The Key Distinction Between Mores and Folkways

In the study of sociology, understanding the norms that govern behavior within any human society is crucial. These norms, which can dictate everything from day-to-day interactions to deeply ingrained value systems, are classified into various …

In the study of sociology, understanding the norms that govern behavior within any human society is crucial. These norms, which can dictate everything from day-to-day interactions to deeply ingrained value systems, are classified into various categories. Two of the most significant categories are mores and folkways. While both of these social norms guide human behavior, they do so in markedly different ways and hold different levels of importance in societal functioning. This article aims to delve into the key distinctions between mores and folkways, exploring their definitions, examples, and roles in shaping social norms.

Introduction to Mores and Folkways

Social norms can be broadly categorized into three types: mores, folkways, and laws. Mores and folkways, in particular, are integral in guiding the behavior and actions of individuals within a society. They offer a sense of order and predictability that helps people navigate the complexities of social interactions. Mores are norms of morality, embodying the moral views and principles of a group. They often dictate what is considered ethical or acceptable behavior. In contrast, folkways are less stringent norms that guide everyday behavior and manners. Understanding these concepts is essential for comprehending how societies maintain cohesion and order.

Historical Background

The distinction between mores and folkways was conceptualized by sociologist William Graham Sumner in the early 20th century. Sumner introduced these terms in his work “Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals” published in 1906. In his study, he described folkways as habitual practices that become customs over time, while mores are more significant norms that encapsulate society’s fundamental moral views. His work has since become foundational in the field of sociology, offering a framework for understanding how different types of social norms operate.

Defining Mores

Mores are strong norms that are morally binding and are considered essential for the welfare of society. They reflect the core values and ethical standards of a community, and violations of mores often result in severe consequences. Mores can be thought of as the bedrock of social order and moral consensus. These norms are not just guidelines but are deeply entrenched in the moral fabric of the community. For instance, acts like murder, theft, or fraud are considered violations of societal mores. In many societies, mores are codified into laws to be enforced formally, thereby ensuring that individuals adhere to these fundamental moral principles.

Understanding Folkways

Folkways, on the other hand, are norms that dictate polite and proper behavior in casual, everyday interactions. These norms are not morally significant and their violations rarely result in serious consequences. For instance, shaking hands when greeting someone, dressing appropriately for certain occasions, and using polite language are examples of folkways. While ignoring a folkway might lead to social disapproval or mild ridicule, it does not carry the heavy moral weight or legal ramifications associated with violating a more. Folkways are more flexible and subject to change, reflecting the dynamic aspects of culture and social interaction.

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Key Differences Between Mores and Folkways

The biggest difference between mores and folkways is the level of moral significance and the potential consequences of violating these norms. Mores carry a moral importance that is embedded in the values and ethical standards of a society. Violations of mores are seen as threats to the social order and can result in legal penalties or social ostracism. In contrast, folkways are related to everyday social practices and customs. They guide behavior in casual contexts and are less formalized and binding. Violating a folkway may result in social disapproval but not severe punishment.

Another difference between folkways and mores is their flexibility and susceptibility to change. Folkways are relatively adaptable and can evolve quickly over time as cultural practices and societal preferences shift. Mores, however, are more stable and enduring, reflecting the deep-seated moral beliefs of a society. Changes in mores typically occur more gradually and are often accompanied by significant social upheaval or moral debates.

Examples of Mores in Society

Mores are often reflected in the laws and ethical principles of a society. For example, the prohibition of acts such as murder, theft, and assault are rooted in the mores that value the sanctity of human life and property. Additionally, norms around honesty and integrity in personal and professional dealings are also considered mores, as they uphold trust and reliability within the community.

Certain cultural practices that hold moral significance can also be classified as mores. For instance, in many cultures, respect for elders and obligations to family members are considered moral imperatives. Violating these norms can lead to severe social repercussions and a loss of social standing.

In some societies, religious practices and beliefs are deeply intertwined with mores. Norms that pertain to religious observance, dietary restrictions, and moral conduct prescribed by religious texts are considered integral to the moral fabric of the community. Violating these religious mores can have significant social and spiritual consequences.

Examples of Folkways in Society

Folkways govern the everyday interactions and social practices that make daily life predictable and organized. Examples of folkways include social etiquettes such as saying “please” and “thank you,” standing in line, and taking turns when speaking. These practices facilitate smooth social interactions and help maintain social harmony.

Other examples of folkways include dress codes, such as wearing formal attire to a wedding or business attire to a corporate meeting. These norms are context-specific and may vary widely across different cultures and social settings. While not adhering to these norms might result in mild social disapproval or embarrassment, it does not carry the same weight as disregarding a more.

Folkways also encompass cultural rituals and traditions that are practiced regularly. For instance, shaking hands or bowing when greeting someone are folkways that vary according to cultural customs. Observing these practices helps individuals navigate social interactions respectfully and appropriately.

