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Cultural Variation: Universalities, Generalities & Particularities

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Anthropologists tend to categorize cultural traits as universals, generalities, and particularities. Learn more about how the differences and similarities among cultures are used to establish which traits are universals, generalities, or particularities. Updated: 10/20/2021

Differences, Similarities, & Culture

If you spend a day in, let's say New York City, it wouldn't take long to come to the conclusion that people are really different. From the way we dress to the way we talk, we're different; as the old saying goes, there is 'different strokes for different folks.' However, if you looked a bit closer, you'd also realize there's a whole lot we have in common. The people you see might not be dressed alike, but I bet many of them will be talking to friends or walking alongside a spouse or children. To use another proverb, in some ways we're all sort of peas from the same pod.

Despite the triteness of these axioms, anthropologists would tend to agree with them. They'd give a nod to the fact that societies across the globe are very different, yet they'd also agree that all humans seem to share some similar cultural traits. However, rather than using pithy sayings, they'd probably explain this concept by using the terms universals, generalities, and particularities. Today's lesson will seek to explain these three terms. However, before we do this, we should probably nail down the definition of culture since we'll be using the term a whole bunch.

Culture is the set of learned behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that characterize a society or a people group. It encompasses both the intangible and tangible things of a population. Things like how they worship, how they structure their families, how they work, and even how they play are all a part of a people group's culture. With this down, let's get onto our three terms and how they help explain why we are all both alike and different.

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  • 1:39 Universals
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Since it's the broadest of the terms, we'll start with universals. Universals are cultural traits that span across all cultures. In other words, they're the beliefs or attitudes that are present around the globe. Across all continents they are seen as acceptable, if not necessary, for culture to survive.

A great example of a universal that anthropologists like to cite is the idea of family. Across the globe and throughout time, people have organized themselves into families and kinship groups. Whether in Africa or Asia, Australia, or Antarctica, people understand the universal concept of family. Anthropologists would argue that it's just what we as humans do - we organize ourselves into families that are based on biology. No matter where you choose to travel and explore, you'll find a family system.


A step down from universals are generalities. Generalities are cultural traits that occur in many societies but not all of them. Yes, they might be prevalent, but not everyone sees them as acceptable and necessary. For this one, we can, again, use the concept of family.

Like we said before, the concept of family is very much a universal. However, that doesn't mean that all families look the same. For instance, the idea of a dad, mom, and kids living together under one roof has historically been what Western minds have tended to think of when the word 'nuclear family' is used. We'd be pretty safe calling it a cultural generality that has existed in the Westernized worlds of say, England, France, and the U.S.

However, young children growing up in an African tribe where polygamy is practiced would have a very different idea of family. To them, family would not just mean one dad and one mom, nor would it mean siblings who share the very same genetic traits. Yes, they'd understand the universal concept of family, but the generalized concept of a nuclear family would be a bit outside their paradigm.

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