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Cultural Concepts

Updated on April 16, 2012

Biologically, human physical features everywhere are similar. However motivation for human behavior, customs and beliefs vary enormously from one society to another. Every aspect of social life is subject to cultural variation, from language to posture, from concepts to property to ways of marriage, from manufacturing processes to good manners. in many cultures marriage to more than one spouse is acceptable, while in others it is only monogamy that is permissible. Marriage to a second spouse is a criminal act called bigamy.

In some cultures, adultery is a valid ground for divorce, while in others offering of one's wife to a fiend as a welcome present s the norm. Some cultures trace lineage matrilineally while others trace patrilineal. It is evident therefore that there exist variability of cultures among various societies. This fact is of sociological significance since it enables us to curb ethnocentrism, knowing to expect variations in beliefs and practices.

Cultural Universals

The striking differences in human cultures are more obvious than the uniformity. Despite their great diversity, there are striking uniformity among cultures of all societies. several patterns of behavior have been found in all known culture. They are called cultural universals. There are some elements that are known in all cultures; namely age-grading, athletics sports, dancing, cosmology, courtship, divination, ethics, etiquette, faith healing, family, feasting, folklore, fire making, funeral rites, gift giving, housing, hygiene, incest taboo, inheritance rules, joking, language, law, mourning, music, population policy e.t.c.

The idea of cultural universals is challenged by critics. The argument is that culturla universals exist only on broad patterns, but there are few if any specific cultural or structural universal. weather is important, so people all over the world try to change it. But when we get down to how they try to change it, we still find tremendous variations. Also the general idea of hospitality appears to be common to all cultures, but the specific form it takes is highly varied. Among the Eskimo of North West Greenland, a man may lend his wife to a friend for the night and temporary exchanges of wives are common. Thus hospitality may be offered in many different ways, of which wife lending is one. what makes Eskimo culture distinctive is its peculiar way of offering hospitality. in fact any culture is made up of unique variations. The underlying universals shows that all people belong to the human specie. The societies they create are all human societies.


A well known cultural pattern ethnocentrism is the tendency in which people consciously or unconsciously view their own culture as normal, superior, natural and judge other cultures accordingly. Throughout history, people of various cultural backgrounds have labeled those of different cultures as savage, barbaric, primitive, outlandish, inferior e.t.c. Extreme ethnocentrism leads to the belief that some people are less than human. Most people take their culture for granted and generally assume it is the best. Researches have pointed out that "we are the best" attitude is also common among organizations, churches, colleges, fraternities and business groups. These groups usually overestimate their prestige, several times more often than they underestimate it.

Man is ethnocentric because he learns to enjoy his own culture. As a child, he learns to play the games that have been enjoyed and handed on by his parents and elders in his family. As an adult he prefers the food that he acquired a taste for in childhood. Thus a man acquires a preference for his own culture. it is not easy to discard ethnocentric notions. Such feelings are intense. perhaps by understanding why such feelings exist, we can learn to avoid actions and words harmful to other cultures. Contact with other cultures unfortunately, is one cure for ethnocentrism, it may even reinforce one's stereotyped notions and thereby support the sense of self-superiority. However contact that is pleasant, co-operative and with people of a similar social status, may lessen ethnocentric feelings and broaden cultural perspectives.

Cultural Relativity

Ethnocentrism inclines a society to judge other societies in terms of its own norms and values. cultural relativity on the other hand, stresses that any cultural trait, no matter how unusual, if it helps to attain the goals or meet the needs of the culture concerned. This concept, does not declare that any trait of culture is acceptable, somewhere in the world, rather it states that certain traits are right because they work well in one culture and other traits are wrong because they cause harm in certain cultures. For example, premarital sexual intercourse resulting in pregnancy is condemned in some societies but in certain areas of the world a woman is considered more desirable if her fertility is established before marriage.

cultural relativity encourages us to judge cultural practices of another society, not in terms of our own norms, but in terms of the needs, beliefs and feelings of the other culture. Accordingly, culture is relative; there is no universal standard that can be used to evaluate cultures or norms as good or bad. Each culture must be seen in its own terms, and a custom can be evaluated only by its contribution to the culture of which it is a part. In this sense, cultural judgement are relative or contextual. cultural relativity calls for our appreciation of different cultures and tolerances of others in their cultural patterns. Cultural differences therefore should not be seen as deficiency.


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