Cultural Universalism: Definition, 10 Examples & Criticisms

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Cultural Universalism is the concept that values, concepts, and behaviors within diverse cultures can be examined, understood, and judged according to universal standards of right and wrong.

It is the opposite of cultural relativism, which argues that you can’t judge one culture by another culture’s standards.

Central to the theory of cultural universalism is the concept of a cultural universal: something that someone believes is universal across all cultures. Examples of cultural universals include families, language, cultural expression, and politics.

What is Cultural Universalism?

Cultural universalism implies that norms, values, and concepts are equal to all people and cultures, which is also applied in international law.

For example, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts various rights to all people – e.g., to marry, own property, and access equal protection under the law – regardless of culture or nationality. (Kohfeldt, Grabe, 2014).

Cultural universalists believe that the same human rights should apply to everyone, regardless of their culture or ethnicity. Cultural relativists, on the other hand believe cultures should but out of each other’s business – even if it means one culture is oppressing its minorities.

Cultural Universalism vs Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism declares that values and beliefs are defined by local culture, as opposed to global ideology. It is the view that moral systems vary from culture to culture and are all equally valid.

This is based on the idea that there is no universal standard of good or evil, so every judgment about right and wrong is a product of society. Hence, any opinion on morality is subject to the cultural perspective of each person. This means that no moral or ethical system can be considered the “best,” or “worst”. (Donnelly, 1984).

Cultural relativists argue that the dominant version of human rights in the West was developed by Western countries and are based on Western ethics – it’s not a cultural universal.

These rights should therefore not be imposed on non-Western societies that have different histories, cultures, and religions (Nickel, 2014).

In response, universalists argue that ideals like liberty and security belong to all of us. They are critical of cultural relativist arguments, which they see as an attempt to justify oppression of minorities or defend harmful cultural practices. (Lakatos, 2018)

Cultural relativism has been criticized as a way for nations to select which human rights they are willing to uphold.

Case Study: When Moral Values Clash

Western nations like the United States are often accused of arrogance and intrusive moralizing when they try to push cultural universalism upon other nations.

1. Qatar 2022 World Cup

For example, the controversy of the 2022 Qatar world cup was a touch-point for cultural universalism.

In Qatar, homosexuality is seen as immoral. In the West, sexual choice is increasingly accepted as a human right.

But outrage broke out over Qatar’s laws on homosexuality, and the possibility that gay tourists from the West might hypothetically be arrested for visiting. Western footballers and their managers were very uncomfortable about it!

However, Qatar and its supporters accused the West of moralizing.

On the one side, we have the West with a strong cultural universal ideal: freedom. On the other side, we have Qatar with its strong ideas based on religious teachings.

Should the West be cultural universalists and stand by their moral position, or cultural relativists and turn a blind eye to what they see as extremely unfair treatment and discrimination against innocent people?

2. Western Advocacy of Democracy

Another example is the clash between America and China in regard to the right to democracy.

For example, should the democratic West engage in economic and diplomatic relations with China, an authoritarian anti-democratic state?

Here, the West has decided to be cultural relativists and engage with China, despite deep disagreements on the moral issues of freedom and human rights.

Related: Moral Relativism

Cultural Universals: Things Every Culture Has!

Another central concept here is the ‘cultural universal’. A cultural universal is something that is common across all cultures.

This consists of traits like singing, dancing, storytelling, preparing food, etc.

Each culture might go about those activities differently, but all cultures have developed habits, rules, or ceremonies related to them (Bialowas, 2022).

Anthropologist George Peter Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying international systems of kinship.

According to Murdock, certain patterns were common for all cultures, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death or illness and healing.

Through his research, Murdock also identified humor as cultural universal.

He found humor as a way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people, in all societies (Murdock 1949).

Moreover, sociologists consider humor necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals to handle otherwise tense situations.

