In sociology, folkways are the traditional behavior or way of life of a particular community or group of people, which are passed down through generations.
We consider folkways to be informal norms rather than formal norms. This means that they’re passed-on through everyday customs that are not strictly or legally enforced, but nonetheless guide social behavior and interactions within a society.
We eat noodles with a spoon, a fork, or chopsticks in some places. But what if someone suddenly decided to eat noodles with their hand?
It would seem slightly odd to us, but there wouldn’t be any serious moral judgment or punishment for them.
Almost all our trivial, everyday actions are guided by “folkways”. These are repeated patterns of behavior that are practiced widely by a group or sometimes the entire culture. We have them because they are “expedient”, that is, they help us satisfy our needs in the best way.
Folkways are different from mores, which carry serious moral implications, and we will discuss those later. First, let us learn about the concept of folkways in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Folkways in Sociology
The concept of folkways was introduced by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner.
In his famous book Folkways (1906), Sumner begins by talking about the earliest humans.
He says that they may have inherited some “guiding instincts” from their “beast ancestry”, but they still needed to follow trial-and-error methods to satisfy their needs. Slowly, this led to the creation of folkways:
“The struggle to maintain existence was carried on, not individually, but in groups. Each profited by the other’s experience; hence there was concurrence towards that which proved to be most expedient…In this way, folkways arise.” (1906)
As Sumner highlights, folkways are essentially those activities that are “most expedient”. Folkways are the “frequent repetition of petty acts” by a large number of people, who act in the same way when facing the same need.
These folkways are then transmitted to the young by “tradition, imitation, and authority”. Over time, these become “more and more arbitrary, positive, and imperative”. People do things like their ancestors have done, and there is a “ghost fear” to change the ancient folkways.
Let us now turn to a more contemporary understanding of the concept. Steven P. Dandaneau defines folkways as
“every myriad pattern of regular behavior, from the sequence by which one puts on socks and shoes…to the rules governing a professor’s behavior at the front of a lecture hall. (2007).
Folkways shape almost all the little aspects of our everyday lives: how we eat our breakfast, dress for work, greet our friends, etc. However, it is important to remember that these are not associated with any serious moral implications.
This is because they regulate superficial & largely inconsequential behavior. If you violate folkways—say eat noodles with your hands—there will be little repercussion. People may be amused, but in most cases, they will be indifferent.
Folkways are often so inconspicuous that we do not even think about them unless reminded by a “did you ever notice” comedian like Jerry Seinfeld (Dandaneau). This contrasts with other social norms, like mores, which we will discuss later.
- Appropriate dressing: Every social setting requires appropriate dressing. For example, one wouldn’t go to a funeral dressed in flashy colors or extremely revealing clothes; the custom is to be dressed in all black in most Western countries. Earlier, we discussed how folkways are not associated with severe moral implications. However, they are still tied to social sanctions, both positive and negative. So, wearing a suit to an interview can lead to positive sanctions: the interviewer may see them as a professional who is serious about the position. On the other hand, if the person is wearing a T-shirt and ripped jeans, it might create a negative image in the interviewer’s mind.
- Civil Inattention: Civil inattention is when we give a sense of privacy to others in public places. For example, when we are in a crowded metro, we usually do not speak to other people. This is not out of rudeness or coldness but because of an important social function called “civil inattention”. The term was coined by Erving Goffman, who argued that we actually pretend to not be aware of what others around us are doing, thereby giving them a sense of privacy (1963). It is also a means of mutual recognition, acknowledging that the other person does not pose a threat to their safety; both implicitly agree to let the other do as they please (Cole, 2019).
- Greeting: Folkways determine how we greet people, which differs across time and cultures. In Western countries, people generally shake hands, while in Asian countries people bow to each other. In Europe, it is quite common to greet others with three kisses on alternative cheeks. But something like this would be completely inappropriate in a different part of the world, like India. Similarly, how we address people also varies: in Japan, people only refer to others by their last name followed by the term of respect “san”; using somebody’s first name without their permission would be seen as an insult.
- Receiving gifts: The act of giving & receiving gifts is as old as human civilization, and many different customs have been associated with it. In many cultures, people give gifts on special occasions, such as birthdays, festivals, weddings, etc. We may also present gifts to express our appreciation or gratitude to someone. However, despite the universality of gifting, there are many culturally specific folkways associated with them. For example, in Western cultures (say the United States of America or the United Kingdom), people are generally expected to open a gift immediately upon receiving it. However, this would be quite appropriate in non-Western cultures like Saudi Arabia.
- Eating manners: What we eat and how we eat are both shaped by our culture. In Western cultures, eating beef is quite popular, but in a country like India, it is mostly seen as a heinous act (as cows are considered sacred by Hindus). Folkways also shape our eating manners: it would be quite odd if someone were to eat noodles with their hands or eat a burger with a fork. There are also customs associated with meal behavior: we usually wait for everyone before starting to eat, we do not talk while chewing, etc.
Folkways vs Mores vs Norms
Folkways are patterns of everyday behavior with no moral implications; mores, on the other hand, come with serious moral judgments. Both of them are types of norms.
- Norms are the “standards of appropriate behavior” (Sandholtz, 2017). We learn about them through socialization, and they are usually internalized within us, guiding us on how to behave in an acceptable manner. There are several types of norms, including folkways & mores.
- Folkways, as we have been discussing, are customs associated with trivial things: using a fork to eat noodles, saying “hello” to someone, etc. These do not carry any moral implications, and violating folkways would usually lead to amusement or indifference.
- Mores, however, are much more serious. They come with moral implications, shaping a society’s beliefs about right and wrong. For example, cheating in a love relationship is seen as a highly immoral act. There is no law against it, but the violator will still face harsh social reproval.
For More Detail on This, See: Mores vs Folkways
Folkways are the customs of everyday behavior that do not carry any moral implications.
For example, eating a burger with a fork is quite odd. However, doing so would not lead to any legal repercussions; it would only lead to amusement or perhaps indifference.
Unlike folkways, mores carry moral judgments. Violating them would lead to serious social consequences, even if there are no legal laws associated with them.
Cole, N. (2019). “Why We Really Ignore Each Other in Public: Understanding Civil Inattention”. Thoughtco. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-we-really-ignore-each-other-in-public-3026376
Dandaneau, S. P. (2007). “Norms” in (ed.) George Ritzer’s The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Wiley-Blackwell.
Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in Public Places. Free Press.
Sandholtz, Wayne (2017). “International Norm Change”. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.
Sumner, W. (1906). Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. Ginn.