Cultural universal

Cultural universal

A cultural universal (see George Murdock, Claude Levi-Strauss, Donald Brown) is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all human cultures on the planet. It should be noted that some anthropological and sociological theorists of an extreme cultural relativism perspective may deny, or minimize the importance of, the existence of cultural universals: the extent to which these universals are "cultural" in the narrow sense, or in fact biologically inherited behavior is an issue in the "nature versus nurture" controversy.

These universals are sometimes referred to as "empty universals" since merely remarking on their presence in a particular culture doesn't actually show anything unique or significant about that culture. The emergence of these universals dates to the Upper Paleolithic, with the first evidence of full behavioral modernity. Among the cultural universals listed by Brown (1991) are:

  • language and cognition (see also linguistic universal)
    • language employed to manipulate others
    • language employed to misinform or mislead
    • language is translatable
    • abstraction in speech & thought
    • antonyms, synonyms
    • logical notions of "and", "not", "opposite", "equivalent", "part/whole", "general/particular"
    • binary cognitive distinctions
    • color terms: black, white
    • classification of: age, behavioral propensities, body parts, colors, fauna, flora, inner states, kin, sex, space, tools, weather conditions
    • continua (ordering as cognitive pattern)
    • discrepancies between speech, thought, and action
    • figurative speech, metaphors
    • symbolism,symbolic speech
    • synesthetic metaphors
    • tabooed utterances
    • jokes
    • special speech for special occasions
    • prestige from proficient use of language (e.g. poetry)
    • planning
    • units of time
  • society
    • personal names
    • family or household
    • kin groups
    • peer groups not based on family
    • actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control
    • affection expressed and felt
    • age grades
    • age statuses
    • age terms
    • law: rights and obligations, rules of membership
    • moral sentiments
    • promise/oath
    • prestige inequalities
    • statuses and roles
    • leaders
    • de facto oligarchy
    • property
    • coalitions
    • collective identities
    • conflict
    • cooperative labor
    • gender roles
    • males dominate public/political realm
    • males more aggressive, more prone to lethal violence, more prone to theft
    • males engage in more coalitional violence
    • males on average travel greater distances over lifetime
    • marriage
    • husband older than wife on average
    • copulation normally conducted in privacy
    • incest prevention or avoidance, incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed
    • rape
    • collective decision making
    • ethnocentrism
    • etiquette
    • inheritance rules
    • distinguishing right and wrong, good and bad
    • generosity admired, gift giving
    • redress of wrongs, sanctions
    • sexual jealousy
    • shame
    • territoriality
    • triangular awareness (assessing relationships among the self and two other people)
    • some forms of proscribed violence
    • visiting
    • trade
  • myth, ritual, aesthetics
    • magical thinking
    • use of magic to increase life, win love,
    • beliefs about death
    • beliefs about disease
    • beliefs about fortune and misfortune
    • divination
    • attempts to control weather
    • dream interpretation
    • beliefs and narratives
    • proverbs, sayings
    • poetry/rhetorics
    • healing practices, medicine
    • childbirth customs
    • rites of passage
    • music, rhythm, dance
    • play
    • toys, playthings
    • death rituals, mourning
    • feasting
    • body adornment
    • hairstyles
  • technology
    • shelter
    • fire
    • tools, tool making
    • weapons, spear
    • containers
    • cooking
    • lever
    • tying material (i.e., something like string), twining (i.e. weaving or similar)


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