The Comparative Study of Cultures


The problems of individual and group adjustment are related to a cultural situation and therefore involve studies of cultures, of social organization and education, of the capacity and opportunity of the individual for adjustment, of the failures in adaptation, and of the changes in cultural situations which require continuous readjustment. As the social sciences become concerned with the problems of human behavior especially in its relation with problems of education, contacts of races and nationalities, crime and insanity, there is a renewed interest in the comparative examination of the specific cultural systems of racial and national groups and the behavior of individuals in special cultural situations. In this paper it is assumed (1)that the diversities in behavior are the result of different interpretations of experience rather than different levels in a uniform course of cultural evolution, (2) that the theories of difference in degrees of mental endowment among races and populations have not been sustained, and (3) that emphasis should be placed on the culture area rather than on the natural environment. The reaction of personalities to the cultural situation can best be approached in terms of the definition of the situation. On the social level these definitions arc represented by moral and legal codes, political policies, organizations, and institutions. Culture epochs and mass conversions are inaugurated by the propaganda of definitions of the situations.

The social sciences are fundamentally concerned with relationships between individuals and individuals, individuals and groups, and groups and other groups. Language, gossip, customs, codes, institutions, organizations, governments, professions, etc., are concerned with the mediation of these relationships.

The central problem in the general life-process is one of adjustment, and the forms of adjustive effort are "behavior." In a human as distinguished from an animal society the problem of the adjustments of individuals and groups is related to a cultural situation, that is, one in which a body of values has been accumulated and preserved (mainly through the instrumentality of language) in the form of institutions, mores, and codes, together with a reinforcing set of attitudes or tendencies to act in conformity with prescribed behavior patterns or norms. The attitudes and values, or, we may say, the attitudes toward values, which reflect the personality of the individual are the result of a process of conditioning by the influences of the cultural milieu, eventuating in a body of habits.

The reaction of different individuals in the same culture to identical cultural influences will depend partly on their different trains of

( 178) experience and partly on their biochemical constitutions and unlearned psychological endowments. Local, regional, nationalistic, and racial groups are in turn conditioned, in the formation of their behavior patterns and habits, by their several trains of experience and conceivably by their particular biochemical and psychological constitutions.

From this standpoint the problems of individual and group adjustment involve study of the following factors:

1. The culture situations to which the individual is to make adjustments (studies of cultures).

2. The devices and instrumentalities for adjusting the individual to the cultural situations (social organization and education).

3. The capacity and opportunity of the individual to be adjusted (constitutional factors, incentives, social position).

4. The failures of adaptation, meaning: for the individual, dependency, vagrancy, crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, psychoneurosis, etc.; and for the group, decline, subordination, extermination.

5. Changes in cultural situations (e.g., internal mobility of populations, urbanization, migration, invasion, colonization, the dissemination of cultural traits, race prejudice, technological advance, shifting of occupation, changes in attitudes and values, etc.) requiring continuous readjustment of individuals and reorganization of culture and learning, and involving questions of the participation of individuals and groups in promoting and directing cultural change.

In this connection it is a frequent experience that the problems of a given situation are soluble only by going outside that immediate situation. Thus the widest and seemingly most irrelevant excursion from human situations is the exploration of the cosmic universe, but the hypothesis-forming implications of this research for our own material universe have been pointed out by an eminent astronomer:

'The variable stars are our main measuring tools for getting out into the universe beyond and outside our own system. It is very difficult to find out anything about our own Milky Way because we ourselves are inside this system. We can study it only by studying the other systems, and the more we learn about them directly, the more we will learn about our own system, indirectly.[1]

The employment of the microscope instead of the telescope and

( 179) spectroscope has enabled the biologists to push exploration to the other extreme, in the direction of the examination of the life and behavior of invisible and parasitic forms of existence, and this direction of research, which originally seemed also quite irrelevant to the problem of the human universe, has eventually reacted very positively on the control of human diseases. Thus, to take a single example, malaria is caused by a parasite which must develop its life-cycle in two unrelated hosts: the earlier stages in the stomach of a mosquito and the later stages in the red blood corpuscles of humans. Humans bitten by infected mosquitos contract malaria, and sound mosquitos biting infected humans are infected, and a vicious circle is thus established. But if mosquitos are unable to bite humans, the parasites cannot be propagated and malaria disappears. Similarly, experiments with garden peas, guinea pigs, and fruit flies have thrown a light on human heredity not directly obtainable from humans.

