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Normative has specialized meanings in different academic disciplines such as philosophy, social sciences, and law.
In philosophy, normative statements make claims about how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong. Normative claims are usually contrasted with positive (i.e. descriptive, explanatory, or constative) claims when describing types of theories, beliefs, or propositions. Positive statements are (purportedly) factual statements that attempt to describe reality.
For example, "children should eat vegetables", and "those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither" are normative claims. On the other hand, "vegetables contain a relatively high proportion of vitamins", and "a common consequence of sacrificing liberty for security is a loss of both" are positive claims. Whether a statement is normative is logically independent of whether it is verified, verifiable, or popularly held.
There are several schools of thought regarding the status of normative statements and whether they can be rationally discussed or defended. Among these schools are the tradition of practical reason extending from Aristotle through Kant to Habermas, which asserts that they can, and the tradition of emotivism, which maintains that they are merely expressions of emotions and have no cognitive content.
Normative statements and norms, as well as their meanings, are an integral part of human life. They are fundamental for prioritizing goals and organizing and planning. Thought, belief, emotion and action and are the basis of much ethical and political discourse; indeed, normativity is arguably the key feature distinguishing ethical and political discourse from other discourses (such as natural science).
Much modern moral/ethical philosophy takes as its starting point the apparent variance between peoples and cultures regarding the ways they define what is considered to be appropriate/desirable/praiseworthy/valuable/good etc. (In other words, variance in how individuals, groups and societies define what is in accordance with their normative standards.) This has led philosophers such as A.J. Ayer and J.L. Mackie (for different reasons and in different ways) to cast doubt on the meaningfulness of normative statements. However, other philosophers, such as Christine Korsgaard, have argued for a source of normative value which is independent of individuals' subjective morality and which consequently attains (a lesser or greater degree of) objectivity.
Social sciences and economics
In the social sciences, the term "normative" has broadly the same meaning as its usage in philosophy, but may also relate, in a sociological context, to the role of cultural 'norms'; the shared values or institutions that structural functionalists regard as constitutive of the social structure and social cohesion. These values and units of socialization thus act to encourage or enforce social activity and outcomes that ought to (with respect to the norms implicit in those structures) occur, while discouraging or preventing social activity that ought not occur. That is, they promote social activity that is socially valued (see philosophy above). While there are always anomalies in social activity (typically described as "crime" or anti-social behaviour, see also normality) the normative effects of popularly-endorsed beliefs (such as "family values" or "common sense") push most social activity towards a generally homogeneous set. From such reasoning, however, functionalism shares an affinity with ideological conservatism.
Normative economics deals with questions of what sort of economic policies should be pursued, in order to achieve desired (that is, valued) economic outcomes.
In the academic discipline of International relations, Smith, Baylis & Owens in their Introduction to Smith, Baylis & Owens (2008) make the case that the normative position or normative theory is to make the world a better place and that this theoretical worldview aims to do so by being aware of implicit assumptions and explicit assumptions that constitute a non-normative position, and align or position the normative towards the loci of other key socio-political theories such as political Liberalism, Marxism, political Constructivism, political Realism, political Idealism and political Globalization.
In law, as an academic discipline, the term "normative" is used to describe the way something ought to be done according to a value position. As such, normative arguments can be conflicting, insofar as different values can be inconsistent with one another. For example, from one normative value position the purpose of the criminal process may be to repress crime. From another value position, the purpose of the criminal justice system could be to protect individuals from the moral harm of wrongful conviction.
Normative elements are defined in International Organization for Standardization Directives Part 2 as "elements that describe the scope of the document, and which set out provisions". Provisions include "requirements", "recommendations" and "statements". "Statements" include permissions, possibilities and capabilities. A "requirement" is an "expression in the content of a document conveying criteria to be fulfilled if compliance with the document is to be claimed and from which no deviation is permitted." It is not necessary to comply with recommendations and statements in order to comply with the standard, it is necessary to comply only with the requirements (that are denoted by the verbal form "shall"). There is much confusion between "normative" and "requirement", however the ISO terminology is supported by national standards bodies worldwide and is the legitimate description of these terms in the context of standards documents.
In standards terminology still used by some organisations, "normative" means "considered to be a prescriptive part of the standard". It characterises that part of the standard which describes what ought (see philosophy above) to be done within the application of that standard. It is implicit that application of that standard will result in a valuable outcome (ibid.). For example, many standards have an introduction, preface, or summary that is considered non-normative, as well as a main body that is considered normative. "Compliance" is defined as "complies with the normative sections of the standard"; an object that complies with the normative sections but not the non-normative sections of a standard is still considered to be in compliance.
- Normative = prescriptive = how to comply
- Informative = descriptive = help with conceptual understanding
Typically, normative is contrasted with informative (referring to the standard's descriptive, explanatory or positive content). Informative data is supplemental information such as additional guidance, supplemental recommendations, tutorials, commentary as well as background, history, development, and relationship with other elements. Informative data is not a requirement and doesn’t compel compliance.
- Bromley, 2007:109
- ISBN 9780199297771, Fourth edition, pp.2-13
- Canguilhem, Georges, The Normal and the Pathological, ISBN 0-942299-59-0.
- Andreas Dorschel, 'Is there any normative claim internal to stating facts?', in: Communication & Cognition XXI (1988), no. 1, pp. 5-16.