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Cultural Universals

Cultural universal is a value, norm, or other cultural trait that is found in every group. Although there are universal human activities (singing, playing games, story- telling, preparing food, marrying, child rearing, disposing of the dead, and so on), there is no universally accepted way of doing any of them. Humans have no biological imperative that results in one particular form of behavior throughout the world.

Anthropologist George Murdock (1945) combed through the data that anthropologists had gathered on hundreds of groups around the world. He com- pared their customs concerning courtship, marriage, funerals, games, laws, music, myths, incest taboos, and even toilet training. He found that these activities are present in all cultures, but the specific customs differ from one group to another. There is no universal form of the family, no universal way of toilet training children, or a universal way of disposing of the dead.

Incest is a remarkable example. Groups even differ on their view of what incest is. The Mundugumors of New Guinea extend the incest taboo so far that for each man, seven of every eight women are ineligible marriage partners (Mead). Other groups go in the opposite direction and allow some men to marry their own daughters (La Barre 1954). The Burundi of Africa even insists that a son have sex with his mother—but only to remove a certain curse (Albert 1963). No society permits generalized incest for its members.

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