The Yale University professor of political and social science William Sumner (1840-1910) coined the term mores from the Latin word mos, which is generally translated as “customs.” He described mores as a type of folkway that a group of people accepted as the unquestioned way in which they should live. Because people do not question their mores, mores regulate behavior and those who violate them receive extreme punishments. Humans crafted folkways and mores because they have basic needs. They adapted folkways that helped them to survive and gave up those that hurt their chance to survive. Mores determined how people acted, and tradition made the mores fixed and coercive. Sumner wrote that mores were so stable that only rulers could gradually change them. This made it useless to try to reform society. He also said that people made laws to enforce their mores. To describe mores in his book Folkways, Sumner used examples from all over the world, so that the book resembles many anthropological works of the early 20th century.
Mores relate to another term Sumner coined, ethno-centrism. He wrote that people do not even notice their mores until they come into contact with people who have different mores. Because people are born into a situation with mores already in place, they do not criticize their own mores but do criticize other people who have different mores.
In anthropology, the concept of mores mostly influenced psychological anthropologists in the United States, such as Clyde Kluckhohn (1905-1960) and Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960), in terms of how they understood the concept of culture. They said that culture had developed out of human needs but that once it was in place, it exerted power over people. Kluckhohn said that a group constantly discovers and invents new things but that only those who contribute to the group’s survival or who promote psychological adjustment become part of the culture. Then the culture regulates every aspect of a person’s life. Kluckhohn also said that once a way of doing something has become institutionalized, people resist changing or deviating from it.
The term mores has become a standard term in sociology, although nowadays most sociologists contrast mores with folkways rather than saying that mores are a type of folkway. They describe folkways as norms that are lightly sanctioned and describe mores as norms based on the core values of society. Thus, murderers, rapists, and child molesters violate some of the most important mores of the United States. Other violations of mores, such as stealing, would be less serious. Sociologists say that mores of the past have become folkways and that folkways have become mores. Furthermore, mores in one society are not mores in another society, and mores of members of subcultures of a culturally diverse society, such as the United States, differ. In general, mores have sanctions, so that a person who violates a more is subject to punishment such as imprisonment or even death. Mores can be further divided into prescriptive and proscriptive mores. Prescriptive mores tell people what they must do, whereas proscriptive mores tell people what they must not do. Common proscriptive mores in the world are not to practice cannibalism or incest. Such extreme mores are also called taboos.
- Kluckhohn, C. (1985). Mirror for man: The relation of anthropology to modern life. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. (Original work published 1949)
- Sumner, W. (1906). Folkways: The study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Boston: Ginn.
- Sumner, W. (1971). Sumner today: Selected essays of William Sumner, with comments by American leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood.