Cultural Mores, Folkways, Laws & Sanctions

Instructor: Emily Cummins
Social norms guide our behavior and interaction with other people. In this lesson, we'll talk about folkways, mores, taboos, and laws, which are types of norms that we don't want to violate in our society.

Social Norms

Why do you face front when you get in an elevator? Why do you say please and thank you? Is it always considered polite to eat everything on your plate when you are a guest at someone's home? Everyday, our actions and interactions are guided by a set of shared, often tacit, understandings of how to behave in the world. These are called social norms and they refer to the ways that different cultures expect people to behave. In this lesson, we'll talk about a few specific types of social norms as well as what might happen to us if we violate our social norms. Let's go over some of the main social norms that sociologists believe help to structure our society.

Folkways, Mores, Taboos, Laws

First, we have folkways, which are norms that really aren't all that strict. So, for example, if you do go ahead and face backwards in an elevator, it's not really that big of a deal. Think of folkways as more like the norms that govern casual or informal social interaction. Folkways are learned through socialization into a particular culture. In other words, as we grow up in a particular place we come to understand how we're expected to behave in public settings.

Mores refer to things that we, as a culture, consider to be deeply held values that we do not want to break. So, these are much stricter than folkways. Mores are things like the famous expression thou shall not kill. In other words, we agree that things like murder or stealing are bad. Mores are a society's most important values.

Taboos are beliefs a society holds about certain actions that, in general, we feel extremely uncomfortable engaging in. So, for example, it is a taboo to have a romantic relationship with a sibling. But, something that is taboo in one culture might not be taboo in all cultures. For example, in parts of Asia it is common to eat dog meat but in the United States this is very taboo because dogs are our cherished pets.

Laws are written and enforced rules that guide behavior. They are more like a system of rules that are enforced by some institution, like the police or the government. Laws are different from mores in that they are guided by an authority as opposed to a society's moral beliefs. So, taking our example of murder: mores define murder as wrong because it violates our collective sense of morality. But laws define murder as wrong in a more specific way, and there is a specific punishment attached. And on that note about punishment, let's talk about the sanctions for violating norms.


So what happens if we ignore all of this and violate common curtesy or expected behavior? Well, there are likely going to be sanctions, which refer to the ways we might punish or reward people for breaking or following our cultural norms.

Let's go back to our first example of the elevator. It's generally just expected that people will face forward in the elevator. But, if you don't, it's not likely that you'll get kicked out of the elevator. It's likely that you'll get weird looks from people on the elevator, but that's probably all. Folkways have very few sanctions. You might get a strange look if you walk backwards down the sidewalk, but it's unlikely much is going to happen.

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