Among humans, there are universal cultural patterns or elements across groups and societies. Cultural universals are common to all humans throughout the globe. Some cultural universals include cooking, dancing, ethics, greetings, personal names, and taboos to name a few. Can you identify at least five other cultural universals shared by all humans?
In thinking about cultural universals, you may have noted the variations or differences in the practice of these cultural patterns or elements. Even though humans share several cultural universals, the practice of culture expresses itself in a variety of ways across different social groups and institutions. When different groups identify shared culture, we often are speaking from generalizations or general characteristics and principles shared by humans. The description of cultural universals speak to the generalization of culture such as in the practice of marriage. Different social groups share the institution of marriage but the process, ceremony, and legal commitments are different depending on the culture of the group or society.
Cultural generalities help us understand the similarities and connections all humans have in the way we understand and live even though we may have particular ways of applying them. Some cultural characteristics are unique to a single place, culture, group, or society. These particularities may develop or adapt from social and physical responses to time, geography, ecological changes, group member traits, and composition including power structures or other phenomena.
Cultural and Social Bonds
By living together in society, people “learn specific ways of looking at life” (Henslin 2011:104). Through daily interactions, people construct reality. The construction of reality provides a forum for interpreting experiences in life expressed through culture.
Emile Durkheim ( 1933) believed social bonds hold people together. When people live in small, integrated communities that share common values and beliefs, they develop a shared or collective consciousness. Durkheim referred to this type of social integration as mechanical solidarity meaning members of the community are all working parts of the group or work in unity creating a sense of togetherness forming a collective identity. In this example, members of the community think and act alike because they have a shared culture and shared experiences from living in remote, close-knit areas.
As society evolves and communities grow, people become more specialized in the work they do. This specialization leads individuals to work independently in order to contribute to a segment or part of a larger society (Henslin 2011). Durkheim referred to this type of social unity as organic solidarity meaning each member of the community has a specific task or place in the group in which they contribute to the overall function of the community that is spatial and culturally diverse. In this example, community members do not necessarily think or act alike but participate by fulfilling their role or tasks as part of the larger group. If members fulfill their parts, then everyone is contributing and exchanging labor or production for the community to function as a whole.
Both mechanical and organic solidarity explain how people cooperate to create and sustain social bonds relative to group size and membership. Each form of solidarity develops its own culture to hold society together and function. However, when society transitions from mechanical to organic solidarity, there is chaos or normlessness. Durkheim referred to this transition as social anomie meaning “without law” resulting from a lack of a firm collective consciousness. As people transition from social dependence (mechanical solidarity) to interdependence (organic solidarity), they become isolated and alienated from one another until a redeveloped set of shared norms arise. We see examples of this transition when there are changes in social institutions such as governments, industry, and religion. Transitions to democracy across the continent of Africa have shown countries contending with poverty, illiteracy, militarization, underdevelopment, and monopolization of power, all forms of anomie, as they move from social dependence to interdependence (The National Academic Press 1992).
People develop an understanding about their culture specifically their role and place in society through social interactions. Charles Horton Cooley ( 1964) suggested people develop self and identity through interpersonal interactions such as perceptions, expectations, and judgement of others. Cooley referred to this practice as the looking glass self. We imagine how others observe us and we develop ourselves in response to their observations. The concept develops over three phases of interactions. First, we imagine another’s response to our behavior or appearance, then we envision their judgment, and lastly we have an emotional response to their judgement influencing our self-image or identity (Griswold 2013). Interpersonal interactions play a significant role in helping us create social bonds and understand our place in society.