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Cultural Universals
Because all humans face the same basic needs (such as lItror food. clothing. and shelter). we engage in similar activities that contribute to our survival. Anthropologist George Murdock (1945: 124) compiled a list of over seventy cultural universals=customs and practices that occur across all societies. His categories included appearance (such as bodily adomrnent and hairstyles), activities (such as sports, dancing, games, joking, and visiting). social institutions (such as family. law, and religion), and customary practices (such as cooking, folklore. gift giving. and hospitality). These general customs and practices may be present in all cultures. but their specific forms V:lryfrom one group to another and from one time to another within the same group. For example. although telling jokes may be a univcrsul practice, what is considered to be a joke in one society may be IIninsult in another. How do sociologists view cultural universals’! In terms of their functions. cultural universals ure useful because they ensure l’le smooth and continual operation of society (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952). A society must meet basic human needs by providing food. shelter. and some degree of safety for its members so that they will survive. Children and other new members (such as immigrants) must be taught the ways of the group. A society must also settle disputes and deal with people’semotions. All the while, the self-interest of individuals must be balanced with the needs of sociery as a whole. Cultural universals help fulfill these important functions of society.

From another perspective, however. cultural universals are not the result of functional necessity; these practices may have been imposed by members of one society on members of another. Similar customs and practices do not necessarily constitute cultural universals. They may be an indication that a conquering nation used its power to enforce certain types of behavior on those who were defeated (Sargent. 1987). Sociologists might ask questions such as “Who determines the dominant cultural patterns?” For example, although religion is a cultural universal, the traditional religious practices of indigenous peoples (those who first live in an area) have often been repressed and even stamped out by subsequent settlers or conquerors who have gained political and economic power over them. However, many people believe there is cause for optimism in the United States because the democratic ideas of this nation provide more guarantees of religious freedom than might be found in some other nations.

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