What is a normative question?

Posted on Tue 25 Jul 2017 @ 4.30pm UTC

WHAT is meant by the description ‘normative question’? Indeed, what is ‘normative’?

A normative question is one that asks what SHOULD be (a subjective condition) — instead of asking an objective fact (“How much is…?”) or an objective condition (Yes/No).

In other words, the purpose of a normative question is to define or set the stage as to what are the possibilities or opinions in a given situation (as indicated by the word should).

This ISN’T a normative question but an objective one:—

  • “What is the unemployment rate in this country?”

It isn’t normative because it seeks to find out the actual matter (the unemployment rate). It’s a factual question seeking a factual answer. In logic, it is a positive question — an objective question — because it’s one that can be answered by Yes/No or some other factual information.

This one IS a normative question:—

  • “What should be the unemployment rate in this country?”

This one is normative because it’s trying to define the best or workable or ethical level of joblessness rather than wanting to know the actual rate. The asker himself may in fact know the actual rate, so that fact isn’t being asked for. Therefore the basis of the question is subjectivity — asking what is the ideal.

Normative questions occur in a lot of debates, especially about political or economic topics.

It’s often an opener to present an argument or opinion — in short, to make a case for bring out some action or change.


  • What basic healthcare is provided to all citizens? (Objective)
  • What basic healthcare should be provided to all citizens? (Normative)

The objective question is easily answered by a list of the actual services available or provided. This is what the objective question is seeking — a factual answer.

The normative question isn’t asking for facts. It’s really making a statement of opinion about the role of government in healthcare. It isn’t about whether this or that healthcare is better or worse than the others. The question in fact is asking for our opinions on the matter.

  • What is my debt level? (Objective)
  • What should be my debt level? (Normative)

The objective question is answerable by calculations of your income and assets vs. outgoings and liabilities.

The normative question is seeking an opinion (hopefully, an informed one). The answer has to take into account some variables about your financial circumstances at this present moment. Therefore it’s seeking a balanced estimation of your various financial components plus the perceptions of your situation right now. One accountant may say a debt level of 20% of assets would be right for you. Another may say 40%. Therefore there’s no way to say which accountant is correct or incorrect because those are accounting opinions.

What is is whatever that exists in factual form. What should be okay for me isn’t necessary what should be okay for you.

What is is different from what should be. There is a line of difference between the two, and that isn’t a fine line.

The meaning of ‘normative’

Why is it called ‘normative’? The word is confusingly similar to ‘normal.’

The formal adjective normative is defined in all dictionaries along this line:—

normative (adj., formal) establishing from a standard or norm (especially of behaviour), or relating to or deriving from such a standard or norm.

Example:— “negative sanctions to enforce normative [standard] behaviour”

The word originated in the 19th century from the French normatif, which is based on the Latin word norma (carpenter’s square).

The carpenter’s square is for measuring things, and the square is therefore the ‘ideal’ yardstick by which things are measured against.

That is precisely what a normative question or statement is trying to do — to use itself as the ideal yardstick to measure all responses received.

© Learn English or Starve, 26 July 2017. (B17109). Original text 01 Dec 2016.

Featured image via Fixing the Economists.

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