MSW's Students (2007-2009), Christ College, Bangalore, India

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Notes on Customs, Traditions, Folkways, mores...


Public health workers consider the customs of people and communities, especially when they try to encourage the acceptance of health promotion and disease prevention programs or policies. Customs are more than aggregates of individual habits. They are regular, patterned, learned, and traditional ways of appearing or behaving in response to a given situation or occasion. Customs may be reflected in language, greetings, communications, religion, and certainly in health practices that distinguish one social group from another. The complexity of the study of customs was emphasized by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who noted in the 1930s that traditional customs the world over consist of a mass of detailed behaviors more varied than that which any one person could ever evolve individually.

Customs are derived from social norms, which are those rules or standards that guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior of a group. These norms define the shared expectations of a group and enable people to anticipate how others will interpret and respond to their words and actions if there is deviation from a custom. For example, if one has an infectious disease, typically the custom within the general community is to act in a manner to prevent infecting others. Failing that, the customary responses from others may range from ignoring the individual's behavior, verbally reprimanding, or even ostracizing him or her for threatening the health of other members.

A custom may exist at the level of a folkway or a more. Each of these concepts help demarcate the strength and importance of a custom held by a particular group relevant to a particular situation. The concept of folkways was developed by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner and his followers in the early 1900s. "The ways of the folk" arose and persisted over time as repetitive and accumulative patterns of expected behavior for responding to similar social situations or individual needs. They ultimately became incorporated into tradition and received some degree of formal recognition but were not considered of moral significance. Folkways may be reflected in the everyday habits and conventions people obey without giving much thought to the matter, for example, eating three meals a day, drinking alcohol but not to a state of drunkenness, or using the group's "right way" to cure disease. People who violate folkways may be labeled eccentrics and as a rule they are tolerated by the group.

When certain folkways become well established and are regarded by general agreement as highly important and obligatory, as evidenced by strong sentiments against deviation and by severe punishment for violation, they become mores. Mores are customs that represent the absolute truth to the particular group and are the norms people consider vital to their well being and to their most cherished values. They typically take the form of laws, for example, prohibitions against incest, drunk driving, and child abuse. In contrast to folkways, violations of mores by people or groups can provoke intense reactions ranging from being ostracized, beaten, jailed, exiled, or executed.

From the moment of birth, the customs into which the people are born shape their experiences and behavior. In many groups, health-related behavior may be custom bound and very normative—tradition sets the precedent and solves problems, whether by authority or by consensus. Individuals are required to learn about the specific customs that shape their health behavior and to perform what they have learned. In reality, however, by the time children can think independently, the health-related customs of the family group have become an intimate part of their personalities. They do not question these customs, which become deeply held and extremely difficult to change over time. For example, the manner of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use in some groups and communities have become customs or norms, even though such use carries major health risks. Any attempts to eliminate or modify or reverse behaviors so integrally tied to social customs often provokes hostile resistance to a new health program that intends to reduce health-related risks. Also, in many groups the custom is not to talk about certain sensitive topics, such as cancer or the sexual activities of adults or teenagers relevant to preventing pregnancy. For instance, in a particular ethnic group, the custom of its members may be to shun any discussion of cancer. The effect of this custom discourages individuals from initiating early screening behaviors that could save their lives.

Sometimes it is necessary to try to change or circumvent established customs in a community, particularly when this can bring modern health procedures for reducing particular health-related risks. Changing folkways and mores can be a very slow process, and it is not until their functional utility has disappeared that they may gradually change. New practices may then become embedded in the community as new values to be transmitted from one generation to the next. This requires public health workers to gradually adapt the customs and values of a community rather than trying to abruptly and totally change them.


A tradition is a practice, custom, or story that is memorized and passed down from generation to generation, originally without the need for a writing system. Tools to aid this process include poetic devices such as rhyme and alliteration. The stories thus preserved are also referred to as tradition, or as part of an oral tradition.

Tradition is a knowledge system (a means of transferring knowledge). Economists Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell explain that tradition is an economically efficient way to transfer and obtain knowledge of all kinds. Sowell, for example, notes that decision-making consumes time (a valuable resource), and cultural traditions offer a rich, low-cost, consensually authenticated way to economize on the resources required to make decisions independently.[1] Chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi argues that the importance of tradition stems precisely from the fact that we know more than we can articulate, and that we amass and communicate valuable knowledge through tradition, often without conscious awareness of all the factors that influenced the development of traditions.[2]

Traditions are often presumed to be ancient, unalterable, and deeply important, though they may sometimes be much less "natural" than is presumed. Some traditions were deliberately invented for one reason or another, often to highlight or enhance the importance of a certain institution.[cite] Traditions may also be changed to suit the needs of the day, and the changes can become accepted as a part of the ancient tradition. A famous book on the subject is The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.

Some examples include "the invention of tradition" in Africa and other colonial holdings by the occupying forces. Requiring legitimacy, the colonial power would often invent a "tradition" which they could use to legitimize their own position. For example, a certain succession to a chiefdom might be recognized by a colonial power as traditional in order to favour their own candidates for the job. Often these inventions were based in some form of tradition, but were grossly exaggerated, distorted, or biased toward a particular interpretation.

Other traditions that have been altered through the years include various religious festivals such as Christmas. The actual date of Jesus' birth does not coincide with December 25 as in the Western Church. This day was chosen to capitalize on the popularity of traditional solstice celebrations


Mores [Pronounced MORE-ays] are strongly held norms or customs. These derive from the established practices of a society rather than its written laws. Taboos form the subset of mores that forbid a society's most outrageous behaviours, such as incest and murder in many societies. Usually these are formalized in some kind of moral code, e.g. commandments. Most sociologists reject the thesis that the formalization matters as much as the informal social response of disgust and isolation of offenders. The term mores (IPA [ˈmɔːreɪz]) as used in sociology is a plural noun. The Latin singular, which is not used in English, is mos--in English, the word has no singular, making it plurale tantum. The English word morality comes from the same root, as does the noun moral, which can mean the 'core meaning of a story'.

However, constant exposure to social mores is thought by some to lead to development of an individual moral core, which is pre-rational and consists of a set of inhibitions that cannot be easily characterized except as potential inhibitions against taking opportunities that the family or society does not consider desirable. These in turn cannot be easily separated from individual opinions or fears of getting caught.

Tocqueville claimed that democracy in America influenced mores properly, from a European perspective; mores became milder as conditions equalized.

Examples of mores are the differences between a man and woman walking down the street topless. While the man may receive mild sanctions a woman would receive harsh sanctions for the same act. Another example might be someone picking his or her nose; which, although harmless, is widely considered as disgusting to the general populace and goes against the normal.


Folkways are the patterns of conventional behavior in a society, norms that apply to everyday matters. They are the conventions and habits learned from childhood.

They are one of two types of norms, the other being Mores, which are much more strictly enforced than folkways. Generally conformity to folkways is ensured by gentle social pressure and imitation. Breaking or questioning a folkway does not cause severe punishment, but may cause the person to be laughed at, frowned upon, or scolded. In western culture, folkways include wearing gender-appropriate clothing, respecting the privacy of strangers, and eating food with the proper utensil.


Mr. Vitou OR said...

Very Clear and detail Explanation

Marianna said...

This was just the link I needed to insert in my latest blog post.

Thank you for a very concise, informative & clear explanation.

It was a beautiful summation of one unit I remember studying in 1st yr. Sociology.

With appreciation; Marianna