Conformist one minute and avant-garde the next

Stephan Grünewald

The desire for normality and longing for change vie with each other inside our head. This conflict drives social change, says psychologist, market researcher and author Stephan Grünewald*.

What is normal anyway? Offering your hand to greet someone? Being vegan? Marriage for everyone? People and society keeping changing their view of what is and isn‘t normal. “People are contradictory beings. They follow general standards in order to function in their society but also have their own totally individual, possibly deviating normality”, says Stephan Grünewald. Normal is whatever is considered to be usual and self-evident. According to Grünewald, every society creates its own set of norms: “Liberal societies have a wide concept of normality than authoritarian ones as more people have a part in determining standards.” A free and secure society allows change, but an insecure one tends more towards conformism and consistency. “The fact that very different political and social systems hold sway in Germany, China and Saudi Arabia for example shows how flexible people are in setting their norms”, says Stephan Grünewald. Nevertheless, you need overriding standards – laws and international agreements – in order to interface. In a free society there is room to question and shift established norms. Norms are therefore never cast in stone – but constantly circulate the issue of what is normal.

Norms solve problems

Standards only talk about the momentary state of a person or society and say little about their future. Because – just as in technology and management spheres – personal and social standards also seek to solve problems. This can be driven by personal crises, food scandals, environmental and technological disasters or social unrest. What was once taboo is now discussed and re-evaluated. “The signs of normality can turn completely upside down”, says Grünewald. Example: Homosexuality was a criminal offence in Germany until 1994, now it’s marriage for all.


*Stephan Grünewald is co-founder and Managing Director of the Rheinhold Institute for Culture, Market and Media Research in Cologne. A qualified psychologist, he is also the author of the best-selling "Germany on the Couch" (2006) and "The Exhausted Society" (2013).

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Picture Credits: © TÜV Rheinland/ Hanne Engwald