The word custom is used to apply to the totality of behavior patterns which are carried by tradition and lodged in the group, as contrasted with the more random personal activities of the individual. It is not properly applicable to those aspects of communal activity which are obviously determined by biological considerations. The habit of eating fried chicken is a custom, but the biologically determined habit of eating is not.
Custom is a variable common sense concept which has served as the matrix for the development of the more refined and technical anthropological concept of culture. It is not as purely denotative and objective a term as culture and has a slightly affective quality indicated by the fact that one uses it more easily to refer to geographically remote, to primitive or to bygone societies than to one's own. When applied to the behavior of one's own group the term is usually limited to relatively unimportant and unformalized behavior patterns which lie between individual habits and social institutions. Cigarette smoking is more readily called a custom than is the trial of criminals in court. However, in dealing with contemporary Chinese civilization, with early Babylonian culture or with the life of a primitive Australian tribe the functional equivalent of such a cultural pattern as our court trial is designated as custom. The hesitation to de. scribe as custom any type of behavior in one's own group that is not at once collective and devoid of major importance is perhaps due to the fact that one involuntarily prefers to put the emphasis either on significant individualism, in which case the word habit is used, or on a thoroughly rationalized and formalized collective intention, in which case the term institution seems in place.
Custom is often used interchangeably with convention, tradition and mores, but the connotations are not quite the same. Convention emphasizes the lack of inner necessity in the behavior pattern and often implies some measure of agreement, express or tacit, that a certain mode of behavior be accepted as proper. The more symbolic or indirect the function of a custom, the more readily is it referred to as a convention. It is a custom to write with pen and ink; it is a convention to use a certain kind of paper in formal correspondence. Tradition emphasizes the historic background of custom. No one accuses a community of being wanting in customs and conventions, but if these are not felt as possessed of considerable antiquity a community is said to have few if any traditions, The difference between custom and tradition is more subjective than objective, for there are few customs whose complete explanation in terms of history does not take one back to a remote antiquity. The term mores is best reserved for those customs which connote fairly strong feelings of the rightness or wrongness of modes of behavior. The mores of a people are its unformulated ethics as seen in action. Such terms, as custom, institution, convention, tradition and mores are, however, hardly capable of a precise scientific definition. All of them are reducible to social habit or, if one prefers the anthropological to the psychological point of view, to cultural pattern. Habit and culture are terms which can be defined with some degree of precision and
(659) should always be substituted for custom in strictly scientific discourse, habit or habit system being used when the locus of behavior is thought of as residing in the individual, cultural pattern or culture when its locus is thought of as residing in society.
From a biological standpoint all customs are in origin individual habits which have become diffused in society through the interaction of individual upon individual. These diffused or socialized habits, however, tend to maintain themselves because of the unbroken continuity of the diffusion process from generation to generation. One more often sees custom helping to form individual habit than individual habit being made over into custom. In the main, group psychology takes precedence over individual psychology. In no society, however primitive or remote in time, are the interactions of its members not controlled by a complex network of custom. Even at an early stage of the palaeolithic period human beings must have been ruled by custom to a very considerable extent, as is shown by the rather sharply delimited types of artifacts that were made and the inferences that can be drawn from some of these as to beliefs and attitudes.
The crystallization of individual habit into custom is a process that can be followed out theoretically rather more easily than illustrated in practise. A distinction can be made between customs of long tenure and customs of short tenure generally known as fashions. Fashions are set by a specific individual or group of individuals. When they have had a long enough lease of life to make it seem unimportant to recall the source or original locality of the behavior pattern, they have become customs. The habit of wearing a hat is a custom, but the habit of wearing a particular style of hat is a fashion subject to fairly rapid change. In the sphere of language custom is generally referred to as usage. Uncrystallized usages of speech are linguistic fashions, of which slang forms a particular variety. Food habits too form a well recognized set of customs, within which arise human variations that may be called fashions of food and that tend to die out after a brief period. Fashions are not to be considered as additions to custom but rather as experimental variations of the fundamental themes of custom.In course of time isolated behavior patterns of a customary nature tend to group themselves Into larger configurations which have a formal cohesion and which tend to be rationalized as functional units whether they are such historically or not. The whole history of culture has been little more than a ceaseless effort to connect originally independent modes of behavior into larger systems and to justify the secondary culture complexes by an unconscious process of rationalization. An excellent example of such a culture complex, which derives its elements from thousands of disparate customs, is the modern musical system, which is undoubtedly felt by those who make use of it to be a well compacted functional whole with various elements that are functionally interdependent. Historically, however, it is very easy to prove that the system of musical notation, the rules of harmony, the instrumental techniques, the patterns of musical composition arid the conventional uses of particular instruments for specific purposes are independently derivable from customs of very different provenience and of very different age, and that it is only by slow processes of transfer of use and progressive integration of all these socialized modes of behavior that they have come to help each other out in a complex system of unified meanings. Hundreds of parallel instances could be given from such diverse fields of social activity as language, architecture, political organization, industrial technique, religion, warfare and social etiquette.
