Folkways Definition Example Essays

Folkway, the learned behaviour, shared by a social group, that provides a traditional mode of conduct. According to the American sociologist William Graham Sumner, who coined the term, folkways are social conventions that are not considered to be of moral significance by members of the group (e.g., customary behaviour for use of the telephone). The folkways of groups, like the habits of individuals, originate in the frequent repetition of acts that prove successful for satisfying basic human needs. These acts become uniform and are widely accepted. Folkways operate primarily at an unconscious level and persist because they are expedient. They tend to group themselves around major social concerns, such as sex, forming social institutions (e.g., the family). Sumner believed that folkways from diverse areas of life tended to become consistent with each other, creating definite patterns.

Tradition, habit, and religious sanctions tend to strengthen folkways as time passes, making them more and more arbitrary, positive, and compelling. Some folkways become mores (borrowed from the Latin word for customs by Sumner) when they become ethical principles, the behaviours considered essential to the welfare of the society. Mores are more coercive than folkways: relatively mild disapproval follows an infringement of a folkway; severe disapproval or punishment follows the breaking of mores. Polygamy violates the mores of American society; failure to wait one’s turn in line is a breach of folkways.

Sumner saw folkways and mores as essentially conservative and doubted the ability of members of the society to change them consciously. The small variations introduced by individuals in their observance, however, allows for some change, according to Sumner. See alsonorm.

Folkways in Sociology: Meaning, Characteristics and Importance!

Noted early American sociologist, William G. Sumner (1840-1910) identified two types of norms in his book Folkways (1906), which he labelled as ‘folkways’ and ‘mores’. They represent modes of procedure in a society or in a group.

They present to us the most frequent or most accepted or most standardised ways of doing this or that. Folkways are distinguished from mores not by their content but by the degree to which group members are compelled to conform to them, by the degree of importance, by the severity of punishment if they are violated, or by the intensity of feelings associated with adherence to them.

What are folkways?

According to Reuter and Hart (1933), “The folkways are simple habits of action common to the members of the group; they are the ways of the folks that are somewhat standardised and have some degree of traditional sanction for their persistence”. Maclver and Page (1949) defined it as: “The folkways are the recognized or accepted ways of behaving in the society.”

In simple terms, folkways are the customary, normal and habitual ways of the group to meet certain needs or solving day-to-day problems. The time of meals, the number of meals per day, the manner of taking meals—lunch or dinner, the kind of food used, the manner of its preparations, the manner of speech and dress, forms of etiquette and the numerous other facts of daily life are some of the examples of customary practices to which individuals conform in their personal habits.

Any routine activity in itself is a habit from the point of view of the individual person but when it becomes general among the communicating folk, it is known as folkway, i.e., a habit of a group. Out of habits develop the uniformities in habit to which sociologist’s term as folkways or customs. Not all (group) habits become general. They differ from individual to individual and place to place.

Habits are repetitive actions of a person:

They are learned in the process of socialisation. They become the second nature of the individual. When habits are socially approved and followed by a number of persons in a society, they become folkways, for example, habits of exchanging greetings and courtesies.

The wearing of a cap, hat or turban and many other matters of dress are habits of individuals but they are folkways from the point of view of the group. Shaking hands, eating with forks and knives, driving on the left or right hand side of the street, attending classes in paints and skirts rather than gowns or bathing suits or writing as ‘Dear Sir’, Gentleman in the letter are a few of many western or American folkways.

Similarly, wearing turban and sherwani (long embroidered coat) and riding the female horse by the bridegroom at the time of marriage procession, wearing a Mangal Sutra (a gold chain with beads) by a married Hindu woman, bidding ‘Namaste’ with joined palms or cleaning of hands before taking food are some of the examples of Indian folkways. Folkways cover a good proportion of our daily habits from the rules of simple etiquette to the technical way of handling problems.


W.G. Sumner (1906) wrote:

“The folkways are unconscious, sponta­neous, uncoordinated adjustment of man to his environment, the product of the frequent repetition of petty acts, often by great numerous acting in concern or at least acting in the same way when face to face with the same need.”

The major characteristics of folkways are as under:

(1) Folkways arise spontaneously out of the fundamental fact that man must act in order to live. They generally arise unconsciously in a group such as shaking hands, tipping the hat, calling on strangers and without planned or rational thought.

(2) Folkways develop out of group experience. They are passed down from generation to generation through interaction.

(3) They change as culture changes or when we enter different situations.

(4) Folkways are the weakest norms, which are most often violated but least likely to carry any severe punishment. Violations of folkways bring only mild censure in the form of some smiles, glances, or occasional comments from others.

(5) Folkways are not looked on by most people as moral matters. They are deemed the ‘right’ way and ‘normal’. People accept most of them unquestionably.

(6) Folkways differ from mores in that they are less severely sanctioned and are not abstract principles.

(7) Folkways (customs) may and sometimes do become burdensome.

They sometimes exact more energy than they conserve.

(8) Every society has some/many folkways. Even the most primitive society will have a few hundred folkways. In modern industrial societies they become even more numerous and involved.


Folkways are the basis of culture. They give us better understanding about a particular culture. They are regulative and exert pressure upon the individual and the group to conform to the norms. They are most powerful and control the behaviour of individuals in society even more than the state action. Folkways are as indispensable to social life as language, and they serve much the same purpose.

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