In sociology, normative organizations are defined as groups in which people come together voluntarily to achieve a common goal.
Members do not receive any tangible or material reward for participating; instead, they work for the organization because they believe in its purpose.
These organizations often try to create social impact by advocating for change, raising awareness, and providing services to the community.
Common issues that normative organizations might focus on include environmental protection, human rights, education, and animal welfare.
These organizations play an important role in our society as they help vulnerable people, fill in the gaps where governmental organizations fail, and give marginalized groups a space to participate actively in social activities.
But their functioning often faces hurdles, such as a lack of proper management.
Normative Organizations Definition
Sociologist Neal Smelser defines normative organizations in the following way:
“Normative organizations are social units that define, propagate, and enforce certain norms and values, and that require conformity to these norms as a condition of membership”(Smelser, 1962)
Smelser’s definition highlights that normative organizations have certain norms and values that members must necessarily follow. Such organizations also use rewards and punishments to ensure conformity.
By propagating specific values among their members, normative organizations shape the norms & values of the larger society as well.
Normative Organization Examples
- UNICEF (Humanitarian): UNICEF, now known as United Nations Children’s Fund, is a UN agency that gives humanitarian aid to children around the world. Present in 192 countries, they provide immunization, improve sanitation, and promote education.
- UnidosUS (Political): UnidosUS, formerly called the National Council of La Raza, aims to promote the well-being of Hispanic Americans. It advocates for political reforms, such as citizenship paths for illegal immigrants, lesser deportations, etc.
- National Audubon Society (Environmental): The National Audubon Society promotes the protection of birds & their habitats in America. Having over 500 local chapters, the society organizes birdwatching field trips and other conservation-related activities.
- Oxfam (Charity): Oxfam is a confederation of 21 independent charitable organizations in Britain that works to alleviate global poverty. It provides relief during international crises, promotes fair trade practices, and runs charity shops.
- Save The Children (Children’s Rights): Save The Children is an international organization that helps children by giving them better healthcare, education, and economic opportunities. With headquarters in London, it works in over 120 countries.
- PFLAG (LGBTQ+ support): PFLAG is the first and largest LGBTQ+ support organization in the United States. With over 400 chapters across the nation, the group organizes programs like Straight for Equality and advocates for progressive reforms.
- Doctors Without Borders (Health): Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders provides medical aid, especially in conflict zones and regions affected by endemic diseases. It is active in 70 countries with over 30,000 medical personnel.
- MADD (Public Interest): Mothers Against Drunk Driving is an NGO that aims to stop drunk driving, help those affected by it, and prevent underage drinking. It was founded in 1980 in Texas and now operates in the US, Canada, and Brazil.
- Room to Read (Education): Room to Read is a global NGO that aims to improve literacy and gender equality in education in collaboration with local communities and governments. It has helped over 23 million children across 20 countries.
- Mercy Corps (Disaster Relief): Mercy Corps is a global humanitarian organization that works in areas suffering from sociopolitical, economic, or environmental instabilities. It aims to help people “build secure, productive, and just communities”.
Normative vs Formal Organizations
Normative organizations are one of three sub-types of formal organizations.
Max Weber defined formal organizations as highly structured organizations that are characterized by a “clear division of labor, a hierarchy of authority, and a system of rules and regulations” (1947).
They rely on rational decision-making and accomplish tasks efficiently, which is why they play a major role in modern societies.
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni argued that there were three kinds of formal organizations:
- Coercive organizations: (such as prisons and rehabilitation centers) are groups that people are forced to join because they have committed a crime or are judged to be mentally ill. Goffman calls these total institutions, as they control all aspects of their members’ lives (1961).
- Utilitarian organizations: are joined to gain a specific material reward, which is why they are also called remunerative organizations. Examples include workplaces (the reward here being a salary) and educational institutions (where students are rewarded with certifications/degrees).
- Normative organizations: (also known as voluntary organizations) are those that people join voluntarily due to shared goals without getting any tangible returns. These include groups like a local ski club, scouts groups, charitable organizations, etc.
Etzioni argues that normative organizations can act as a counterbalance to market-oriented organizations & their negative effects. Instead of focusing on profitability, such groups create social impact by raising public awareness and providing services to the community.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Normative Organizations
These are the advantages of normative organizations:
- Higher Levels of Involvement: Normative organizations see higher involvement of members. This is because they join, not out of coercion or the need for any tangible return like money, but because they are passionate about the organization’s goals. They believe in the shared values of the group and try to give their best to create a social impact.
- Strong Member Loyalty: The loyalty of members towards the groups is much greater in normative organizations. In coercive organizations, there is no loyalty as the members are forced to be a part of it. There is usually some degree of loyalty in utilitarian ones, but the key motivation is still the tangible return. In normative organizations, there is the highest loyalty as the sense of duty & commitment push members to give their best.
- Countering Market-Oriented Organizations: As Etzioni emphasized, normative organizations are vital in countering the negative effects of market-oriented organizations. The latter is solely obsessed with efficiency and profitability. On the other hand, normative organizations ensure that humanitarian values don’t get lost in the race for profitability and provide a voice to vulnerable sections.
- Belongingness: Normative organizations provide their members with a sense of purpose & belongingness. Since there are no monetary returns, it is only the passion of the members that drives them, and this shared commitment gives them a sense of solidarity. Moreover, normative organizations allow members to network with like-minded individuals, which can help them in other aspects of life (socialization, employment, etc.).
- Bringing Social Change: By raising public awareness about significant issues like child education, poverty, etc., normative organizations play a key role in creating social impact. They can shape public opinion and gain support for a specific cause, which can eventually bring about policy changes and redress the issue.
While there are several advantages of normative organizations, they also have some disadvantages:
- Inefficiency: Often there is not a clear chain of authority in such groups, making it difficult to take decisions & work efficiently.
- Funding Issues: Moreover, since they do not have a profitability model, these organizations often need to work with constrained budgets, which can make it difficult to achieve their goals. Finally, the lack of tangible returns can make many talented individuals pursue other avenues.
Marginalized Representation in Normative Organizations
Normative organizations give space for marginalized groups to come together and actively participate in social activities.
In utilitarian organizations, there are huge disparities based on gender and race. Women are paid less than men and are underrepresented in leadership positions.
The same goes for race: in the US, African Americans have lower average salaries and a higher rate of unemployment.
In coercive organizations as well, marginalized groups are at a greater disadvantage. African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in prisons.
The former represent about 13% of the population but constitute almost 40% of prisoners. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2021).
As against these, normative organizations give a safe space for marginalized groups to come together and work for a common cause. As Blackstone argues, they also provide them with a source of self-esteem and networking opportunities (2004).
For the African-American community, the church always has served as a significant place of solidarity and played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement (Morris, 1984).
Similarly, many women participate in normative organizations, especially those involving children & education.
Normative organizations are groups that people join voluntarily without receiving any tangible returns.
They work with the organization because they believe in its values & goals. Normative organizations play a key role in our society by raising public awareness, bringing social change, and helping vulnerable sections.
Blackstone, A. (2004). “It’s just about being fair”: Activism and the politics of volunteering in the breast cancer movement. Gender and Society, 18.
Etzioni, A. (1968). The active society: A theory of societal and political processes. Free Press.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2021). The racial composition of prisoners in the United States. https://www.fbi.gov/how-we-can-help-you/more-fbi-services-and-information/ucr
Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Doubleday.
Morris, A. (1984). The origins of the civil rights movement: Black communities organizing for change. Free Press.
Smelser, N. J. (1962). Theory of Collective Behavior. Free Press.
Weber, M. (1947). The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Oxford University Press.