Harriet Martineau is often called the Founding Mother of Sociology. She was a prolific writer, publishing 25 novels that looked at the political economy. She looked at sociology as the “social life in society.” The social world has its own patterns, consequences, problems, and causes that it follows. Martineau was progressive and a positivist, believing that societies would naturally evolve.

This meant her sociology theory focused on how social life translated to human happiness. Martineau’s work seeks to understand how a person develops a definition of personal morality and social manners to achieve this happiness.

Martineau also used her work to focus on the work and lives of women, especially with the attitudes of domination and inequality that were present in the 19th century.

Are Morals and Manners a Line We Draw in the Sand?

Morals are a collective idea, offered by a society, to followed a prescribed behavior. Some morals are a human societal standard, though there are always some exceptions. For example: most societies see murder as an evil act. In some sub-societies, an honor killing might be considered a righteous act to take.

Manners are then based on the morals that are prescribed within that society. A person’s manners reflect the behaviors that society expects from each person, focusing on their actions and associations.

Each person has a personal interpretation of the morals and manners that is expected of them. Numerous influences can affect this interpretation.

  • Family Life. The environment where a child grows up has a profound influence on their perceived definition of morals and manners. This is where the initial definition of “normal” begins to develop.
  • Socioeconomic Status. If a person grows up in a privileged environment and does not face any discrimination, then their perception of the world will be different from the person who grows up in poverty and is treated in an inferior way because of who they are.
  • Gender. In many societies, women are inferior to men. This occurs still today, even in societies where there is an emphasis on equality. The wage gap which exists in many career fields between men and women is an example of this.
  • Race or Ethnicity. Different cultures have different definitions of what are acceptable morals and manners. Taking those definitions into a different society, which has different expectations, creates a conflict where both definitions demand to be followed because they are both considered to be accurate.

At our very basic levels of society, we depend upon specific social norms and expected behaviors to operate. This helps to shape our actions, which then helps to shape our ideas. If an individual draws a different line in the sand for the moral standing and develops different behaviors and actions to support their view, then society begins to break down a little bit.

Why People Change Their Morals and Manners Over Time

Each person has specific foundations that build an initial awareness of morals and manners within a society. As that person begins to experience the world on their own, their perspectives begin to change. That change can lead to a change in how an individual implements the prescribed behaviors of the morals and manners that are expected of them.

Take a very conservative family who homeschools their children. They use religion as a basis for teaching, creating an expectation within a closed sub-society of what “good” and “bad” behaviors happen to be. It might be “bad” to drink a can of soda or eat sugar cereal. Once those children leave the home, they experience a “culture shock” because the sub-society is an artificially-created mechanism.

Suddenly a choice must be made. Which morals and manners are going to be followed? The sub-society that says, “no soda” and “no sugar cereal”? Or the general society, which says “make your own choices, but do so in moderation”?

People are faced with decisions like this every day. Some of these decisions can be extreme, like the idea of going to war and killing someone when they’ve been taught not to kill for any reason at all. Others are minor, like choosing whether to drink a soda.

Harriet Martineau’s Sociology Theory explores the idea of compromise and how that affects us individually and at a societal level. Every compromise we make takes us either toward or away from the prescribed behaviors that is expected of everyone. Our values help to define who we are, but it also defines us as a group society. When we can function together in a positive way, then we will reproduce that positivity and that is how evolution takes place.