Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Toward an Empirical Delineation of a Normative Structure for College Students

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Toward an Empirical Delineation of a Normative Structure for College Students

Article excerpt


Understanding college student peer groups is a long-standing topic in the study of the college student experience. Recent interest in college student peer groups has been sparked by Pascarella and Terenzini's (1991) conclusion from their extensive review of literature on the effects of college on students that peers exert considerable influence on the cognitive and affective development of college students. Kuh (1995) also urges scholars to engage in serious inquiry on the culture of college student peer groups. Student peer groups influence the behavior of their members (Kuh & Whitt, 1998; Newcomb & Wilson, 1966). Norms are a central characteristic of student peer cultures along with language, values, practices, and beliefs (Kuh & Whitt, 1998). Norms are prescribed and proscribed patterns of behavior (Hechter & Opp, 2001; Merton, 1968, 1973). Put differently, norms are patterns of belief about behavior expected in certain situations or circumstances that are shared by members of a particular social group (Gibbs, 1981; Rossi & Berk, 1985). Norms regulate social behavior (Hechter & Opp, 2001; Horne, 2001).

In addition to serving as informal social controls for behavior, norms play other important roles for social groups. To elaborate, norms delineate acceptable actions for realizing group goals (Merton, 1968). Because norms are important to achieving group goals, they also convey the "collective conscience" of a social group. As such, norms index central and deep-seated values of a group (Durkheim, 1982). When enforced, norms also facilitate group survival, clarify the identity of a group, and assist a group in avoiding embarrassing interpersonal problems (Feldman, 1984).

If we understand the normative structure of a given peer group, we can begin to understand the type of influence that group has on the behavior of its members. Despite the centrality of norms to understanding student peer groups, little or no research has focused on the empirical delineation of normative structures of college students. Thus, the purpose of this article is to present the findings of an exploratory study designed to identify a normative structure of the college students at one university. Moreover, this research also focuses on the influence of student characteristics--gender, race/ethnicity, class standing, and social fraternity or sorority membership--on the espousal of norms comprising the normative structure empirically derived.

Conceptual Framework

As previously stated, norms are prescribed or proscribed patterns of behavior that hold social significance to members of a social group. The index of their social significance rests in the degree of moral outrage or indignation such proscribed behaviors elicit (Durkheim, 1995). Moral outrage can be assessed by determining the severity of sanctions students perceive as warranted by proscribed behaviors. Conversely, the social significance of prescribed or appropriate behaviors is manifested in the degree of strong approval such prescribed behaviors invoke. Strong approval can be ascertained by identifying the type of rewards students perceive to be justified by prescribed behaviors. These formulations provide the framework for the empirical identification of a normative structure for college students.

The degree of moral outrage that accompanies the violation of a norm indicates the social significance of the norm (Durkheim, 1995). Those norms that individuals view as highly inappropriate carry a higher penalty and increased social significance when violated as compared to those behaviors that are not as inappropriate. Morris (1956) writes that "norms are generally accepted, sanctioned prescriptions for or prohibitions against, others' behavior, belief or feeling, i.e. what others ought to do, believe, feel--or else" (p. 610). He goes on to state that violation of accepted norms always involve sanctions (Morris, 1956). …

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