It is well known also that the theory of evolution as formulated by Darwin and his contemporaries had a profound influence upon the development of all the social sciences and more particularly on anthropology and sociology. Darwin also went outside the immediate situation and examined comparatively the modification of life on the morphological side during the whole of geological time, and fixed what Huxley later called "man's place in nature," which was, in fact, among the animals.

The years following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species were, of course, an exciting period, and a formative one for anthropology. A new and vivid interest was aroused for those great groups of mankind called "savages," "primitives," "uncivilized," "lower races," "natural races," and recently by Faris "preliterates," and for about seventy years these groups have been studied with increasing intensity and improved techniques, partly from the standpoint of the antiquity of man and the derivation of his varieties and partly from that of the evolution of human institutions.

At the present moment all the social sciences have become more or less concerned with the problem of human behavior, especially in its relation with the problems of education, the intercourse of nationalities, the contacts of races, delinquency, crime, insanity, etc., and more generally with reference to the progressive unstabilization

( 180) of society; and there is a renewed and wider interest in the comparative examination of the specific cultural systems of racial and national groups and the behavior of individuals in the specific cultural situations, corresponding again with Professor Shapley's dictum that the more we learn about other systems directly the more we shall learn about our own system indirectly.

Historically the study of primitive societies has been prominently associated with the three following points of view:

I. That cultural evolution, as shown in social institutions, would be found to emerge and proceed in a regular order and invariable unilinear sequence, the same steps being taken in the same order by each and every division of mankind in so far as they were taken at all.

Tylor, who was prominent in the foundation of modern anthropology, emphasized the theory of the unilinear development of cultures and illustrated it by a comparison drawn from geology:

The institutions of man are as distinctly stratified as the earth on which he lives. They succeed each other in series substantially uniform over the globe, independent of what seem the comparatively superficial differences of race and language, but shaped by similar human nature acting through successively changed conditions in savage, barbaric, and civilized life.[2]

The assumptions of this straight-line evolutionary theory have been well stated by Rivers, who at the same time rejects it in favor of a historical approach to be noticed later:

[Formerly] the aim of the anthropologist was to work out a scheme of human progress according to which language, social organization, religion, and material arts had developed through the action of certain principles or laws. It was assumed that the manifold peoples of the earth represented stages in this process of evolution, and it was supposed that by the comparative study of the culture of these different peoples it would be possible to formulate the laws by which the process of evolution had been directed and governed. It was assumed that the time order of different elements of culture had been everywhere the same; that if matrilineal institutions preceded patrilineal in Europe and Asia, this must also have been the case in Oceania and America; that if cremation is later than inhumation in India, it has also been later everywhere else. This assumption was fortified by attempts to show that there were reasons, usually psychological in nature, according to which there was something in the universal constitution

( 181)

of the human mind, or in some condition of the environment, or inherent in the constitution of human society, which made it necessary that patrilineal institutions should have grown out of matrilineal, and that inhumation should be earlier than cremation.[3]

From the standpoint of the cultural evolutionists, the lowest savages, represented by the Tasmanians and Australians, were taken as representing the first phase of cultural evolution, and the "folk-ways" of European peasants, their periodic festivals, superstitions, etc., were regarded as "survivals" from the first phase. Inferences were also made as to the original state of man from certain reported practices of contemporary savages, suggesting that their cultures contained also survivals. If in some savage groups wives were loaned in a hospitable way this was assumed to be a survival of primitive promiscuity, and, similarly, if the taboos against incestuous cohabitation were broken periodically (as in certain ceremonies) this was interpreted as evidence of a prior stage of general "consanguineous marriage." It was noticed also that in certain tribes near relatives of a girl cohabited with her immediately before marriage, excluding the groom temporarily, and this, termed by Lubbock the "expiation of marriage," was regarded as a sort of resentful gesture on the part of family members and a survival from a period when sexual communism prevailed. The mock resistance on the part of a bride and her relatives to her removal to the residence of the groom was interpreted as a survival of marriage by capture, etc.

