Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

The general spirit of collective sentiment informing a people's activities or institutions; used in this sense already by Aristotle (Rhetoric ), the term's sociological bearings were developed especially in William Graham Sumner's Folkways . He emphasized that the ethos of a people represented the totality of cultural traits that individualized them and differentiated them from other groups. This included especially the folkways and mores. The folkways emerged from repeated actions serving the common needs or interests of a group in the struggle for existence. The addition of philosophical or ethical reflection concerning the contribution of the folkways to the public welfare led to the emergence of mores. Religion emerges in this latter context in response to the "aleatory" element in life, that is, good or bad fortune, the fact that expedient practices often fail to produce the desired results. The group's ethos is, in part, expressed in its distinctive response to the aleatory interest, that is, in its religion.

The problems of national character, cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, and in-group/out-group relations all emerge from this matrix of social life, including religion. Group ethos is generally opposed to cosmopolitanism, although Sumner also recognized that a transnational ethos (or "civilization") existed for larger unities such as Europe, China, the Hindus, and others. The ethos thus separates groups and provides the standpoint from which one group criticizes another.

These concepts have become the stock in trade of sociology. Although the idea of "national character" has lost much of its appeal, the notions of cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, and in-group/out-group relations remain central to current controversies over culture.

Donald A. Nielsen


A. Inkeles, National Character (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1997)

W. G. Sumner, Folkways (New York: Ginn, 1906).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500