Cultural Universals and Diversity

The topic of the current paper is cultural universals and diversity of cultures. At the moment, it is a quite relevant and interesting topic not only for social scientists but also for people interested in the development of society in a cultural level and, of course, the specifics of manifestations of different societies and cultures. The purpose of the paper is to examine the topic of cultural universals and diversity. In the process, several objectives will be addressed such as to define the concept of cultural universals, consider cultural diversity, disclose the concept of ethnocentrism and cultural integration, and explore the concept of cultural relativism.

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Cultural Universals and Diversity

From birth, people get used to the culture, in which they are raised. People learn the customs and traditions from their parents. Over time, as a person grows from illusions, he/she understands that there is not only black and white in the world. They learn that there are also other colors, which are simply different. The same situation is with cultures. A person cannot be a member of many cultures since it is wrong to have many priorities. Due to the fact that a person is a social being, he/she needs to live in society to survive, achieve certain goals and, of course, help others and make their lives more interesting. The existence of a large number of cultures promotes tolerance towards other cultures that means respect, patience, and understanding. Furthermore, a person needs to share an interesting experience with other cultures. Mutual exchange of information gives people a chance to look at the world through different eyes, understand things, and tackle smooth internal conflicts both in society and within themselves. The purpose of the paper is to analyze cultural universals and diversity.

The Concept of Cultural Universals

In the world, there are a great number of different cultures. In the book Cultural Anthropology, it is noted that “it is important to bear in mind that despite their many differences, all cultures of the world share a number of common features (cultural universals) because they have all worked out solutions to a whole series of problems facing all human societies”. Cultural universals include norms, rules, values, traditions, and properties that are common to all cultures, regardless of geographical location, historical time, and a social structure of society. Culture is regarded in sociology as a complex dynamic entity with a social nature. The author Leo Parvis affirms that “culture is comprised of those characteristics of human life that are different from place to place”. It is expressed in social relations aimed at the creation, assimilation, preservation, and dissemination of objects, ideas, values, and concepts providing mutual understanding of people in different social situations. An object of the sociological research is a specific allocation of forms and methods of development as well as creation and transfer of cultural objects, stable and variable processes in cultural life, and social factors and mechanisms existing in a given society. In this context, sociology studies widespread, persistent, and repetitive multiple forms of relationships between members of social communities, groups, and society as a whole and the natural and social environment. In addition, it also studies the dynamics of development of culture, which allows determining the level of the development of culture of a specific community and, therefore, talking about its culture progress or regress.

Each particular community such as a civilization, a nation, or an ethnic group creates its culture for many centuries that accompanies the individual throughout his/her life and is passed from generation to generation. As a result, there is a multitude of cultures. It should be noted that sociologists face a problem to determine whether there is something in common in human culture or if there are cultural universals.

Many different sociological researches were conducted to study the notion of cultural universals. In 1959, an American sociologist and anthropologist George Peter Murdock and his colleagues from Yale University identified 88 common behavioral categories presented in all cultures. These categories included the age grading, sports, underwear ornament, a calendar, cleanliness, community organization, cooking, labor cooperation, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, interpretation of dreams, the division of labor, education, and others. Moreover, these 88 universals are divided into additional categories. For example, funeral rites always include an expression of grief, funds for the burial of the deceased, and rituals to determine the relationship between the dead and the living.

Cultural universals arise because all people in different parts of the world are physically arranged in the same way. In the book Cengage Advantage Books, it is written that “the biological similarity shared by all humans helps to account for the presence of cultural universals”. They have the same biological needs and face common challenges posed by the environment. Culture provides a guidance for everyday life. It is a plan or a map of life. However, these guidelines are often different in various societies. What in some societies is recommended or mandatory, in others is not recommended and even prohibited. Despite this fact, there is a question whether people should make conclusion that cultures differ in all respects, and, consequently, it is not necessary to compare them. Nonetheless, such common denominators or cultural constants really exist. The reason is not difficult to find. All people have problems that are similar in many respects. They should find means to prepare children for life in society, cope with adversity, handle people deviating from the norm, arrange their family life, and others. Culture is a set of solutions to problems posed by biology and general laws of human existence.

The Concept of Cultural Integration and Ethnocentrism

Typically, the elements constituting the culture represent a coordinated and balanced whole. However, ideal integration is unattainable for the simple reason that historical events constantly influence the culture. In addition, it is not enough to have an idea of the characteristic features of a particular culture. The reason is that two cultures can have identical sets of elements and still differ significantly. Thus, people need to know how various cultural ingredients are interrelated.