2. That the higher cultures are the result of superior inborn mental endowment in the racial divisions which they represent.

The Darwinian formulation of evolution, which on the physical side meant the gradual building-up of the higher organic forms through the modification of the lower ones, was especially favorable to the view that the "lower" races were incompleted in their mental evolution. It had, in fact, required no Darwinian theory to convince the white man that the black and yellow races were mentally inferior and thus incapable of originating higher forms of culture. This was, for example, the argument in America in justification of slavery, and the earlier ethnological reports on the inability of savages to

( 182) count more than three or five or to reason logically pointed also in this direction. Spencer and Galton were prominent in formulating this view, but it is notable that Tylor did not base his evolutionary argument on alleged differences in mental endowment of the races of lower and higher cultures. He was influenced by the general concept of evolution derived from geology as well as biology and explicitly avoided the identification of his view with the question of mental differences, in the following terms:

For the present purpose it appears both possible and desirable to eliminate considerations of hereditary varieties or races of man, and to treat mankind as homogeneous in nature, though placed in different grades of civilization [4]

The most thoroughgoing transfer of the concept of organic evolution to a social problem was made by the criminologist Lombroso, who defined the criminal, at least the "born criminal," as one whose physical, mental, and moral evolution have failed to take place regularly or completely, and who consequently remains in the stage of our "brutal prehistoric ancestors." Lombroso and his followers attempted to enumerate the physical marks or "stigmata" of the criminal (protuberant lower jaw, deformed cranium, scanty beard, etc.). The criminal type was thus regarded as an "atavism" or throwback to an incompleted stage of evolution. In this case the question of race development was not involved, but to the extent that the Lombrosian theory prevailed it was confirmatory of the view that the backward races represented an incompleted development.

This view has also naturally enough become associated with colonial policies, nationalistic aspirations, and race prejudice, and at present has its most organized expression in the theory of Nordicor Anglo-Saxon superiority. Originating strangely enough with a Frenchman (Gobineau), this position is held by certain students of heredity, eugenics, race biology, and physical anthropology, in Germany, Scandinavia, and America, and is urged by a number of popular and chauvinistic writers.

3. That different rates of progress and levels of culture among the racial populations are due to more and less favorable geographic positions and economic conditions.

As long ago as Hippocrates and Aristotle a relation was pointed

(183) out between raw materials, geographic position, and climate, on the one hand, and the character of given civilizations, on the other. The concept was emphasized later by Bodin and Montesquieu in France, by the geographer Ritter in Germany, by the historian Buckle in England, and systematically developed by the anthropogeographer Ratzel in Germany and by his disciple Semple in America. In America also Huntington has emphasized particularly the efficiency of culture as related to climate, and Wissler, among others, has been prominent in the delimitation of specific culture areas and culture complexes.

From this general standpoint what is variously termed the "ecological area," the "geographical province," and the "area of characterization" determines the physical type of plants, animals, and humans, the character of civilizations, and the fate of nations. It is claimed that the great civilizations have arisen under favorable conditions of climate and material resources, and their decline, as in Greece, is interpreted as due to climatic change, denudation of forests, introduction of malaria, or the expansion of the population beyond the available supply of certain material values. Simkhovitch, for example, has attempted to trace the decline of the Roman Empire to an inadequate supply of hay.,

It is plain that the material culture of an area will, as Dixon has expressed it, reflect the "permissive" character of the environment. Certain values may be absent and certain activities may be excluded. The Eskimo will not be able to cultivate corn or build houses and boats of wood, and the tropical African will not wear furs, build houses of snow, or construct blubber lamps. Moreover, great aggregations of men are in general dependent upon fertile soil, agriculture, cattle, and mineral resources, and political history has a certain relation to the mass of population. But, even so, we find that populations circumvent unfavorable conditions, on the one hand, or fail to utilize them, on the other. The Egyptian civilization may be correlated with the fertility of the Nile Valley but the comparable civilizations of the Incas of Peru and the Mayas of Central America were developed on an unfavorable mountain plateau and in what is now

