148–52; Horne 2009; Lüdemann 2000; Opp 2001, 2002, 2015b; Voss 1998, 2000, 2001, 2017). There is further a detailed empirical test of a central proposition of the theory (Piskorski and Gorbatâi 2017).

James Coleman (1926–1995), an American sociologist, was one of the most eminent sociologists in the history of the discipline. His work focused on social science theory (with his major work, Foundations of Social Theory, published in 1990). His theoretical approach was what is called today structural (or methodological) individualism. The basic assumption is that societal phenomena (such as revolutions) are brought about by individuals and should therefore be explained by going back to individual action. Coleman’s writings are particularly clear. This is probably due to his strong mathematical orientation and his contributions to mathematical sociology (see, e.g., Coleman 1964). But Coleman was not only a theorist. He conducted important empirical studies as well. An example is the Coleman Report from [End Page 168] 1966, “Equality of Educational Opportunity” in the United States. The sample consisted of more than 650,000 students.

There are other theories about norm emergence. I selected Coleman’s theory because it focuses on the most important causes for norms, namely externalities and social relationships, as will be shown below, and because it is the only theory that proposes an elaborate causal model. (I will briefly compare Coleman’s theory with some other theories after the exposition and discussion of Coleman’s theory in the final section.) Nonetheless, the theory is not without fault. I focus in particular on two issues: first, the argument that one of the major factors in Coleman’s theory, namely social relationships, contributes to the emergence of norms only under certain conditions; and second, that Coleman addresses only norms that are consciously created...


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