Department of Anthropology College of Arts and Sciences The University of Alabama




Basic Premises

Key Works


Sources and Bibliography

Points of Reaction

Principal Concepts


Relevant Web Sites

Leading Figures




Basic Premises

Identify and briefly characterize the defining positions of the approach in question.

The basic premise of Cross-Cultural Analysis is that statistical cross-cultural comparisons are possible because cultures will, out of necessity of perpetuation, have some traits in common with each other within clusters of characteristic behavior or patterns of traits. The early basis for cross-cultural analysis was strongly based in the concept of cultural evolution. The premise of the cultural evolutionists was that all societies progress through an identical series of distinct evolutionary stages. Edward Burnett Tylor proposed that human cultures developed through three basic stages, savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Although this seems crude and ethnocentric, this was an advancement over the biological/theological belief that the more primitive societies of the world were at the stage of barbarism because they had fallen from grace. The hunters and gatherers, it was believed, had degenerated to their state, leaving them technologically and intellectually inferior to other cultures of the world. European society, especially Victorian England, which was seen as the top of the evolutionary scale.

While Tylor (Primitive Culture 1871) was arriving at his concept of cultural evolution in England, Louis Henry Morgan was comparing cultures in America, to arrive at his own ideas of the levels of society. Morgan’s highest contribution to comparative studies was Systems and Consanguinity (1877). Morgan traveled and circulated questionnaires to collect information about kinship systems of Native Americans and other national groups in the United States. Morgan also used the terms savagery, barbarism, and civilization, but expanded on these to give us seven levels of cultural evolution. He determined his stages on the level of technological advancement, dividing each of the two lower stages into lower, middle, and upper stages.

Morgan then classified cultures according to his system in his most famous book, Ancient Society (1877).

Both Morgan and Tylor were more influenced by the ideas of social progress as asserted by Spencer than by evolutionary theories of Darwin.

Cross-cultural analysts test hypotheses and draw statistical correlations based on the assumption of the existence of universal patterns. This process was greatly facilitated by the work of George Peter Murdock with the compilation of the ethnographies of over 300 cultures and 700 different cultural subject headings collected from ethnographies by Boas, Malinowski, and their students, among many others, who were not always professionals, into the Cross Cultural System, later known as the Human Relations Area Files. The trait lists of Cultural Universals, in “The Common Denominator of Cultures” in “The Science of Man in the World Crisis,” (Murdock 1945,123) were based on the HRAF (Ferraro 1992:74). Cross-cultural survey is “a comparative statistical study in which the “ tribe,” “society,” or “culture” is taken as the unit and samples from a world-wide universe are studied to test hypotheses about the nature of society or culture” (Naroll 1961, 221). The most famous example of this method is Murdock’s Social Structure (1949).

Points of Reaction

Indicate, where possible, the theories, methodologies and scholars against which the approach in question may be considered a reaction. What problems are perceived to be better addressed by adopting this theoretical and/or methodological position?

The comparative method was used by early cultural evolutionists such as Morgan and Tylor in reaction against the degenerationists that placed hunter-gatherers and other less technologically advanced cultures in a class based on a supposed degeneration from perfection, which had made them less technologically and intellectually capable, inferior to the European societies of the 19th century. The development of the comparative method as used in Cross-Cultural Analysis was a reaction against the deductive reasoning of the Boasian tradition. Franz Boas was leading the majority of American anthropologists in the early 20th century. Boas had reacted against the comparative method as presented by Tylor before the turn of the century, and essentially, the comparative method had lain dormant in anthropology for 40 years.