In the past, many anthropologists mistakenly regarded culture as something that had fragile relationship between its components. According to them, the main task of cultural analysis was simply to allocate various elements. Consequently, they depicted culture in the form of scraps and patches that somehow coexisted. Gradually, however, social scientists realized that cultural elements represented tightly bound fabric, in which a change in one part affected the other parts and had implications for the whole. Therefore, when an element from one culture penetrates into another one, it is modified. In fact, modification of cultural element can sometimes take a form of syncretism. It is merging or mixing with a similar element in another culture. Modern celebrations of Christmas and Easter can serve as an example. In pre-Christian times, many European nations performed rituals dedicated to the middle of winter. Such festival was frequently accompanied by games, dances, mutual gifts, and general merriment. These elements were included in the celebration of Christmas and are reflected in the traditional greeting “Merry Christmas!” Evidently, the first Christians considered to combine the celebration of Christmas and Easter with already existing traditional holidays.

Customs that are inherent in society are so deeply rooted in human minds that seem to be the second nature. In addition, it is difficult to imagine another way of life. The anthropologist Ralph Linton wrote that during most of history, a person was only vaguely aware of the existence of culture. Therefore, it is not surprising that people judge the behavior of other groups on the basis of the norms of their culture. Sociologists call this phenomenon ethnocentrism. They describe this view as a position, at which a private group is considered as the center of the universe, and all others are assessed as the ones having a certain attitude to it. Nevertheless, there is no consensus regarding the understanding of ethnocentrism. Many sociologists consider ethnocentrism as a negative socio-psychological phenomenon that manifests itself in the tendency of rejection of all foreign groups and self-esteem of their group. Ethnocentrism performs both negative and positive functions. Thus, it supports positive identity, prevents inter-group interaction, and preserves the integrity and specificity of the ethnic group. 

There are specific indicators of ethnocentrism. First of all, it is the perception of elements of the native culture as normal and right, while other elements of culture are regarded as unusual and wrong. Moreover, it includes consideration of the customs of a native group as universal and evaluation of values, roles, and norms of the group as undoubtedly correct. Furthermore, there is a notion that a person has accustomed to cooperate with members of a native group, help them, give preference to this group, be proud of it, and do not trust or even quarrel with the members of other groups. 

There are two types of ethnocentrism, namely militant and flexible. The emergence of these types is associated with the social structure, the objective nature of interethnic relations, and cultural characteristics of the ethnic group. Thus, if people do not simply make conclusions about other people’s values grounded on theirs but also impose their values on others, then it is military ethnocentrism. This type of ethnocentrism is manifested in hatred, mistrust, and accusations of other ethnic groups in their failures. However, if ethnocentrism does not contain hostility to other ethnic groups, then it can be combined with a tolerant attitude towards intergroup differences. Attempts to understand the characteristics of a foreign culture on the condition of an objective assessment of the qualities of their group are called flexible ethnocentrism.

The manifestations of ethnocentrism can be found in families, tribes, nations, colleges, fraternities, business, churches, and political parties. The consciousness of belonging to the “best people” serves as a kind of ‘social glue’ that binds people. Thereafter, a sense of group pride, belonging, and collective identity contributes to solidarity and stability. However, at the same time, those feelings engender intergroup conflicts. In such a way, ethnocentrism affects people in two ways. It strengthens the feeling of unity overcoming the contradictions within the group and bringing people together even if they are separated by economic conflicts and social inequalities. At the same time, it separates people from each other, increasing their hostility to other groups and communities.

Cultural Relativism

Ethnocentrism prevents a scientific research of culture. People cannot understand the behavior of other people if they interpret it in the context of their values, beliefs, and motives. Instead, people should consider their behavior in the light of their intrinsic values, beliefs, and motives. Such approach is called cultural relativism. With this approach, the behavior of people is considered from the point of view of their culture. In contrast to ethnocentrism, cultural relativism shares an approach that is free from value judgments. This approach was proposed by Max Weber. The anthropologist Elman Service estimated the importance of cultural relativism in the course of the research conducted by him among the Havasupai Indian tribe in the southwest region. During the conversation with an old man on the culture of the tribe, the anthropologist periodically asked why people behaved the way they did. The man answered that the reason was that they used to it. Elman Service noted that he was searching for the key to the understanding of culture of the Havasupai; fearing not to find it, he clearly lost sight of the truth that a person could only understand the culture in its terms. From the perspective of cultural relativism, it does not matter whether a certain custom is moral or not, whereas only the role that it plays in the lives of people is important. For example, in some Inuit peoples, frail elderly people are left to die in the cold. This tradition can be considered strange and cruel for other people. Sociologists do not appreciate this practice from the perspective of their society. Thus, they examine it in the context of Inuit culture, where such behavior is considered a humane action. The Inuit believe that in the other world, people will have the same body as in the earthly life. Therefore, these people consider that leaving the body in the cold, they minimize the suffering that their loved ones will experience in the afterlife. Furthermore, sociologists note that this practice is applied by people, whose life is full of risks and hazards and is characterized by the scarcity of resources; therefore, people need to limit the number of dependents. There are both critics and adherents of relativism. In the book Cultural Relativism in the Face of the West, it is noted that “adherents to cultural relativism claim that the rich variety of practices among different cultures does not make the uniform application of universal human rights feasible”. Therefore, cultural relativism wants to achieve a significant degree of understanding. 