( 184) a tropical jungle, while the Indians of the fertile regions of the United States developed nothing comparable. It has also been pointed out that different types of culture may emerge successively in an identical environment and that two groups living simultaneously side by side in the same general environment may show very different patterns of behavior and culture.[6]

No one of these standpoints will be emphasized in our study of primitive behavior. On the contrary, it will be assumed:

I. That diversities in behavior and culture are the result of different interpretations of experience, resulting in characteristic behavior reactions and habit systems, and that a uniform course of cultural and behavioral evolution is consequently out of the question.

2. That theories of difference in degrees of mental endowment among races and populations and of inborn racial "psyches" have not been sustained; that such differences as may possibly exist have not played a noticeable rôle in the development of behavior and culture, and that the manifest group psyches are not inborn but developed through experience and habit systems.

3. That emphasis should be placed on the culture area rather than on the natural environment. In their adjustive strivings territorially isolated groups develop, through their specific experiences, characteristic values and habits, some of them unique, and the circulation of these traits, their migration from area to area, and the borrowing back and forth, represent a sort of social inheritance, and is perhaps the main basis of social change and of advance to the cultural level termed "civilization."

Employing the term "culture" to represent the material and social values of any group of people, whether savage or civilized—their institutions, customs, attitudes, behavior reactions—the structuralization of cultures, their diversification and the direction of their development, the total configuration of the patterns they contain, and the reaction of personalities to the cultural situation can best be approached in terms of the definition of the situation. An adjustive effort of any kind is preceded by a decision to act or not act along a given line, and the decision is itself preceded by a definition of the situation, that is to say, an interpretation, or point of view, and eventually a

( 185) policy and a behavior pattern. In this way quick judgments and decisions are made at every point in everyday life. Thus when approached by a man or beast in a lonely spot we first define the situation, make a judgment, as to whether the object is dangerous or harmless, and then decide ("make up our mind") what we are going to do about it.

On the social level these definitions and the patterns they initiate are represented by moral and legal codes, political policies, organizations, institutions, etc.; they originate in adjustive reactions, are developed through language, gossip, argument, and conflict; there appear special definers of situations—medicine men, prophets, law-givers, judges, politicians, scientists; culture epochs and mass conversions (Christianity, Mohammedanism, the German Reformation, the French Revolution, popular government, Fascism, communism, prohibition, etc.) are inaugurated by the propaganda of definitions of situations.

Examining this standpoint among primitive groups, we find that. they notice and magnify situations which we fail to notice, or disregard; that different tribes define the same situation and pattern the behavior in precisely opposite ways; that the same tribe may define the situation for one set of objects in one way and for another set in another; that a trivial situation may initiate a pattern which expands and ramifies and is stepped up to a position of emotional and social importance; that the same pattern may include a variety of meanings and applications; that in different populations an identical pattern may have different meanings and applications; that a pattern may change to its opposite and back again, and even back and forth, with changing circumstances; that in some regions a pattern may be extraordinarily emphasized, in others quite incidental, and in still others entirely lacking; that different cultures may be more or less dominated by particular definitions and patterns; that reactions on the physiological (visceral-emotional) level may initiate patterns which are subsequently rationalized; that there is a tendency (which may be termed "perseverative") to step up patterns to unanticipated extremities.



  1. H. Shapley, New York Times, January 1, 1931.
  2. E. B. Tylor, "On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions . . . " Jour. Anth. Inst., XVIII, 269.
  3. W. H. R. Rivers, History and Ethnology (New York: Macmillan Co.; London:Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; by permission), pp. 3-4.
  4. E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, I (1873), 7
  5. V. G. Simkhovitch, "Hay and History," Political Science Quarterly, XXVIII, 385—403; "Rome's Fall Reconsidered," ibid., XXXI, 201-43.
  6. R. B. Dixon, The Building of Cultures, pp. 28 ff.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2