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In sociology, nomos refers to provisional codes (habits or customs) of social and political behavior, socially constructed and historically (even geographically) specific.  The term derives from the Greek νόμος, and it refers, not only to explicit laws, but to all of the normal rules and forms people take for granted in their day to day activities. Nomos stands for order, valid and binding on those who fall under its jurisdiction; thus it is a social construct with ethical dimensions. It is a belief, opinion or point of view; it is a human invention.
History of the term
After Carl Schmitt, the next influential writer to use the term in a modern context is Peter L. Berger. Berger writes of human beings fashioning a world by their own activity (1967:5). Berger sees this taking place through a continual threefold cycle between individuals and society: externalisation, objectivation and internalization. The world thus fashioned has an order—a set of principles—which comes to be read onto society by individuals through externalisation and objectivation, and also internalised in each individual. This order thus comes to be assumed, spoken of, and placed into social discourse to be treated as common sense. This ordering of the world and experience, which is a corporate and social process as well as an individual one, is a nomos.
Berger writes of ‘The socially established nomos’ being understood ‘as a shield against terror. Put differently, the most important function of society is nomization.’ (1967:22). We all need that structuring nomos; it provides us with stability, predictability, a frame of reference in which to live. The alternative is the chaos and terror of what Berger calls anomy.
To be most effective, the nomos must be taken for granted. The structure of the world created by human and social activity is treated not as contingent, but as self-evident. ‘Whenever the socially established nomos attains the quality of being taken for granted, there occurs a merging of its meanings with what are considered to be the fundamental meanings inherent in the universe.’ (1967:24-25). Berger sees this happening in all societies, and while the nomos is expressed in religious terms in ‘archaic societies’, ‘In contemporary society, this archaic cosmization of the social world is likely to take the form of “scientific” propositions about the nature of men rather than the nature of the universe.’ (1967:25).
So this process of world-construction is not necessarily religious, but its expression has most often been religious. Later Berger explores the part religious belief has played in nomoi: providing a connection with the cosmic — seeking to provide a completeness to that religious world-view.
‘Every human society is an edifice of externalized and objectivated meanings, always intending a meaningful totality. Every society is engaged in the never completed enterprise of building a humanly meaningful world. Cosmization implies the identification of this humanly meaningful world with the world as such, the former now being grounded in the latter, reflecting it or being derived from it in its fundamental structures. Such a cosmos, as the ultimate ground and validation of human nomoi, need not necessarily be sacred. Particularly in modern times there have been thoroughly secular attempts at cosmization, among which modern science is by far the most important. It is safe to say, however, that originally all cosmization had a sacred character.’ (1967:27).
The next landmark in the use of the term is generally thought to be by Robert Cover, who argued in an influential 1982 paper that while the mechanisms of law and social control are part of law, that students of the law, and legal actors, should instead focus on the normative universe, the whole of the means of social control. As with Berger, Cover rooted the nomos in "narrative", or what a post-structuralist would call meta-narrative. Cover argued that no set of legal institutions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning.
He says this because he argues that our moral sense is composed of the narratives from which we draw conclusions, and by which we locate ourselves in relation to other people. He argues that because narrative is morality, the normative universe must rest on narrative. Since we also construct our view of the universe physically from narrative, he argues that the normative universe is as much a part of our existence as the physical universe.
Cover then makes an argument of incorporation: he states that just as we develop increasingly complex responses to the physical world, so too is our development of responses to "otherness" conditioned over time by interaction. From this he argues that societies that have great legal systems rest on more than formal and technical virtuosity, but in the richness of their understanding of the normative universe.
It is Cover who argues that the explicit relationship between formal apparatus of a society, in this case a legal society, and the normative range of behavior is the fulcrum to understanding whether the society is functional or not.
Cover's use of the term is rooted in Berger's argument that nomos requires mythology and narrative, as pillars for the understanding of the meaning of each act within a particular nomos.
Generalization of the term
While Berger provided a specific theory of nomos, the term has become more generally used in sociology to denote the relationship between formal ideology and functional behavior. That is, the relationship between what groups explicitly say they believe, and how they enact those beliefs by their day to day behavior. In this generalized sense a study of the nomos of a group would examine the ranges of acceptable behavior, the range of responses to transgressions, the forms that signal the relationship between actors in a political unit, and the acceptable range of activities and the means for harmonizing effort to reach a particular goal.
One example would be Carl Schmitt's examination of the nomos of globalization, or of automobile "culture", where the necessity of dealing with interactions at high speed in mechanized vehicles requires the creation of norms that function at that scale and level of consequence. Another example would be Zeev Rosenhek's examination of the nomos of military culture in Israeli society.
Another example of a specific theory of nomos is the nomos of “correct” writing and the criteria used to judge an acceptable, valued piece of writing. We can look at the canon of classic works and find many of male authorship. Unfortunately, it is only in recent years that women have been included in the canon as well as minority groups. The nomos of writing would have been largely determined by the higher educational institutions which were also male dominant. A gender studies on the nomos surrounding the criteria for canonical works would determine that the canon has been dictated by dominant male figures and is now under scrutiny and reevaluation in recent years. Understanding the nomos of the criteria and the value of writing can bring light to how our culture has developed a certain lens toward writers and writing. It is through education that our nomos can be reoriented to be more inclusive to women and minority groups. Evaluating nomos is a responsibility for those who wish to be socially aware and open to change and development of culture. There is an inherent value in a culture that is critical of its lens and how it has been shaped and how it can be reshaped.
- Jarratt, Susan Carole Funderburgh (1991). Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
- Ostwald, Martin (1969). Nomos and the Beginnings of the Athenian Democracy. Oxford: Oxford UP.
- Cover, Robert. Nomos and Narrative, 1982.
- Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociology of Religion. New York: Anchor Books; 1967.
- Law Abiding Citizen. Dir. F. Gary Gray. Perf. Gerard Butler and Jaime Fox. Constantin Film, 2009. In this film, the main character wears a janitorial service uniform, the company name of which is "Nomos". The film is about a man whose wife and daughter are murdered and the killer goes free.