Convention (norm)
A convention is a set of agreed, stipulated or generally accepted standards, norms
Norm (philosophy)
Norms are concepts of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express. Normative sentences imply “ought-to” types of statements and assertions, in distinction to sentences that provide “is” types of statements and assertions...

, social norms
Norm (sociology)
Social norms are the accepted behaviors within a society or group. This sociological and social psychological term has been defined as "the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. These rules may be explicit or implicit...

 or criteria, often taking the form of a custom
Custom (law)
Custom in law is the established pattern of behavior that can be objectively verified within a particular social setting. A claim can be carried out in defense of "what has always been done and accepted by law." Customary law exists where:...


Certain types of rules or customs may become law
Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior, wherever possible. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. Contract law regulates everything from buying a bus...

 and regulatory legislation
Legislation is law which has been promulgated by a legislature or other governing body, or the process of making it...

 may be introduced to formalize or enforce the convention (for example, laws that define on which side of the road
A road is a thoroughfare, route, or way on land between two places, which typically has been paved or otherwise improved to allow travel by some conveyance, including a horse, cart, or motor vehicle. Roads consist of one, or sometimes two, roadways each with one or more lanes and also any...

 vehicles must be driven). In a social context, a convention may retain the character of an "unwritten" law of custom (for example, the manner in which people greet each other, such as by shaking each other's hands).

In physical science
Physical science
Physical science is an encompassing term for the branches of natural science and science that study non-living systems, in contrast to the life sciences...

s, numerical values (such as constants, quantities, or scales of measurement) are called conventional if they do not represent a measured property of nature, but originate in a convention, for example an average of many measurements, agreed between the scientists working with these values.


A convention is a selection from among two or more alternatives, where the rule or alternative is agreed upon among participants. Often the word refers to unwritten customs shared throughout a community. For instance, it is conventional in many societies that strangers being introduced shake hands. Some conventions are explicitly legislated; for example, it is conventional in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and in Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 that motorists drive on the right
Driving on the left or right
The terms right-hand traffic and left-hand traffic refer to regulations requiring all bidirectional traffic to keep either to the right or the left side of the road, respectively. This is so fundamental to traffic flow that it is sometimes referred to as the rule of the road. This basic rule eases...

 side of the road, whereas in England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

, Mauritius
Mauritius , officially the Republic of Mauritius is an island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent in the southwest Indian Ocean, about east of Madagascar...

 and Barbados
Barbados is an island country in the Lesser Antilles. It is in length and as much as in width, amounting to . It is situated in the western area of the North Atlantic and 100 kilometres east of the Windward Islands and the Caribbean Sea; therein, it is about east of the islands of Saint...

 they drive on the left. The standardization of time is a human convention based on the solar cycle or calendar. The extent to which justice
Justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics; justice is the act of being just and/or fair.-Concept of justice:...

 is conventional (as opposed to natural
Naturalism (philosophy)
Naturalism commonly refers to the philosophical viewpoint that the natural universe and its natural laws and forces operate in the universe, and that nothing exists beyond the natural universe or, if it does, it does not affect the natural universe that we know...

 or objective
Objectivity (philosophy)
Objectivity is a central philosophical concept which has been variously defined by sources. A proposition is generally considered to be objectively true when its truth conditions are met and are "mind-independent"—that is, not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.- Objectivism...

) is historically an important debate among philosophers.

The nature of conventions has raised long-lasting philosophical discussion. Quine
Willard Van Orman Quine
Willard Van Orman Quine was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition...

, Davidson
Donald Davidson (philosopher)
Donald Herbert Davidson was an American philosopher born in Springfield, Massachusetts, who served as Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley from 1981 to 2003 after having also held teaching appointments at Stanford University, Rockefeller University, Princeton...

 and David Lewis published influential writings on the subject. Lewis's account of convention received an extended critique in Margaret Gilbert
Margaret Gilbert
Margaret Gilbert is a philosopher best known for her work in the philosophy of social science, and, more specifically, for her founding contributions to the analytic philosophy of social phenomena...

's On Social Facts (1989), where an alternative account is offered. Another view of convention comes from Ruth Millikan
Ruth Millikan
Ruth Garrett Millikan is a well-known American philosopher of biology, psychology, and language. She was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize and gave the Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris in 2002....

's Language: A Biological Model (2005), once more against Lewis.

The Buddha described conventions — whether linguistic, social, political, moral, ethical, or even religious — as arising dependent on specific conditions. According to his paradigm, when conventions are considered absolute realities, they contribute to dogmatism, which in turn leads to conflict. This does not mean that conventions should be absolutely ignored as unreal and therefore useless. Instead, according to Buddhist thought, a wise person adopts a middle way
Middle way
The Middle Way or Middle Path is the descriptive term that Siddhartha Gautama used to describe the character of the path he discovered that led to liberation. It was coined in the very first teaching that he delivered after his enlightenment...

 without holding conventions to be ultimate or ignoring them when they are fruitful.


In sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 a social rule refers to any social convention commonly adhered to in a society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

. These rules are not written in law
Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior, wherever possible. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. Contract law regulates everything from buying a bus...

 or otherwise formalized. In social constructionism
Social constructionism
Social constructionism and social constructivism are sociological theories of knowledge that consider how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social contexts. A social construction is a concept or practice that is the construct of a particular group...

 there is a great focus on social rules. It is argued that these rules are socially constructed, that these rules act upon every member of a society, but at the same time, are re-produced by the individuals.

