Describe the various cultural universals.

Describe the various cultural universals.

All cultures have to meet human needs.  Our needs go beyond food, shelter and reproduction to include the amenities that make life worth living.  Functionally these aspects of culture serve to bind us together beyond the required tasks which just keep order and keep us alive.  So cultures all have some kind of recreational, artistic and philosophical activities. Although the form human activity takes can vary widely some practices are found in every culture including but not limited to: athletic sports, cooking, funeral ceremonies, medicine, marriage, and sexual restrictions[ii]. Modules 3.2.2 thru 3.2.4 contain the first episode of the Discovery TV series “Guns, Germs & Steel” Watching this film will help you understand the relationship between society and culture and the variations we can see in the way people adapt to their environments.  These modules are required and will be tested in Exam 1 and the Final.


Describe the various cultural universals.


Culture vs. society Culture and society are interrelated.  Sociobiologists are able to show that social interaction exists in many species, including our own.  These social behaviors are NOT predetermined in the sense that we must follow a fairly rigid set of patterns designed to elicit a predetermined response in another individuals (such as you might see in the mating rituals of some birds, for example.  Of course most species, including birds have quite a bit of individual variation in the way they perform their patterns. [iii] ) Social action is part of our genetic make-up, but our survival as a species has largely benefitted from its flexibility which has made it possible for humans to adapt to a wide variety of environmental conditions.  Resources vary from place to place; our adaptability has allowed us to find those we need or suitable substitutes as conditions change.  Beyond resources, we have real flexibility in our social arrangements, but the very fact that certain practices show up in all cultures means that these practices must be essential to the very character of human groups.  

Society is a network of interrelationships.  Culture is knowledge (including material goods, which can be seen as “frozen knowledge” because they are the outcome of someone’s knowledge at some specific time.)  Both have some degree of flexibility.  A major difference is that society is made up of actions, things we do: whether we do them alone, with each other, with objects, or with ideas.  Anything that is social is an action of some kind. Sociologists sometimes call this “practice” and our ability to choose our practices is called “agency”.

While culture persists over time, society happens in the instant, following the rules the culture lays down.  Culture provides the patterns that keep society stable, makes change happen (or not) and enables communication so that the member of society can communicate effectively.

Cultural Universals Perhaps the best way to understand cultural universals is to see how different cultures approach the same human need.
View Click on a image in these links to start the slideshow Uganda Cheung Chau, Hong Kong rural Finland Cotswolds, UK

Key Terms
Define cultural universals
Slides Societies and culture
Evaluation Quiz 3.2.1
Additional resources none





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