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2.5: Patterns of Culture

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    Often, a comparison of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences, but all cultures also share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are found in all cultures. Anthropologist George Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship around the world. Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock 1949). Other examples of cultural universals are family, gender roles, an incest taboo, belief in the supernatural, marriage, art, dance, and music.

    Definition: cultural universals

    Patterns or traits that are found in all cultures.

    Just because a trait is a cultural universal does not mean it is expressed in the same manner in all cultures. For example, every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions varies. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their own nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In the United States, by contrast, individuals are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit that consists of parents and their offspring. Other cultural universals include customs like funeral rites, weddings, and celebrations of births. However, each culture may view and enact these rituals and ceremonies quite differently.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Dance, a cultural universal.
    Image 1. Children from Mwahyeran traditional dance group, Tanzania, 2010, by AnabaNunu under CC BY-SA 4.0.
    Image 2. Fiestas de Invierno de Perquin, El Salvador, 2005, by Jose Huwaidi under CC BY-SA 4.0.
    Image 3. Armenian National Dance in Aznavour Square, Armenia, 2018, by Armineaghayan under CC BY-SA 4.0.


    Cultural generalities are those patterns or traits that are found in several, but not all, societies. One such generality that exists in some cultural groups and not others is the nuclear family. As discussed above, in many societies, the family unit includes more than just parents and children. In those cultures, the nuclear family is embedded in a larger family unit such as extended families, lineages, or clans. Family structures will be covered in a later chapter of this book.

    Definition: cultural generalities

    Patterns or traits that are found in several, but not all, societies.

    While some generalities, such as family units, exist as a result of independent invention due to similar environmental or cultural circumstances, others result from the interaction between cultural groups. One example of this is the English language. English is spoken in many countries around the world for several reasons. First, North America and Australians both speak English because of a common cultural ancestor, or cultural inheritance (Kottak 2012). Both continents were the destination of many English settlers. Another reason for generalities is colonialism, "the political, social, economic, and cultural domination of a territory and its people by a foreign power for an extended time" (Kottak 2012, p. 215). Many of the countries that speak the English language today were once colonies of England. Finally, generalities can be the result of diffusion (discussed later in this chapter), which occurs when cultural groups have frequent contact.

    Definition: colonialism

    The political, social, economic, and cultural domination of a territory and its people by a foreign power for an extended time.


    Although, because of diffusion, they are increasingly rare to find, a cultural particularity is a distinct trait or feature that is confined to a single place, culture, or society (Kottak 2012, p. 27). Many particularities today exist in foods such as South Carolinas mustard pork barbeque or Newfoundland's cod tongues. However, a cultural group may adopt a new trait from another cultural group, the trait can be modified to fit their specific needs or preferences creating its own version of that cultural trait. For example, a country may have a McDonald's Restaurant, but you may not find the traditional American Big Mac on the menu.

    Definition: cultural particularity

    A distinct trait or feature that is confined to a single place, culture, or society.


    Kottak, Conrad P. Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

    Murdock, George P. Social Structure. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

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