Folkways are informal patterns of social interaction that reveal commonly shared attitudes and beliefs by members of intimate social groups. They are found in all societies and characterize subcultures such as age groups, peer groups, and professional groups, family units, or special interest groups. Folkways are typically unconscious ways of thinking and doing that are not codified as formal rules or regulations. When members of social groups deviate from folk norms, they can experience repercussions, but they are usually insignificant. Folkways are fluid. They appear spontaneously, without collaboration, and they can quickly disappear as group membership or circumstances change. Folkways are highly contextual, but they can survive persecution and be passed down through multiple generations in traditional societies. Anthropologists study folkways as creative adaptations to change as well as persistent ways of maintaining cultural values and behaviors.
Anthropologists study folkways as both material and ideological artifacts. They can be ad hoc explanations for curious circumstances that “make sense” in particular contexts. They can be shared wisdom that doesn’t quite “make sense” at all, but is convenient for the moment. Folkways are most often clever interpretations of formal religious beliefs or scientific explanations when these codified ideas fail the test of “common sense.” They are the names we have for substances we smoke, the procedures we use to dry fruits and preserve vegetables, the things we collect, and the analogies employed by preachers in their sermons. Folkways are innovations and inventions to counter the effects of pests and viruses, the techniques we use to hunt and fish, and the healing arts of folk medicine.
Folkways encompass folklore in the telling of tales, legends, jokes, and even gossip. They are the emotional tone and setting in the transmitting of moral values. They are as much about the way we tell as joke as the joke itself. They are the way we learn about sex, for example, as much as what we learn about it. It is the subtlety or aggression in the way we play lawn games at church picnics, as much as the kinds of games we play. It is the generosity or the intrigue associated with sharing favorite recipes, as much as the details of the ingredients. Folkways are the manner in which we bury our dead and mourn for them.
Folkways are the kinds of items we save for rags, the balls of string we wind, and the drawers full of plastic yogurt containers we never reuse. They are the names we give our children or nicknames we give our friends. Folkways are the practice of cleaning your shovel after you use it, washing your car in the winter, and the habit of kicking your boots against the side of the cement steps to knock of the barn manure before you take them off at night. Folkways are the habits we have that make us unique to others but are not really odd to us. They “make sense.” They were the way your grandmother and her friends wore their hair that wasn’t quite in style. They were the way your grandfather and his friends wore their dress shirts with their new bib overalls went they went to town on Saturday night. Folkways are the quilt designs, quilting bees, and quilt auctions held in country churches in Iowa.
A classic example of an academic analysis of a folk-way is the study of the transformation of the British version of cricket by the Trobriand Islanders off the coast of Papua, New Guinea. The game was introduced by missionaries as a substitute for local warfare between villages a century ago. The new game has expanded the teams to include all the men in each village clan. Challenging teams enter host villages in colorful parades. Players on both teams frequently interrupt the game with highly stylized dances and inventive mimicries of the colonial past. The parades and dances serve as ritualistic forms of aggression. This is an example of how a sport varies across cultures according to local folkways.
- Denbow, J. (1999). Heart and soul: Glimpses of ideology and cosmology in the iconography of tombstones from the Loango Coast of Central Africa. Journal of American Folklore, 112, 404-423.
- Kell, K. T. (1966). Folk names for tobacco. Journal of American Folklore, 79, 590-599.
- Weiner, A. B. (1977). Review of “Trobriand Cricket.” American Anthropologist, 79, 506-507.