Folkways in Sociology: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published June 23, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Folkway is a sociological term that refers to socially approved and traditional norms or standards of everyday behavior. William Graham Sumner coined the term in 1906 in his book Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals.

Folkways guide people's behavior in much the same way that laws do, but they are not codified as laws are. Folkways are passed down from one generation to another and become part of our social heritage. They govern the small details of everyday life, such as how people dress, what they eat, how they greet others, and how they use utensils at the dinner table (Sumner, 2007).

While folkways are not laws, violating them can result in sanctions from others. Sanctions can be either positive or negative. Positive sanctions reward people for conforming to a folkway.

Meanwhile, negative sanctions punish us for violating a folkway. For example, if someone wears a suit to a job interview, they may receive positive sanctions in the form of compliments from the interviewer and a perception of professionalism.

On the other hand, if someone comes to the interview in ripped jeans and a t-shirt, they may receive negative sanctions in the form of being told that they are not dressed appropriately for the occasion through rejection.

Folkway Patterns

There are four main patterns of folkways:

  1. Secularization: the process by which folkways become less important and lose their hold over people's behavior.
  2. Diffusion: the process by which folkways spread from one group to another.
  3. Assimilation: the process by which folkways are adopted by a new group of people.
  4. Persistence: the process by which folkways resist change and remain unchanged over time.

Receiving gifts

The act of giving and receiving gifts has a long history, and there are many different customs associated with it. In some cultures, gifts are given to mark important occasions, such as births, weddings, and holidays. In other cultures or contexts, gifts are given to show appreciation or gratitude.

Folkways can also concern how and when someone is supposed to open a gift. For example, in American and British Cultures, people are generally expected to open a gift upon receiving it and provide the giver a positive affirmation. In many Arab cultures, however, opening a gift as it is received would be considered rude.

Covering one's mouth when they cough or sneeze

The act of covering one's mouth is a way to be polite and prevent the spread of germs. There are also folkways concerning how people may react to coughing or sneezing. For example, people may say "bless you" as a polite gesture when witnessing a sneeze.

Alcoholic Consumption Customs

Generally, in Anglophonic cultures, alcoholic beverages are most acceptably consumed during the evening. Still, in other cultures, drinking wine or beer at lunchtime may be typical, or unacceptable altogether.

Not Spitting on The Sidewalk

Spitting on the sidewalk, in most cultures, is seen as impolite and unsanitary. Folkways typically dictate that one should expectorate in an appropriate receptacle, such as a waste bin, and not in public spaces where others have to see or step in it.

This folkway has become a law in Singapore, which legally banned the act of spitting on the sidewalk (Austin, 1987).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, June 23). Folkways in Sociology: Definition & Examples . Simply Sociology.


Austin, W. T. (1987). Crime and custom in an orderly society: The Singapore prototype. Criminology25(2), 279-294.

Lemert, E. M. (1942). The folkways and social control. American Sociological Review7(3), 394-399.

Sumner, William Graham. [1906] 2002. Folkways: A Study of Mores, Manners, Customs, and Morals. Mineola, NY: Dover

Sumner, W. G. (2017). Folkways and mores. In The sociology of law (pp. 50-54). Routledge.

Sumner, W. G. (2019). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Good Press.