Folkways Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Folkways, written by a professor of political and social science at Yale University, was one of the powerfully influential books on American thought during the first decade of the twentieth century. The book was an effort to soften the impact of and to justify the implications of Darwinian laissez faire philosophy. As such it was essentially conservative and ran against the growing tide of social and political agitation thrusting toward reform. Because it seemed to be so widely and deeply based on comparative anthropology and sociology, it appeared irrefutable. Consequently its prestige was immense.

Although apparently clear-headed and based on reality, the book often hides its head in mysticism. Pushing the theory that the community cannot bear any responsibility for the acts or welfare of individuals—that in the world of nature red in tooth and fang each individual must shift for himself or founder—Sumner insists that the origins of the community mind or soul or being, whichever one may call it, are shrouded in inpenetrable mystery. These origins he calls folkways as a variant of mores.

He assumes that primitive man’s first purpose in life is to live. The petty and individual acts of each person flow together eventually into patterns that then themselves exert controlling influence upon subsequent acts of various individuals in a group. These folkways, or mores, grow unconsciously, and because they are not purposeful and knowledgeable creations of man, they are largely unalterable. Only the upper layers are subject to change, and change comes slowly. Primitive societies are so constituted as to discourage innovation, variation, and development. In such societies prestige and political control rest with the elders who, having learned customs from their elders, in their turn enforce conformity and throttle liberty of action.

This suppression of change is commendable because the system works. The gradual development of improved folkways results from individual struggle for existence in the Darwinian sense, and the most effective struggle is that of “antagonistic cooperation,” in which competition and combination alternate for a slow thrust forward. Failure to recognize this fact leads to various “socialistic fallacies.”

Sumner’s conservative philosophy is made clear. The folkways that have existed and worked are their own rationale and justification. They are “right” and they are “true.” Because they are both correct and valid they are not subject to examination and verification. Individual “rights” are those rules imposed upon members of the “in-group” to make the society viable and peaceful. Therefore Sumner concludes, in a philosophy running counter to one of the great American political tenents, there is no such thing as “natural” or “God-given” or “absolute” rights.

Folkways exist on two levels, like two ocean currents running in the same direction but at different velocities. The lower consists of the masses of people. They are the real bearers of folkways. The people are suggestible,...

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