|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).
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