The Role of Mores and Folkways in Social Norms

Both mores and folkways play crucial roles in maintaining social norms and order within a community. Mores ensure that society’s fundamental values and ethical standards are upheld, promoting social cohesion and stability. They provide a moral framework that guides individuals in making ethical decisions and acting in ways that benefit the community as a whole.

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Folkways, while less formal and binding, contribute to social harmony by regulating everyday behavior and interactions. They help individuals navigate social contexts smoothly and predictably, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings and conflicts.

The interplay between mores and folkways creates a comprehensive system of norms that shapes social behavior. While mores provide the moral foundation, folkways ensure that everyday interactions are conducted in a respectful and orderly manner. Together, they contribute to the overall functioning and stability of society, guiding individuals in their roles and interactions within the community.

Historical Background of Mores and Folkways

Understanding the key distinctions between mores and folkways requires a dive into their historical roots. The concepts of mores and folkways were first introduced by the sociologist William Graham Sumner in the early 20th century. Sumner, in his pivotal work “Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals,” laid the foundation for distinguishing different types of social norms.

Sumner defined **folkways** as the routine conventions of everyday life. These norms are the behavioral habits that form naturally within a society and evolve over time, often unconsciously. Folkways are norms for routine or casual interaction, such as dress codes, table manners, and other day-to-day behaviors. Such conventions do not have a heavy moral significance but help maintain order and predictability.

**Mores**, on the other hand, carry a much greater moral significance. They are deeply rooted in societal values and often underpin the fabric of right and wrong within a culture. Violations of mores are seen as more severe and can result in stronger societal repercussions, such as ostracism or legal penalties. For example, honesty, integrity, and respect for others are often considered mores in many societies, and breaches of these can lead to significant consequences.

The historical context highlights the evolution of these concepts that began with Sumner’s observations and analyses. His work paved the way for contemporary sociological understandings of how norms influence social behavior, stability, and change.

By tracing back to these historical underpinnings, we can better grasp the critical distinction between folkways, which are flexible and adaptive, and mores, which are rigid and fundamental to social ethics and stability. Consequently, appreciating these historical origins enriches our comprehension of how social norms guide human interactions and societal cohesion.

The Role of Mores and Folkways in Social Norms

The influence of mores and folkways extends profoundly into the realm of social norms, serving as the bedrock for societal expectations and behaviors. Social norms are divided into these categories to understand varying degrees of conformity and the societal impact of adherence to or deviation from these norms.

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**Folkways** represent the everyday, casual interactions among members of a society. They govern minor aspects of behavior in social contexts such as dining habits, greetings, and attire. Because they are less strict, violations of folkways etiquette might result in mild disapproval or humor, rather than severe punishment. For example, talking loudly in a library or not shaking hands during a formal introduction might draw minor social censure but unlikely lead to significant reputational damage.

**Mores**, contrastingly, are deeply embedded in the ethical and moral fabric of society. They encompass societal values and underline the morality of a society. Mores govern the sense of right and wrong, and violations are usually met with stern societal condemnation or legal intervention. For instance, acts like theft, dishonesty, or violence are against societal mores and can lead to severe repercussions including legal penalties, community service, or imprisonment. Mores serve as a society’s ethical compass, guiding moral conduct and ensuring societal order and integrity.

Moreover, the role of mores and folkways becomes crucial in understanding **cultural relativism**. Cultural practices that might be folkways in one society could be seen as mores in another. This variability underscores the importance of cultural comprehension and sensitivity when interacting with diverse groups. As globalization bridges closer human contact across different cultures, recognizing and respecting these distinctions fosters better international and intercultural relations.

In summary, mores and folkways are central to the fabric of social norms. Folkways facilitate smooth day-to-day interaction, ensuring societal predictability, while mores uphold the moral framework necessary for the ethical functioning of a community. Both together contribute to the coherence, stability, and continuity of social structures, underscoring the intricate and pivotal role they play in maintaining societal norms.


**What are mores?**
Mores are the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a community, often embodying the moral views and ethical standards that society deems important.

**What are folkways?**
Folkways are the traditional behaviors or ways of life of a particular community or group, generally encompassing everyday habits, routines, and norms that are socially accepted but not morally significant.

**How do mores differ from folkways?**
Mores are more deeply ingrained in the moral and ethical framework of society and often carry stronger social sanctions if violated. Folkways, on the other hand, are more about everyday behaviors and norms that, if broken, may result in minor social disapproval but not severe consequences.

**Can you give an example of a more?**
An example of a more is the prohibition of stealing, which is considered morally and ethically wrong in most societies and is typically enforced by strict laws and social sanctions.

**Can you give an example of a folkway?**
An example of a folkway is the expectation to dress formally at a wedding. While failing to do so may result in social disapproval or being judged as disrespectful, it typically does not have severe moral or legal consequences.

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