Almost by definition, cultural anthropology is cross-cultural research. The search for an understanding of what culture is has meant undertaking research with an eye for comparing ethnographic data generated in different societies. Anthropological fieldwork has been driven as much by the desire to test a particular theory about culture as it has been about documenting another unknown group of people.
In current convention, however, cross-cultural research refers to a specific approach to cultural anthropology, namely, using data from multiple cultures to test hypotheses using statistical methods. This quantitative approach developed out of the culture and personality school of anthropology and grew through the work of George P. Murdock, who first organized the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), a database that today consists of nearly 400 different ethnographies of cultural groups, indexed by over 700 different topics.
The lasting value of the statistical cross-cultural comparison using HRAF has been that it has allowed cultural anthropologists to ask the “big” questions that other kinds of research are ill-equipped to handle: What are the causes of warfare? Why do states form? Why do states collapse? What are the causes of social inequality?
The very earliest anthropologists interested in cross-cultural comparative work were out of the evolutionary mold: E. B. Tylor, Herbert Spencer, and Lewis Henry Morgan. These late-18th-century anthropologists compared cultures and ordered them in an evolutionary sequence, called unilineal evolution, based upon their presumed level of development. In analytical and methodological terms, Morgan was the most sophisticated. He conducted actual fieldwork (with Seneca Indians) and collected data from nearly 70 other American Indian tribes in the United States. Indeed, one of his main contributions to comparative cross-cultural research was the discovery of classificatory kinship systems. As might be expected, then, Morgan’s evolutionary scheme was the most sophisticated, based upon a culture’s technical capacity and material technology.
Nevertheless, the rejection of evolutionism and the kind of comparative work it engendered by Franz Boas and his students pushed cross-cultural comparative work into the background of cultural anthropology for nearly 40 years. When comparative work reemerged in American anthropology, it was the intellectual descendants of Morgan and Tylor who were responsible for it.
Another source of the contemporary statistical model of cross-cultural comparison emerged out of the basic and modal personality school of anthropology. This brand of cultural anthropology included scholars such as Ralph Linton, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Cora Du Bois (all Boasians), and Abraham Kardiner (a psychoanalyst). This orientation toward culture and personality studies was essentially the application of psychoanalytic theory to the study of culture: Cultural anthropologists presented their fieldwork data, and Kardiner provided a profile of that particular culture.
The working assumption of the approach was that every society had a “basic personality,” a common denominator of personality types. There was a clear understanding that basic personality was formed based on the cultural institutions involved in child socialization. Cultural patterns, such as mythology, marriage patterns, and gender relations, were believed to be projections of basic personality.
The problems with the approach were that all of these “studies” were conducted after the fact, so there was no real testing of data. Cora Du Bois, however, conducted fieldwork with the Alorese during 1937 to 1938, collecting data specifically to test basic personality. Her work refined the understanding of culture-personality relationships. Unfortunately, the methodological improvements in her research design and execution were lost on most culture and personality anthropologists, who later became enamored of the national character studies.
At Yale, however, the methodology for investigating psychology using anthropological approaches did become more sophisticated, through the interaction of psychologists John Dollard and Clark Hull and anthropologists Edward Sapir, George P. Murdock, and John Whiting.
George P. Murdock was the most influential figure of cross-cultural analysis, a student of William Graham Sumner, which makes Murdock one of the rare American anthropologists of the early 20th century to be trained by someone outside of the Boasian tradition. Indeed, Murdock’s intellectual ancestors were from the line of Tylor, Morgan, and Spencer. Murdock first developed the Cross-Cultural Survey during the 1930s and 1940s, which in 1949 became the HRAF. Murdock is best known for this work and for his studies of kinship systems.
Whiting earned his PhD at Yale in 1938 and returned there following military service during World War II to conduct, with Irvin Child, a large-scale, systematic study of child training and personality using Murdock’s Survey. Published in 1953 as Child Training and Personality, the work was noteworthy because it tested a model very much like basic personality on a sample of 39 different cultures, using basic statistical procedures to analyze the data. The results were not all that encouraging (the correlation between child training and personality was not strong), but the method led to a number of other examinations of child training and personality, among them Barry, Bacon, and Child’s classic Relation of Child Training to Subsistence Economy, which demonstrated that subsistence mode and environment were important influences in how children were raised.
There were, however, notable problems with HRAF. One of these problems was that studies tended to lose information through the coding process. That is, coding a society for a particular trait ignores any variability that might have existed within that society. A second problem was that large-scale, complex societies were either underrepresented or ignored entirely, simply because most anthropological fieldwork was done with small-scale, primitive societies. A third problem was that not all ethnographies were of equal value.
Whiting was aware of all of these problems, but most especially the last, because many ethnographies made no comments at all on child training and child development, Whiting’s primary research interest. To address this issue, he and his wife, Beatrice, devised the Six Cultures Project, a study designed to collect similar, directly comparable data from six cultures: the United States (in Massachusetts), Philippines, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, and India. Research results began to be published in 1963, but the project is most famous for Children of Six Cultures, published in 1975.
The HRAF have, however, been consistently upgraded, improved, and expanded. Significant work using the HRAF has expanded the anthropological understanding of complexity, kinship, marriage, and descent; the social correlates of particular subsistence modes; socialization; religion; warfare; and numerous other subjects. A great deal of what cultural anthropologists teach in an introductory course in anthropology is based on work done using the HRAF.
- Levinson, D., & Malone, M. J. (1980). Toward explaining human culture: A critical review of the findings of worldwide cross-cultural research. New Haven, CT: HRAF Research Press.
- Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. New York: Macmillan.
- Whiting, B., & Whiting, J. W. M. (1975). Children of six cultures: A psycho-cultural analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.