Folkways. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Habitual actions, such as manners, customs, usages, and mores. An expanded sense of the
term includes values and meanings in an attempt to describe the complex interlocking
parts of a cultural system. Folkways might best be thought of as cultural artifacts, actions
that due to their repeatability have the stability of objects. An example might be as simple
as the custom in the United States of shaking hands when first greeting someone; the
same encounter in France would require the mutual kissing of both cheeks.
Folkways as a term first appeared in 1906 with the publication of American
sociologist William Graham Sumner’s book of the same name (Sumner [1906] 1960).
The term has remained in circulation mostly among historians and sociologists, especially
those who work within the American context, having never really attracted much
attention from folklorists. Folkways research is most often focused at the national or
regional level and often emphasizes instances of ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own
practices are right and natural and those of another culture are wrong or illogical. The
anthropologist Edward Hall’s many books focus on just such issues.
Sumner conceived of folkways as being the result of instincts becoming customary: Basic
drives for food or shelter come to be satisfied in particular ways accepted by the group.
Children or other novices learn mostly through imitation and less often through
instruction. Even in instruction, however, the reasons for a particular action remain
largely unknown to both teacher and pupil. In some sense, folkways challenge
conventional understandings of meaning as explicit; the meaning of habitual actions is in the actions themselves, repeated through
space and time. If asked, most people will not be able to tell why they cross themselves
whenever they pass a cemetery, yet the action in itself has significnce—it gives comfort,
connects the individual with a particular perspective on death, and/or pays respect to the
An enumeration of things that could be considered as folkways includes: (1) speech:
conventions of writing or speaking as well as pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax,
grammar, and inflection (such as the different forms of the second-person plural in the
United States, including “you guys,” “y’all,” “You ‘uns,” and the like; (2) housing: what
kind of homes people build as well as how they live in them; (3) family: parenting
responsibilities, marriage customs, and social relations between family members; and (4)
food: what people eat and how they eat it, special feasting or fasting occasions (note the
term “foodways”). The list could be much longer, and it could include folkways of sex,
religion, magic, dress, sports, work, and more. Readers examining particular studies
would find that they only augment this list.
Folkways should not be taken as standing in opposition to modernity, as habits of
limited use and practiced unconsciously. As some scholars have made clear, the more
advanced a society becomes in material terms, the stronger its folkways become,
concretized in technologies and sometimes required by institutions (Fischer 1989:10). For
example, the fondness of Cajuns for such foods as crawfish is only redoubled by the
establishing of modern crawfish-farming methods.
John Laudun
Fischer, David Hackett. 1989. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Sumner, William Graham. [1906] 1960. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological
Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Mentor