ADVANTAGES Levinson says that holocultural studies have six major advantages in the realm of theory testing concerning human culture and behavior:

DISADVANTAGES Levinson also points out four major disadvantages, although he states that these are outweighed by the six advantages listed above. They are as follows:

Leading Figures

Name and provide brief biographies of the principal scholars assoicated with the approach.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor may be considered the father of the modern statistical cross-cultural approach to the study of culture for his paper, “On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions, Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent” (1889). Tylor was born Oct. 2, 1832, into a well-to-do British Quaker family, and died. Jan. 2, 1917. He is considered the founder of social anthropology in Great Britain. Known for his research on culture, cultural evolution, and the origin and development of religion, Tylor never earned a university degree, but his position was earned through his research and writing. When he was 24, concern for his health led him to travel to America in 1856 and then on to Mexico. He returned to Great Britain and published his first book, “Anahuac: Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern” (1861). Tylor’s unilineal view of progressive cultural evolution included the concept that earlier stages of development were exhibited by what he termed “survivals,” which were the single remnants of a paired set of ancient cultural traits that lingered on in more advanced cultures. He became keeper of the University Museum at Oxford in 1883, where he was a professor of anthropology from 1896 to 1909. His other major works include Primitive Culture (1871) and “Anthropology” (1881) (Kowalewski 1995).

William Graham Sumner was born in Paterson, N.J., Oct. 30, 1840, and died Apr. 12, 1910 before the completion of his life’s major work, the four volume “Science of Society,” and the index for the volumes of comparative data. Sumner was a sociologist, economist, and Episcopal minister. As a Yale University professor (1872-1909), Sumner taught Keller and Murdock. Sumner introduced the classic concepts of Folkways and mores in Folkways (1906). William Graham Sumner was also the foremost publicist of the theory of Social Darwinism in the United States. Social Darwinists asserted that societies evolved by a natural process, like organisms. This theory contended that the most fit members of society survived or were most successful. This concept was roundly supported by political conservatism which argued that the most successful social classes also supposedly consisted of people who were obviously biologically superior. (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1995) The importance of this concept is that the basis for cross-cultural analysis was rooted in the concept of cultural evolution, and this was Sumner’s view of the process.

George P. Murdock was born in Meriden, Conn., May 11, 1897, and died Mar. 29, 1985. Murdock, the most influential and important figure in 20th century cross-cultural analysis, was an American anthropologist known for his comparative studies of kinship systems and for his cross-cultural analyses of the regularities and differences among diverse peoples. During the time he was teaching at Yale (1928-1960) he developed the Cross Cultural Survey, in the 1930s-1940s, later known as the Human Relations Area Files. The HRAF is an index of many of the world’s ethnographically known societies. The HRAF is now available at over 250 institutional libraries worldwide, including a limited collection in Gorgas Library. Murdock’s publications include “Social Structure” (1949), “Africa: Its People and Their Culture History” (1959), and “Culture and Society” (1965) (Kowalewski 1995). Murdock descended from an anthropological ancestry opposing the traditional anthropological school of thought in America at the turn of the century headed by Franz Boas. Murdock hailed from the line descending from Tylor, Morgan, Spencer, Sumner, and Keller. Murdock was taught by A. G. Keller, and earned his Ph.D. under William Graham Sumner at Yale in 1925 (Levinson and Ember 1996:262). Sumner wished to create a comparative social science based on a “centrally located cross-cultural sample” (Tobin 1990:473). Murdock accomplished that, based on the original idea of Sumner’s central index. Sumner had begun the work of several volumes, most influential to the eventual work of Murdock in compiling the HRAF was the index completed posthumously by Sumner’s successor, A.G. Keller .

Alfred Louis Kroeber was born in Hoboken, N.J., June 11, 1876, and died Oct. 5, 1960. He is often considered the most influential American cultural anthropologist after Franz Boas, who was one of his professors. He held tenure (1901-46) at the University of California at Berkeley. Kroeber was involved in regional cross-cultural study, comparing cultures to each other, not abstracted cultural traits, which he opposed. He advanced the study of California Indians and developed important theories about the nature of culture. Kroeber believed that human culture could not be entirely explained by psychology, biology, or related sciences, but required a science of its own. He was a major figure in the emergence of anthropology as an academic discipline. Kroeber published prolifically until the time of his death at the age of 85. His major works include “Anthropology” (1923; rev. ed. 1948); “Handbook of the Indians of California” (1925); “Configurations of Culture Growth” (1944); “Culture; a Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions” (1952), which he co-authored with Clyde Kluckhohn; and “Style and Civilizations” (1957) (Kowalewski 1995).

