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Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the different types of norms, and their importance to culture.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello, and welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. The topic of today's lesson is norms, mores, and folkways. This is a topic of great interest to sociologists generally and especially to sociologists of culture specifically.

Norms can either be formal or informal. And we define norms as formal or informal rules of conduct and behavioral expectations in social interaction. So an informal norm is classroom etiquette. You're expected to sit there, not interrupt the teacher, be quiet, don't distract other students. Those are informal norms that we have.

We also have formal norms, like legal obligations, laws, things like that. Those are more formal, written down types of norms.

So in addition to norms being formal and informal, we also have what are called prescriptive norms and proscriptive norms. Prescriptive norms are norms that tell you what one should do. They prescribe what one should do in social interaction. Again, one should sit quietly in a classroom. One should obey the law of society. These are prescriptive norms telling an individual what to do.

Proscriptive norms, on the other hand, proscribe what an individual is not to do, what should be avoided. One should not talk while another is talking, or one should not steal from the boss at work. These are proscriptive norms, because they tell us what we should not do, what kind of behavior should be avoided.

We're going to turn now to discuss mores and folkways with respect to norms. So William Graham Sumner, who was an early American sociologist, he gave us these ideas of more and folkways. And we still use these terms today. Sumner actually held the first sociology professorship at Yale College. And he died in 1910.

So mores are elevated norms with moral dimensions. They are elevated norms with moral dimensions that are widely observed, ie, the really bad stuff in society, murder, incest, child abuse, for example. As members of society, we are morally obligated to behave in certain ways.

And most all of us observe these behaviors. We don't go around killing each other or abusing children most of the time. So mores then are just widely-held norms with moral dimensions like this.

These awful behaviors in society are also taboo. Taboos are mores that have prescriptive bans-- or that have proscriptive bans, sorry, on the worst conduct in society. So for example, some of you might be familiar with the show To Catch A Predator, where a decoy goes online and chats with somebody looking to solicit sex from the underage person.

So they go to the house and then there they find Chris Matthews waiting for him to spring it on him. What are you doing here? So this is an example of taboo behavior. You're not allowed to solicit sex from somebody who's underage.

Folkways, on the other hand, another of Summer's terms, folkways are norms for casual interaction, norms that govern casual interaction and whose violation often has little consequence for the offender. But they're widely observed nonetheless.

So think about all those meaningless interactions you have that we do just anyway, like when you get back to work on Monday and you ask your coworker, how was your weekend? Well, good. Yours? Good. That doesn't really tell anybody anything.

But yet we engage in this kind of behavior all the time. And to not do it would seem odd. So these are just day-to-day interaction casual norms. Those are folkways.

Another example is like bringing a small gift to a dinner party. If you get invited to a dinner party, it might be nice to bring like an appetizer or bring something to drink, like that. You're not going to get ostracized if you don't do it. But these are still widely observed norms. And these are folkways. And folkways can vary by subculture, whereas mores are more universally held.

So we study this stuff because norms, mores, and folkways are the foundation of culture. They're the rules that enable us to live together in groups and form relatively stable societies that can last over time and not come apart, because we all know how to behave together. We need rules, laws, mores, and norms to exist. And the better you are at learning all of these little subtleties, the more socially aware you are and the more likely you're going to have success.

Nobody likes that coarse, uncouth, or crass person who doesn't seem to understand the subtle rules of interaction that the rest of us understand. So the more familiar you are with all these things, the better off you're going to be. And we learn it through socialization, through watching others as we grow. I hope you enjoyed this discussion of norms, mores, and folkways. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

Norms for casual interaction whose violation often has little consequence but are widely observed nonetheless.


Elevated norms with moral dimensions that are widely observed.


Formal and informal rules of conduct and behavioral expectations in social interaction.

Prescriptive Norms

Norms that prescribe what one should do in social interaction.

Proscriptive Norms

Norms that prescribe what one should not do in social interaction.


Mores that are proscriptive bans on the worst conduct in society.