Sociology Sociology of Manners
Andrea Voyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0214


Depending on how explicitly one requires work to engage the subject of manners per se, a bibliography of the literature in the sociology of manners either could include any work that indirectly considered the existence and importance of manners as constitutive of social norms—a body of work representing a tremendous swath of the sociological writings produced since the earliest days of the discipline—or, alternatively, could be confined quite narrowly to just the small sociological literature taking manners themselves as a theoretical and empirical object of interest. In this article, an attempt is made to chart a middle path by nodding to the implicit position of manners in much sociological work and then providing detail on the research that explicitly engages the subject of manners as an empirical object. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the subject of manners, exemplary works are cited from other disciplines, including history and cultural studies. The underlying assumption of much work in the sociology of manners is that the study of manners provides important insight into social norms, social structure, social interaction, and the culture of the population or epoch under investigation. In sociology the concept of manners generally refers to patterned interactions, prevailing norms and customs, and contextually dependent and socially anticipated behaviors. Manners are closely related to etiquette, which refers to more formally codified standards of behavior. As it is typically employed in sociology, manners is a more expansive concept than etiquette. Mannerly behavior is assumed to provide information about the groups it is characteristic of while also expressing the preferences, tastes, and background experiences of the actor as well as potentially revealing their emotional disposition toward the people with whom they are interacting. Meanwhile, as more generally acknowledged rules of behavior that tend to be explicitly recorded and disseminated, etiquette may be learned and enacted without an assumed connection to the disposition of the actor. For the purposes of this review of the sociology of manners, literature on both manners and etiquette is included. Generally speaking, the sociology of manners falls into four broad categories: explicit study of the role of manners in establishing and maintaining structures of power, social control, and the fit between individuals and society; consideration of manners as elements of social norms; study of the role of manners in interaction; and emphasis on manners as characteristics of particular social groups and indicating the boundaries between groups.

Civilizing, Social Structure, and Power

Manners are an explicit subject of research among a small but active group of researchers. This work draws upon Nobert Elias’s concept of the civilizing process in order to examine the general structure of systems of manners, often across time and cultures, so as to uncover general social changes in social structure, power, and the construction of the social self (Elias 2000). Wouters 2007 and Mennell 2007 apply Elias’s insights to consider the civilizing process as it relates to the contemporary national character of the United States and to the widespread growth of informality in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, Finkelstein 1989 follows Elias in observing the way that the social self is constructed in the manners of eating out. Michel Foucault’s thinking on the relationship between codes of conduct, technologies of power, and technologies of the self is a close alternative to Elias’s work, but one in which interrogating power is the primary focus (Foucault 1990). Ylivuori 2014 applies Foucault’s notions to the topic of feminine politeness and the gendered construction of power. Arditi 1999 studies etiquette manuals for evidence of the organization of power in society.

  • Arditi, Jorge. 1999. Etiquette books, discourse and the deployment of an order of things. Theory, Culture & Society 16.4: 25–48.

    DOI: 10.1177/02632769922050700

    Examines changes in systems of manners as a Foucauldian transformation in the way that power is exercised. The change in the format of etiquette books from treatise to reference book reflects a societal transition from commitment to a generally applicable theory of behavior to a decentered system of social relations that entail their own rules.

  • Elias, Norbert. 2000. The civilizing process: Sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations. Rev. ed. Edited by Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Elias introduces the civilizing process, showing how individual psychology, national character, and power are mutually organized. Comparing differences in the development of German and French manners, Elias demonstrates that changes in expected behavior occurred while the power of the state was being centralized. The psychological adaptations and dispositions of people arise from social changes that require the rise and dissemination of systems of etiquette fostering individual self-control and self-restraint.

  • Finkelstein, Joanne. 1989. Dining out: A sociology of modern manners. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Finkelstein uses styles of interaction while eating out in restaurants to derive insight into the close connection between self and society. The author argues that manners are systems of emotion, control, and emotional management that make the individual and society inseparable. Thus, Finkelstein offers a psychologistic view of human action as arising from modern selves that reflect the interplay between grounded manners and each human’s personal history.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1990. The history of sexuality. Vol. 2, The use of pleasure. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

    Foucault argues that codes of conduct form the crucial link between social morality and the practice of the self. Conforming to codes of conduct shapes the self through the idea that behavioral compliance requires some control of the self; in the individually experienced obligation to follow codes of conduct; and the inclusion of mannerly behavior in a set of moral practices that constitute the person’s being in the world. Originally published as L’usage des plaisirs (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1984).

  • Mennell, Stephen. 2007. The American civilizing process. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    Mennell compares American habitus to that of Europe. Americans are inclined to believe in the inevitability of progress and that this belief leads to a nationally particular preference for limited government. Because American society has never had an aristocracy, a more informal system of etiquette obtains. The American civilizing process operates in the logic of the market, crime and punishment, immigrant incorporation, and the notion of the American Dream.

  • Wouters, Cas. 2007. Informalization: Manners and emotions since 1890. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446214848

    Wouters compares changes in etiquette books in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany with the goal of connecting changes at the macro-level systems of etiquette to changes in sociogenesis, namely the emotional development of people. Wouters identifies a trend of “informalization” in which people are less constrained in their behavior. Informalization occurs alongside a rise in self-control and the requirement of affecting a lack of constraint.

  • Ylivuori, Soile. 2014. A polite Foucault? Eighteenth-century politeness as a disciplinary system and practice of the self. Cultural History 3.2: 170–189.

    DOI: 10.3366/cult.2014.0069

    Ylivuori applies Foucault to consideration of feminine politeness as a disciplinary system that operates as a technology of power over women, while simultaneously operating as a technology of the self that shapes individual practices as well as the nature of individual freedom and the exercise of self-control.

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