Sociologists representing symbolic interactionism
Symbolic interactionism
Symbolic Interaction, also known as interactionism, is a sociological theory that places emphasis on micro-scale social interaction to provide subjective meaning in human behavior, the social process and pragmatism.-History:...

 argue that social rules are created through the interaction between the members of a society. The focus on active interaction highlights the fluid, shifting character of social rules. These are specific to the social context, a context that varies through time and place. That means a social rule changes over time within the same society. What was acceptable in the past may no longer be the case. Similarly, rules differ across space: what is acceptable in one society may not be so in another.

Social rules reflect what is acceptable or normal behaviour in any situation. Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

's concept of discourse
Discourse generally refers to "written or spoken communication". The following are three more specific definitions:...

 is closely related to social rules as it offers a possible explanation how these rules are shaped and change. It is the social rules that tell people what is normal behaviour for any specific category. Thus, social rules tell a woman how to behave in a womanly manner, and a man, how to be manly. Other such rules are as follows:
  • strangers being introduced shake hands, as in Western societies, but
    • bow
      Bowing (social)
      Bowing is the act of lowering the torso and head as a social gesture in direction to another person or symbol. It is most prominent in Asian cultures but it is also typical of nobility and aristocracy in many countries and distinctively in Europe. Sometimes the gesture may be limited to lowering...

       toward each other, in Korea
      Korea ) is an East Asian geographic region that is currently divided into two separate sovereign states — North Korea and South Korea. Located on the Korean Peninsula, Korea is bordered by the People's Republic of China to the northwest, Russia to the northeast, and is separated from Japan to the...

      , Japan
      Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

       and China
      Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

    • do not bow at each other, in the Jewish tradition
    • in the US, eye contact, a nod of the head toward each other, and a smile, with no bowing; the palm of the hand faces sideways, neither upward nor downward, in a business handshake.
    • present business cards to each other, in business meetings
  • click heels together, in past eras of Western history
  • a woman's curtsey
    A curtsey is a traditional gesture of greeting, in which a girl or woman bends her knees while bowing her head. It is the female equivalent of male bowing in Western cultures...

    , in some societies
  • in the Mideast, never displaying the sole of the foot toward another, as this would be seen as a grave insult.
  • In many schools, though seats for students are not assigned they are still "claimed" by certain students, and sitting in someone else's seat is considered an insult


Generic conventions, which are very closely tied to a particular artistic genre
Genre , Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time...

, and may even help to define what that genre is.
Other conventions that may simply be expectations are:
  • painting
    Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface . The application of the medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush but other objects can be used. In art, the term painting describes both the act and the result of the action. However, painting is...

    s are rectangular or square
  • stock devices (a comedy
    Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

     ends with a marriage, but a cowboy
    A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of...

    A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...

     can end with the hero riding off into the sunset)
  • Mathematical notation
    Mathematical notation
    Mathematical notation is a system of symbolic representations of mathematical objects and ideas. Mathematical notations are used in mathematics, the physical sciences, engineering, and economics...

     follows the order of operations
    Order of operations
    In mathematics and computer programming, the order of operations is a rule used to clarify unambiguously which procedures should be performed first in a given mathematical expression....


In government
Government refers to the legislators, administrators, and arbitrators in the administrative bureaucracy who control a state at a given time, and to the system of government by which they are organized...

, convention is a set of unwritten rules that participants in the government must follow. These rules can be ignored only if justification is clear, or can be provided. Otherwise, consequences follow. Consequences may include ignoring some other convention that has until now been followed. According to the traditional doctrine (Dicey), conventions cannot be enforced in courts, because they are non-legal sets of rules. Convention is particularly important in the Commonwealth realms and other governments using the Westminster System
Westminster System
The Westminster system is a democratic parliamentary system of government modelled after the politics of the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the Parliament of the United Kingdom....

 of government, where many of the rules of government are unwritten.

International law

The term convention is also used in international law
International law
Public international law concerns the structure and conduct of sovereign states; analogous entities, such as the Holy See; and intergovernmental organizations. To a lesser degree, international law also may affect multinational corporations and individuals, an impact increasingly evolving beyond...

 to refer to certain formal statements of principle such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention on the Rights of the Child
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a human rights treaty setting out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children...

. Conventions are adopted by international bodies such as the International Labour Organization
International Labour Organization
The International Labour Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations that deals with labour issues pertaining to international labour standards. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland. Its secretariat — the people who are employed by it throughout the world — is known as the...

 and the United Nations
United Nations
The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...

. Conventions so adopted usually apply only to countries that ratify them, and do not automatically apply to member states of such bodies. These conventions are generally seen as having the force of international treaties
A treaty is an express agreement under international law entered into by actors in international law, namely sovereign states and international organizations. A treaty may also be known as an agreement, protocol, covenant, convention or exchange of letters, among other terms...

 for the ratifying countries. The best known of these are perhaps the several Geneva Conventions
Geneva Conventions
The Geneva Conventions comprise four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish the standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of the victims of war...


External links

  • Rescorla, Michael (2007) Convention, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a freely-accessible online encyclopedia of philosophy maintained by Stanford University. Each entry is written and maintained by an expert in the field, including professors from over 65 academic institutions worldwide...

  •, an index of important international conventions.
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