Cultural Universals & Human Nature Research Paper Starter

Cultural Universals & Human Nature

(Research Starters)

This article defines and discusses the relationship between cultural universals and human nature. Social scientists, in particular sociologists and anthropologists, believe that culture completely determines human behavior; that there is no such thing as instinct in humans. In other words, without a social context, a being cannot become "human" because there is more nurture than nature in the making of a human being. Within social groups, distinct cultures emerge and throughout the world, these groups are viewed based on their cultural diversity. However, there are important patterns that are found in all cultures, which are known as cultural, or human, universals. Several examples of these universals are explored here, such as kinship and family, language, gender differences and religion. newly-added bibliography

Keywords Culture; Cultural Diversity; Cultural Universals; Division of Labor; Education; Ethnocentrism; Family; Gender; Global Culture; Human Nature; Human Universals; Kinship; Language; Nature; Nurture; Religion

Cultural Universals


What are Cultural Universals (Human Universals)?

Culture is everything that we learn and do. We can define culture as the knowledge, language, values, customs (also known as non-material culture) and material objects, or material culture, such as computers, books, cars, houses, appliances, toys, or cell phones that remain a part of the society through generations. By its very nature, culture is central and essential to the survival of the individual and of the society to which that individual belongs. Culture then, can be thought of as a complete set of understandings - assumptions, values, procedures, ideas, etc. – associated with a particular group of people (Howe, 2004).

By the 19th century, anthropologists began to notice in their research of groups of people, that there were common social behaviors across diverse boundaries such as race, ethnicity, and religion, where people had little in common biologically, except their humanness. Despite the boundaries separating them, people shared customs, ways of life, ideas, even though they were different physically. The term "culture" was adopted to refer to the things that people passed on for the most part, through an intellectual process, rather than through a biological one (Howe, 2004). Cultural universals then, or human universals as they are sometimes known, are basic solutions to the problems of living that are found in one form or another in all cultures.

What is Human Nature?

Sometimes, it is difficult to separate behaviors into those that are innate, or natural and those that are learned within our culture because we begin learning from the very moment we are born. Consider the human infant in western society. As soon as the medical professionals pronounce, "it's a girl," or "it's a boy," people begin treating the infant differently. They will insist that a boy infant looks like a football player, for example, or that a girl infant is a beauty, both gender qualities that are important in Western culture. Yet human nature refers to biologically-based qualities which humans possess and which can be found in every culture. They do not occur because of the environment, or the culture in which one lives, but upon the biological determinants that make up the human species. Most of these universals may reflect, in part, innate human tendencies (i.e., human nature).

What is the Relationship Between Cultural Universals

Each species has certain behaviors which collectively are called its "nature" (Welch, 2008). For example, domesticated cats and dogs have very different natures, cats being considered more independent from their human caretakers, while dogs are known as "man's best friend" because of their tendency toward obedience and gregariousness. Humans develop from infancy in nearly identical ways, so much so that many books have been written about "what to expect from your child from birth to eighteen years of age." Within these volumes are the explanations of development characteristics of children at various stages. A parent can easily determine if her child is within the normal range by comparing the child's behavior, height, weight and cognition against these published and accepted norms. Of course, the child's environment can have much to do with how well he or she develops. Consider feral children, or those case studies of children brought up in the wild, or in severe isolation. These children, without socialization, do not develop according to accepted norms.

Sociological Perspectives on Nature vs. Nurture

What determines who we are: our social environment, or our genes, or heredity? Does a person become an alcoholic because he or she learns alcoholic behavior in the family system, or is the disease of alcoholism inherited biologically? Which perspective--the social or the biological--is the more important, or perhaps, the more potent?

While sociologists agree that most behavior is learned starting at birth and that there are few, if any, instincts in the human being, they do not reject the argument that biology plays an important role in creating a person (Long, 2007). Yet studies of twins who have been separated all their lives show that behaviors such as criminal behavior, are learned and not inherited. There are studies of children raised in complete isolation such as the famous case study in 1970 of a California girl named 'Genie," abused by her parents from the age of two. When she was rescued from nearly complete isolation at the age of 13, Genie weighed only fifty nine pounds and had the mental development of a one year old, thus perhaps indicating that social environment has more to do with development of human nature than does biology (Macionis, 2007).