The impermanence of custom is a truism. Belief in the rapidity of change of custom is exaggerated, however, because it is precisely the comparatively slight divergences from what is socially established that arouse attention. A comparison of American life today with the life of a mediaeval English town would in the larger perspective of cultural anthropology illustrate rather the relative permanence of culture than its tendency to change.
The disharmony which cumulatively results from the use of tools, insights or other manipulative types of behavior which had enriched the cultural stock in trade of society a little earlier results in change of custom. The introduction of the automobile, for instance, was not at first felt as necessarily disturbing custom, but in the long run all those customs appertaining to visiting and other modes of disposing of one's leisure time have come to be seriously modified by the automobile as a power contrivance. Amenities of social intercourse felt to be obstructive to the free utilization of this new source of power tend to be dismissed or abbreviated. Disharmony resulting from the rise of new values also makes
(660) for change in custom. For example, the greater freedom of manner of the modern woman as contrasted with the far more conventionally circumscribed conduct of women of generations ago has come about because of the rise of a new attitude toward woman and her relation to man. The influences exerted by foreign peoples, e.g. the introduction of tea and coffee in occidental society and the spread of parliamentary government from country to country, are stressed by anthropologists more than by the majority of historians and sociologists as determinants of change. Most popular examples of the imposition of fashions which proceed from strategic personalities are probably fanciful and due to a desire to dramatize the operation of the more impersonal factors, which are much more important in the aggregate than the specific personal ones. With the gradual spread of a custom that is largely symbolic and characteristic of a selected portion of the population, the fundamental reason for its continuance weakens, so that it either dies out or takes on an entirely new function. This mechanism is particularly noteworthy in the life of language. Locutions which are considered smart or chic because they are the property of privileged circles are soon taken up by the masses and then die because of their banality. A much more powerful and exact knowledge of the nature of individual interaction, particularly as regards the unconscious transfer of feeling, is needed before a really satisfying theory of cultural change can be formulated.
Those customs survive the longest which either correspond to so basic a human need that they cannot well be seriously changed or else are of such a nature that they can easily be functionally reinterpreted. An example of the former type of persistence is the custom of having a mother suckle her child. There are numerous departures from this rule, yet both modern America and the more primitive tribes preserve as a custom a mode of behavior which obviously lies close to the life of man in nature. An example of the latter type of persistence, which may be called adaptive persistence, is language, which tends to remain fairly true to set form but which is constantly undergoing reinterpretation in accordance with the demands of the civilization which it serves. For example, the word robin refers in the United States to a very different bird from the English bird that was originally meant. The word could linger on with a modified meaning because it is a symbol and therefore capable of indefinite reinterpretation.
The word survival should not be used for a custom having a clearly defined function which can be shown to be different from its original place and significance in culture. When used in the latter, looser sense the word survival threatens to lose all useful meaning. There are few customs among us today which are not survivals in this sense. There are, however, certain customs which it is difficult to rationalize on any count and which may be looked upon as analogous to rudimentary organs in biology. The useless buttons in modern clothing are oft cited as an example of such survivals. The use of Roman numerals alongside of Arabic numerals may also be considered a survival. On the whole however, it seems safest not to use the word too freely, for it is difficult to prove that any custom, no matter how apparently lacking in utility or how far removed from its original application, is entirely devoid of at least symbolic meaning.
Custom is stronger and more persistent in primitive than in modern societies. The primitive group is smaller, so that a greater degree of conformity is psychologically necessary. In the more sophisticated community, which numbers a far larger total of individuals, departure from custom on the part of a few selected individuals, who may in turn prove instrumental for a change of culture in the community at large, does not matter so much for the solidarity of the group to begin with, because the chance individual of the group finds himself reinforced by the vast majority of his fellow men and can do without the further support of the deviants. The primitive community has also no written tradition to appeal to as an impersonal arbiter in matters of custom and therefore puts more energy into the conservation of what is transmitted through activity and oral tradition. The presence of documents relieves the individual from necessity of taking personal responsibility for the perpetuation of custom. Far too great stress is usually laid on the actually conserving, as contrasted with the symbolically conserving, power of the written word. Custom among primitive peoples is apt to derive some measure of sacredness from its association with magical and religious procedures. When a certain type of activity is linked with a ritual which is in turn apt to be associated with a legend that to the native min explains the activity in question, a radical departure from the traditionally conserved pattern
(661) of behavior is felt as blasphemous or perilous to the safety of the group. There is likewise a far lesser division of labor in primitive communities than in our own, which means that the forces making for experimentation in the solution of technical problems are proportionately diminished.
