Folkways, Mores, Taboos, and Laws

An Overview of Core Sociological Concepts

People wait in line to pay at a grocery store, demonstrating a common folkway in many societies.
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The social norm, or simply "norm," is arguably the most important concept in sociology. Sociologists believe that norms govern our lives by giving us implicit and explicit guidance on what to think and believe, how to behave, and how to interact with others. We learn norms in a variety of settings and from various people, including our family, our teachers and peers at school, and members of the media. There are four key types of norms, with differing levels of scope and reach, significance and importance, and methods of enforcement. These norms are, in order of increasing significance, folkways, mores, taboos, and laws.

Folkways

Early American sociologist William Graham Sumner was the first to write about the distinctions between different types of norms in his book "Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals" (1906). Sumner created the framework that sociologists still use today. Folkways, he wrote, are norms that stem from and organize casual interactions, and emerge out of repetition and routines. We engage in them to satisfy our daily needs, and they are most often unconscious in operation, though they are quite useful for the ordered functioning of society.

A common example of a folkway is the practice, in many societies, of waiting in line. This practice brings order to the process of buying things or receiving services, allowing us to more easily perform the tasks of our daily lives. Other examples of folkways include the concept of appropriate dress, the practice of raising one's hand to take turns speaking in a group, and the practice of "civil inattention"—when we politely ignore others around us in public settings.

Folkways mark the distinction between rude and polite behavior, so they exert a form of social pressure that encourages us to act and interact in certain ways. However, they do not have moral significance, and there are rarely serious consequences or sanctions for violating them.

Mores

Mores are more strict than folkways, as they determine what is considered moral and ethical behavior; they structure the difference between right and wrong. People feel strongly about mores, and violating them typically results in disapproval or ostracizing. As such, mores exact a greater coercive force in shaping our values, beliefs, behavior, and interactions than do folkways.

Religious doctrines are an example of mores that govern social behavior. For example, many religions have prohibitions on cohabitating with a romantic partner before marriage. If a young adult from a strict religious family moves in with her boyfriend, her family, friends, and congregation are likely to view her behavior as immoral. They might punish her behavior by scolding her, threatening judgment in the afterlife, or shunning her from their homes and the church. These actions are meant to indicate that her behavior is immoral and unacceptable, and are designed to make her change her behavior to align with the violated more.

The belief that forms of discrimination and oppression, like racism and sexism, are unethical is another example of an important more in many societies today.

Taboos

A taboo is a very strong negative norm; it is a prohibition of certain behavior that is so strict that violating it results in extreme disgust and even expulsion from the group or society. Often times the violator of the taboo is considered unfit to live in that society. For instance, in some Muslim cultures, eating pork is taboo because the pig is considered unclean. At the more extreme end, incest and cannibalism are both considered taboos in most places.

Laws

A law is a norm that is formally inscribed at the state or federal level and is enforced by police or other government agents. Laws exist to discourage behavior that would typically result in injury or harm to another person, including violations of property rights.Those who enforce laws have been given legal right by a government to control behavior for the good of society at large. When someone violates a law, a state authority will impose a sanction, which can be as light as a payable fine or as severe as imprisonment.