The Structural-Functional Perspective

The structural-functionalist perspective in sociology uses culture to explain how people meet every day needs and thus support society's functional operation. Anthropologist George Murdock developed a list in 1945 of some seventy cultural universals that he had observed in his ethnographic studies and which he believed existed among all cultures, albeit in various forms. These cultural universals form common patterns of behavior among all cultures in order to deal with the smooth functioning of the group. Such common universals include family, the control of sexuality and caring for children, funeral rites and jokes (Macionis, 2007). Murdock's more definitive list includes the following (as cited in Bagwell, 2008):

• Age Grading ………. Hygiene

• Athletics ………. Incest Taboos

• Bodily Adornment ……….. Inheritance Rules

• Calendar ………. Joking

• Cleanliness Training ………. Kin Groups

• Community Organization ………. Kin Terminology

• Cooking ………. Language

• Cooperative Labor ………. Social Controls

• Cosmology ………. Luck

• Courtship ………. Magic

• Dancing ………. Marriage

• Decorative Art ………. Mealtimes

• Divination ………. Medicine

• Division of Labor ………. Modesty

• Dream Interpretation ………. Mourning

• Education ………. Music

• Eschatology ………. Mythology

• Ethics ………. Obstetrics

• Ethnobotany ……….. Numerals

• Etiquette ………. Penal Sanctions

• Healing ………. Personal Names

• Family ………. Population Policy

• Feasting ……….. Postnatal Care

• Fire Making ……….. Pregnancy Customs

• Folklore ………. Property Rights

• Food Taboos ………. Propitiation of Supernatural Beings

• Funeral Rites ………. Puberty Customs

• Games ………. Religious Ritual

• Gestures ………… Residence Rules

• Gift Giving ……….. Sexual Restrictions

• Political Organization ………. Soul Concept(s)

• Greetings Status ………. Differentiation

• Hair Styles ………. Supernatural

• Hospitality ……….. Surgery

• Housing ………. Tool Making

• Trade ………. Weaning

• Visiting ………. Weather Control

Examples of Cultural Universals

Living in Groups

Are people Gregarious by Nature, or Necessity? This question refers back to the perpetual argument regarding the importance of nature or nurture in the development of a human being. Are humans "naturally" gregarious, desiring to live in groups, or is the support and assistance of the group necessary for the person to develop into a fully human being?

The Quest to Belong

Forming into groups for humans seems to be as natural and also as social an activity as it is for any other animal from apes to ants, which can recognize fellow ants by chemical sensitivity as well as by a socialization process that occurs in the nest. Living in groups was a necessity based on the physical environment in which people lived and the dependence of members of the group in caring for pregnant women and infants for long periods of time (Allott, 1998).

Groupism, or the desire or readiness to merge into groups, then, is a primary human behavior. Nearly anything can determine membership in a group: geographical closeness, language, eye and hair color, shared experiences, or as in modern society, a favorite sports team. When people feel similar to one another in some way, they tend to flock, or distinguish themselves from one another in a variety of ways, thus demonstrating their alliance with a particular group (Allott, 1998).

Isolation as Punishment

Aristotle argued that humans are naturally gregarious, that they are by nature, a "zoon politikon," and to be without a "polis," or dwelling place, a person is either doomed, or is above other humans as a god would be ("Aristotle Doctrine," n.d.). Therefore, one of the worst punishments for a human being would be the isolation, or ostracization from the group to which they belong, or from any human contact.


From Cicero's time, people were expected to return kindnesses. To do otherwise was cause for mistrust of the forgetful person. Within sociological theory, the concept of reciprocity is couched in the functionalist perspective, as an aspect of society which contributes to its smooth operation and to satisfy the needs of group members (Gouldner, 1960).

However, not all reciprocity is a one-for-one, give and take situation. The action of giving can be one-sided, such as a person making a donation for what is deemed a worthy cause, without expecting pay back from that particular cause (Gouldner, 1960). A person may reasonably expect that in some point in his or her lifetime,...

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