Harold E. Driver, born 1907 -, was a Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. His field research was concentrated in California and New Mexico. Comparative statistical methodology and culture area classifications were his areas of specialization. There is an excellent article by Driver in Readings in Cross-Cultural Methodology, entitled, “Introduction to Statistics for Comparative Research, which looks at such methods as chi-square and phi for the correlation between culture features. This article is written for the fairly unsophisticated statistician and is useful for comparative studies with other applications than just cross-cultural analysis.

Clellan Ford, born 1909 -, was a professor of Anthropology at Yale and President of the HRAF. He took over the Human Relations program from Murdock. His field research areas were in the Northwest Coast of the United States, and the Fiji Islands. Comparative studies and human sexual behavior were his focus areas.

David Levinson, born 1947-, and a prolific producer of anthropological encyclopedias, as well as cross-cultural work. Levinson has edited guide books for the use and understanding of the HRAF as well as books and articles that explain the studies that have been done utilizing the HRAF.

Other leading figures include many students of Murdock’s at Yale such as John and Beatrice Whiting, who conducted “The Six Cultures Project” with Irvin L. Child and William Lambert, and Melvin Ember, who is co-editor with Levinson and a major contributor to the “Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology” (1996).

Key Works

Identify and briefly characterize the seminal works of the approach (i.e., articles, books, monographs, serials, etc.)

listed chronologically

Kinship research based on interviews and questionnaires distributed across America to Native Americans and people of European descent.

In this book Morgan detailed the seven stages of society. The text contains a system for classifying cultures to determine their position on the cultural evolutionary ladder.

Tylor was the first to attempt a statistical cross-cultural analysis with this paper, delivered to the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Three volumes of entries of societies catalogued by Sumner. Volume 4 is the index of the entries. The fourth volume index had a great influence upon Murdock.

This is a listing of common traits among cultures, what Murdock called “cultural universals,” which could be used to determine what is common or variable among cultures in a holocultural study.

The Cross Cultural System, which later became the Human Relations Area Files, was compiled by George Peter Murdock and colleagues at Yale in 1930s-1940s. It is a coded data retrieval system, which initially contained the ethnographies of over 300 cultures and 700 different cultural headings collected by the 1940s from ethnographies of Boas, Malinowski, and their students, among others, who were not always professionals (Ferraro 1992:74). The HRAF was originally produced on index cards, the HRAF Paper Files (1949), available on microfiche since 1968, and more recently available in a CD format. The entries to the HRAF increase annually, and subscriptions are bought by institutions on a yearly basis. Murdock wrote “The Common Denominator of Cultures” (1945). The cultural headings in the HRAF are partially based on the Cultural Universals Murdock sets forth in this work.

In 1949 Murdock used the HRAF as the foundation for his book “Social Structure” in which he correlated information on family and kinship organizations around the world (Ferraro 1992:28-29).

Book. Classification of ethnographies.

This project was a far-reaching concept of the effect of child-rearing practices on adult behavior, which utilized cross-cultural analysis, but was based in the school of Culture and Personality. This project resulted in a book by the same name, but it really did not add to anthropological knowledge and exposed some problems concerning the use of inappropriate methodology for research that is not specific enough in its hypothesis.

Levinson considers this book to be one of the important cross-cultural contributions of this century.

This is Guide Number One for the HRAF Theoretical Information Control System. In the Introduction to the Guide, Levinson states that it “is a new kind of information retrieval tool—an analytical propositional inventory of theories of human behavior that have been developed or tested by means of worldwide cross-cultural studies” (1977:2). There are five volumes of the Guide. This introductory volume contains a description of the Guide and tells one how to use it, including copies of the codebook that were used in the process of compiling the Guide.

