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Difference Between Laws and Customs

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  • 0:02 Defining Customs and Laws
  • 1:18 Differences Between…
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
While they are similar in some ways, the following lesson is meant to discuss the differences between laws and customs. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.

Defining Customs and Laws

On the 4th of July in America, what's the one thing you can count on seeing either by looking up at the sky or by turning on a TV? If you guessed fireworks, that's exactly right. Why, though, do we shoot off fireworks on the 4th of July? We might also ask ourselves questions like, 'why do so many people put up Christmas trees during the Christmas holiday season', or maybe something more universal like, 'why do we hold doors open for strangers or shake someone's hand upon meeting them for the first time'. Nobody forces us to do these things, and if we didn't do them, there aren't any real serious consequences we have to worry about.

The reason why we don't have to worry about not partaking in some of these gestures is because they are cultural customs rather than formal laws. To be more specific, customs are widely accepted expectations of behavior that are particular to a specific place, time, or society. Laws, on the other hand, are formal sets of rules that govern the behavior of a group of people.

The difference between customs and laws given here is subtle, for now, because they do sound somewhat similar. In fact, many formal laws do arise from customs. To get a better understanding of the nuances between the two terms, let's take a look at some other ways in which customs differ from laws.

Differences Between Customs and Laws

We can outline roughly five distinct differences between customs and laws. First, laws are purposively established, whereas customs tend to grow naturally over time. In our 4th of July example from before, the custom of using fireworks to commemorate our nation's independence isn't something that's required for us to do. It grew over time. However, there are definite legal requirements as to who can use fireworks and where they can be used. People actually sat down and established those particular rules.

Secondly, law needs a special agency for enforcement and often involves formal punishment for non-compliance; custom does not. Custom is largely enforced by spontaneous social action. People may think you are unpatriotic if you don't partake in watching a fireworks display on the 4th of July, but no physical penalty will befall you for doing this. However, allowing 12-year-olds to fire off fireworks in their enclosed backyard may violate some very specific laws, and punishment may come from the police.

Laws also tend to be specific, whereas customs often are not. Laws in any area are gathered together and written down somewhere. Customs, on the other hand, are learned by living in a particular area, time, or society. In other words, most of the time, nobody tells you the customs of a place or culture. You often learn them over time through observation. You might learn certain customs by asking a native if you are a visitor, but you will not find them in an official book.

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