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Cultural Universals in Sociology: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Taught by

Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

How is an Aztec warrior sacrificing a vestal virgin similar to a Catholic teenager walking into a confessional booth? While these are seemingly very different choices of daily activity, both are examples of the universal human need to please a higher power.

What is a Cultural Universal?

Aztec Ritual Human Sacrifice to Please the Gods
Aztec Human Sacrifice

Regardless of time and place, humans exhibit similar basic behaviors related to the survival and proliferation of our species. Everyone needs to eat, drink, learn, grow, and bury loved ones. Although many of us assume that our thoughts and actions are new and unique, in the big picture of human history we are usually just dressing up old ideas and shoving them back on stage.

The visible manifestations are undeniably different from culture to culture, but the underlying values haven't changed much. Cultural universals are those guiding principles of human civilization that are so central to human identity that we can find them, in some form, in all societies--past and present--around the world.

Family Values

'Thou shalt not kill.' While perhaps most famously found in the Old Testament of the Bible, this basic principle has been evident in all societies throughout human history. Cultural universals such as this one develop spontaneously in order to best support the propagation of the human race.

The guiding principles, therefore, aim to organize a human population and provide a stable and secure environment in which the community can flourish. If individuals in the group are killing one another, then the goal of propagating the species is not being achieved. Thus, infanticide, patricide, and senseless murder in general are usually frowned upon around the world.

Similarly, 'it takes a village to raise a child' rings as true now as it did two thousand years ago. An entire community should take an interest in establishing and maintaining a set of boundaries and rituals to guide youngsters through the coming of age process. While the manifestations of this principle certainly have variety, from ritual female circumcision in Kenya, to Jivaro warriors taking their sons out into the Amazon rainforest for their first hallucinogenic hunting experience, the underlying cultural universal to preserve and pass on a group's traditions and values remains strong in each society.

There's a God for That

'Allah,' 'God,' 'Jehovah,' 'Brahma.' These words and many more represent the human desire to name the superpower who they believe exists, and in most cases, created the earth and first humans. In many cultures, the focus is on this one higher power; however, in many ancient--and some modern--societies, people revere and concern themselves primarily with pleasing their own ancestors. As a cultural universal, human groups rely on a supernatural element to set and monitor the ethical behavioral standards of a community.

Religious rituals take many forms, and a central element of human identity is the collection of customs associated with death and burial. When a human population loses a group member, the survivors do what they believe is required to prepare both the body and spirit for what comes next. Every human civilization in recorded history has left evidence of some sort of religious beliefs; most of these artifacts come from a burial ritual.

When archaeologists excavate a 3,000-year-old tomb in Egypt, today's cultural anthropologists can infer that the vessels filled with oils and honey were intended to help the deceased individual travel into the afterworld with enough health and wealth. Whether the custom is to bury the body underground, burn it on a funeral pyre, or send the still living elderly person out into the elements to succumb to the elements, a cultural universal is present beneath the surface--when it comes to death, follow the rituals that have been passed down through the generations! Doing so not only provides comfort and security to the living members of the community, but also keeps the gods and ancestors happy.

An Ethical Wrap-Up

Why do we do the things we do? While philosophers might ponder this question for a lifetime, cultural anthropologists--people who study the pressures shaping human behavior--will explain that humans are creatures of habit. While we can certainly be innovative at times (who doesn't appreciate the wheel and sliced bread?), we humans tend to pass on the same rituals and other customs that our ancestors established and found helpful generations before.

As a result, human populations throughout history and around the world have managed to come up with very similar principles to guide their community members through the challenging process of life, from raising children to burying our dead. These cultural universals can seem strikingly different on the surface, but the underlying values are often the same, whether we are observing an ancient hunter-gatherer or a modern grocery shopper. Remember--everybody has to eat!

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