Kinship, marriage, descent patterns, incest taboos, residence patterns, settlement patterns, religion, and aggression, among other cultural subjects, based on results obtained from holocultural studies. A bibliography and index are included. Levinson states that “this is a book about theories of human culture that have been tested holoculturally” (1980:5).

Book. Includes an index.

Principal Concepts

Identify and define the principal concepts which constitute the intellectual building blocks of the approach. Discuss any ambiguities or competing definitions.


Describe the standards for research design adopted by the school under consideration. Discuss the methods, techniques,and models advanced.

Not all Cross-Cultural analysts agree on the same methodology, but there are two main concepts:

The comparative method is a search for comparable culture patterns in multiple societies, particularly the comparison of cultural traits taken out of cultural context (Winthrop 1991: 43). There are two main goals of cross-cultural analysis.

General requirements, that are stringently applied to the comparative method are:

Methods that are specific to Cross-Cultural Analysis are:


Discuss how anthropological knowledge has been advanced by the work of this school.

Edward B. Tylor made the move into modern cross-cultural analysis with his statistical methodology explained in the school’s modern premiere paper, “On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions, Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent” (1889).

William Graham Sumner compiled and wrote most of the massive four-volume “The Science of Society” (1927) which was completed after Sumner’s death, including the index, by A.G. Keller (Harris 1968:607).

George Peter Murdock developed the Cross Cultural Survey in the 1930s-40s at Yale, as head of the Human Relations Program. This beginning grew into the Human Relations Area Files, which is now available in over 250 institutional libraries both here and abroad.

George P. Murdock combined the modern statistical method with modern ethnography, and statistical cross-cultural comparative method to create the HRAF. Murdock compiled the “Ethnographic Atlas, “ which was published in “Ethnology,” a journal that Murdock founded in 1962. This is an atlas of the 600 societies described on the basis of several dozen coded features in Murdock’s “World Ethnographic Sample.”

Driver (1967) reanalyzed Murdock’s “Ethnographic Atlas” using the two basic approaches of statistical analysis for anthropology—the cultural traits as units of analysis, as proposed by Tylor and Murdock, and the approach suggested by Boas and Kroeber, by using societies or tribes as the units of analysis. Driver combined the concepts of these two approaches and came up with a more sophisticated method by inductively determining culture areas or “sets of strata” (Seymour-Smith 1986:61).


Discuss the theoretical, methodolgoical and empirical problems and limitations of the approach identified by its critics. How have these criticisms been met?

“Galton’s Problem.”

When Tylor delivered his paper, “On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions, Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent” (1889) to the Royal Anthropological Institute, Francis Galton, skilled in research design, was the presiding officer. Galton voiced what he saw as obvious flaws in the comparative methodology. This has ever since been known as “Galton’s Problem.”

Solutions proposed

Problems with the Comparative Method have been discussed by many anthropologists, including Murdock (1949), White (1973), Eggan (1954), Driver and Chaney (1973), and Hobhouse, Wheeler, and Ginsberg (1915).From these and other authors have emerged four major problem areas:

Additional criticisms of a more general nature were voiced by Marvin Harris.

Addressing the inconsistencies in the quality of data in the HRAF, Murdock is said to have commented that there was a “robustness” in Cross-Cultural method. He was unconcerned about errors occasionally occurring in data because he did not think that they would harm the validity of a study. Naroll was more concerned with this problem and thought that errors would threaten validity. He proposed a process of analyzing data quality of the ethnographies already in use. Naroll suggested that researchers should rate ethnographies for certain qualities, such as the author’s command of the native language, and time spent in the field. This suggestion was carried through in an organized study and data quality of the ethnographies was found to effect results obtained in cross-cultural analysis in only a very few cases (Levinson and Ember 1996:263).


This is the place for any commentary that does not sit well in any of the previous categories.


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