In the modern world custom tends to be much more conservative in the rural districts than in the city, and the reasons are similar to those given for the greater persistence of custom among primitive peoples. The greater scatter of the rural population does not generally mean the more intensive individual cultivation of the forms of custom but rather a compensatory effort to correct the threats of distance by conformity.
Within a complex community, such as is found in modern cities., custom tends to be more persistent on the whole in the less sophisticated groups. Much depends on the symbolism of a custom. There are certain types of custom, particularly such as are symbolic of status, which tend to be better conserved in the more sophisticated or wealthy groups than in the less sophisticated. The modern American custom, for instance, of having a married woman keep her maiden name is not likely soon to take root among the very wealthy, who here join hands with the unsophisticated majority, while the custom is being sparsely diffused among the intellectual middle class.
The varying degrees of conservatism in regard to custom can be illustrated in the behavior of a single individual because of the different types of social participation into which he enters. In England, for instance, the same individual may be in the vanguard of custom as a f Londoner but insistent on the preservation of rural custom as a country squire. An American university man may be disdainful of customary r opinion in his faculty club but be meekly observant of religious custom on Sunday at church. Loyalty or departure from custom is not a simple function of temperament or personality but part and parcel of the symbolism of multiple participation in society.
Custom is generally referred to as a constraining force. The conflict of individual will and social compulsion is familiar, but even the most forceful and self-assertive individual needs to yield to custom at most points in order that he may gain leverage, as it were, for the imposition of his personal will on society, which cannot be 1 conquered without the implicit capture of social consent. The freedom gained by tree denial of custom is essentially a subjective freedom of escape rather than an effective freedom of conquest. Custom makes for a powerful economy in the learning of the individual; it is a symbolic affirmation of the solidarity of the group. A byproduct of these fundamental functions of custom is the more sentimental value which results from an ability to link the present and the past and thus to establish a larger ego in time, which supplements with its authority the larger ego represented by the community as it functions in the present.
The formulation of customs in the sphere of the rights and duties of individuals in their manifold relations leads to law. It is not useful to use the term law, as is often vaguely done in dealing with primitive societies, unless the enforcement of customary activity be made explicit, being vested in particular individuals or bodies of individuals. There are no societies that are wholly free from the binding force, of implicit law, but as there are also many primitive societies which recognize some type of legal procedure it seems much better to speak of law only in the latter case. There are, for instance, few American Indian tribes in which customary obligations are recognized as a system of law that is capable of enforcement by the community. Psychologically law prevails, but not institutionally. This is in rather sharp contrast to the legal procedure which has been developed by the majority of African tribes. Here there is not merely the law of custom in an implicit sense but the perfectly explicit recognition of rules of conduct and of punishment for their infringement, with an elaborate method of discovering guilt and with the power of inflicting punishment vested in the king. The example of African law indicates that the essential difference between custom and law does not lie in the difference between oral tradition and the written formulation of custom. Law can emerge from custom long before the development of writing and has demonstrably done so in numerous cases. When custom has the psychological compulsion of law but is not controlled by society through the imposition of explicit penalties' it may be called ethics or, more primitively, mores. It is difficult to distinguish law .and ethics in the more simple forms of society. Both emerge from custom but in a somewhat divergent manner. Mundane or human sovereignty becomes progressively distinguished from socially diffused or supernatural or impersonal sover-
( 662) -eignty. Custom controlled by the former is law; custom controlled by the latter is ethics.
The agencies instrumental in the formation of custom are for the most part quite impersonal in character and implicit in the mere fact of human interrelationships. There are also more self-conscious agencies for the perpetuation of custom. Among these the most important are law and religion, the latter particularly in the form of an organized church and priesthood. There are also organizations which are sentimentally interested in the conservation of customs which threaten to go out of use. In the modern world one often sees a rather weak nationalistic cause bolstered up by the somewhat artificial fostering of archaic custom. Much of the ritualism of the modern Scottish clans is secondarily rather than lineally conservative.
If complicated forms of conscious manipulation of ideas and techniques which rule the modern world are excluded from the range of the term custom, the force of custom may be said to be gradually lessening. The factors which favor this weakening of custom are: the growing division of labor with its tendency to make society less and less homogeneous; the growing spirit of rationalism, in the light of which much of the justification of custom fades away; the growing tendency to break away from local tradition; and, finally, the greater store set by individuality. The ideal which is latent in the modern mind would seem to be to break up custom into the two poles of individually determined habit on the one hand and of large scale institutional planning for the major enterprises of mankind on the other.