Critics of relativism fear that the principle of cultural relativity will weaken morality. It is connected with the fact that in this case, there are justifications for any moral manifestations, including extreme forms of racism and Nazism. It, however, does not mean relativism, which does not deny the existence of moral absolutes and universal moral values. These aspects of moral codes become mandatory if the society imposes certain restrictions on the behavior of its members. It is about the fact that this approach extends the range of ideas about “normal” if they relate to social harmless cultural expressions. It is extremely important in terms of tolerance and cultural understanding. The reason is that it is not always easy to achieve such understanding, especially when talking about religious traditions. The recent debate between supporters and opponents of the Muslim female students studying at secular schools in France whether to wear or not to wear the hijab is a vivid example. It also relates to those restrictions that are imposed on women in some countries of radical Islam, including the need to wear only black clothes that cover even the face, the ban to work, and restrictions on the access to education. Thus, as it can be seen, there can be negative effects of cultural relativism. 

Cultural Diversity

The notion of cultural diversity can be marked within the society. In a great number of advanced states, the members of certain groups are involved in the main cultural behavior of the given society. At the same time, they can share a number of unique traditions, values, lifestyles, and norms that are typical for other cultures. These special cultural patterns are usually called subcultures. In the United States, there are many different subcultures that find their expression in different religious as well as ethnic, racial, age, and professional groups. A typical example is the religious church Jehovah’s Witnesses, which arose in the second half of the XIX century in the United States. Its founder Charles Taze Russell foretold the closeness of the arrival of Jesus Christ and the death of all people, with the exception of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the final battle between Christ and Satan known as Armageddon. Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the faith in life after death and the Trinity. In their opinion, Christ performs the will of Jehovah. Leaders of the church are strictly centralized. Its center is located in Brooklyn, the United States. The church has a well-organized propaganda apparatus that publishes magazines and leaflets, while missionary is highly encouraged. Members of the church are prohibited the service in the army and hospitals. Moreover, they refuse from blood transfusions. They are involved in the interpretation of the Bible and divide the world into “their” and “strange,” meaning people who do not know the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It should be noted that they are not ashamed of their non-compliance to the worldly standards but are even proud of the fact that they are special people who know that the name of God is Jehovah. As it can be seen, their teaching is extremely different from the other teachings of the Christian church. For example, Baptists are allowed to serve in the army and hospitals and do the blood transfusion. Despite the fact that these religions are rather different, they have a right to exist in one society. Thus, it is called cultural diversity. 

Youth culture is considered another example of a subculture in one society. For certain reasons that are related to the economy and education, there are favorable conditions in the modern society for the development of unique models of youth culture. These models appear in passion to music, pop stars, jewelry, and hairstyles as well as slang. Standards that relate to the attributes of masculinity and femininity also have a high priority. For young men, important attributes of masculinity include physical proficiency, sports training, sexual conquest, the willingness to take risks, courage in the face of aggression, and the desire to protect honor at any cost. In girls, such qualities as physical attractiveness, vitality, the ability to manipulate in different types of interpersonal relationships, and the ability to control the situation related to sex are considered the most desirable.

There are situations when values, a way of life, and norms in subcultures sometimes noticeable contradict the lifestyle, values, and norms of the whole society. In such a way, they usually constitute a counterculture. Countercultures frequently deny a great number of regulations and behavioral standards that are typical of the dominant culture. Orientation on the “relaxedness” in some parts of youth in Western countries in the early 1970s had a great number of counter-cultural overtones. Young people questioned the legitimacy of the establishment and rejected the ethic of hard work typical of the older people. Thus, they searched for a new experience with the help of drugs and wanted to be different from the lifestyle of the middle-class. It should be mentioned that satanic cults, criminal gangs, the left and right extremists can be called other examples of groups constituting counterculture.


In the course of the current paper, a goal of disclosing the theme was achieved and set tasks were performed. It was defined that cultural universals include norms, rules, values, traditions, and properties that are common to all cultures, regardless of geographical location, historical time, and a social structure of society. Culture is not only a way and a landmark in the world of values and traditions but is also the possibility of realizing the potential. Culture helps people cope with emerging issues in a way that is accepted in a given society. In addition, it saves time and effort to overcome some doubts about the correctness of human actions. The study of cultural universals and diversity helps understand how the world and the society are established and how everything is interconnected with each other. 

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