The patterns and behaviour of all societies are, according to universalists, centred around basic human survival. For instance, all cultures have developed death rituals. Some include burying the dead, others cremate the dead, and some place bodies away from society to be scavenged by animals. These are all different traditions, but the common purpose is to honor and isolate the deceased and prevent the spread of illness. (M. Bialowas, 2022)

Another example is the family unit. Every human society recognizes a family structure that include childcare and sexual reproduction. However, how that family unit is structured and how it functions varies.

In many Asian countries, for instance, family members from all generations live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults continue to live within the household until they marry.

In Europe and North America, by contrast, many families expect their children to leave home for university studies or to live independently for a period of time before forming their own families.

Other examples of cultural universals include customs like weddings, and celebrations of births. However, each culture may view and perform these rituals and ceremonies differently.

10 Examples of Cultural Universals

  • Geography — Location is common for all cultures, from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten. All societies need to consider the landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and its history.
  • Language — According to cultural universalism all languages share certain attributes such as abstract speech, figurative speech, metaphors, antonyms, synonyms, and units of time.
  • Family – All societies recognize family structures that regulate sexual reproduction and the care of children. There are, however, different types of families across different cultures.
  • FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The notion of survival forms the basic structure of all societies. Examples are building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cooking and clothing.
  • Economics – Jobs, the market, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are vital to societal development and quality of life, making economic systems a cultural universal.
  • Education — Common to all societies is passing on knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. How education takes place may differ (formal and informal, for example), but passing on of knowledge appears universal.
  • Politics – Government, social institutions, laws and structures are seen in all human societies.
  • Technology – Technology is used by all human societies for clothing, housing, and methods for getting food.
  • VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – Different societies all have several things in common, for instance: a belief system, celebration of life and death, and other ceremonial events.
  • Cultural expression —Art, music, dance, literature, sport, and every other form of cultural expression is present in all human societies.

Criticism of Cultural Universalism

The main criticism of cultural universalism is that it is colored by western ideology. For example, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted a large part of the world’s population was not represented at the drafting, due to colonial rule.

Another criticism is that the UDHR is based on Western-culture values, putting the emphasis on the individual and forgetting about the importance of families and other social groups. Governments will then not accept the UDHR if they consider them to be against their local cultural values or political interest (Lakatos, 2018).

Certain rights, such as the right to private ownership, marriage, or religious freedom cannot be merged with traditional practices and norms of non-Western societies.

These rights will be interpreted as a sign of Western cultural imperialism. Consequently, they will not let the international western society interfere with their national politics (Lakatos, 2018).

Conclusion

Cultural Universalism defines certain values, norms, behaviors, and institutions to be universal for all societies across time and geography. This consists of characteristics like singing, storytelling, preparing food, etc. All cultures have developed habits, rules, or ceremonies related to them.

Universalism is also applied in international law. For example, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts various rights to all people – e.g., to marry, own property, and access equal protection under the law – regardless of culture or nationality.

Cultural Universalism is often contrasted with cultural relativism, which refers to the idea that social characteristics are specific to groups that share the same culture.

The UDHR consists of thirty basic human rights that are expected to be followed by every living human worldwide. Universalists believe that these are absolute, regardless of different cultural values and beliefs around the world. Relativists, on the other hand, believe that there needs to be a respect for cultural practices. Cultural Relativism consider that the UDHR is based on Western ideology, putting the emphasis on the individual and forgetting about importance of families and other social groups.

Reference list

Bialowas, M. (2022), Cultural Universals in Sociology, Retrieved from https://study.com/learn/lesson/cultural-universals-sociology-principles-examples.html

Donnelly, J. (1984), Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Nov., 1984), pp. 400-419, The Johns Hopkins University Press

Kohfeldt, D., Grabe, S. (2014), Universalism. In: Teo, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology. Springer, New York, NY.

Lakatos, I. (2018), Thoughts on Universalism versus Cultural Relativism, with Special Attention to Women’s Rights,  Pécs Journal of International and European Law – 2018/I

Murdock, G. P. (1949), Social Structure, Macmillan Company

Nickel, J. (2014). Universal Human Rights in a World of Diverse Beliefs and Practices, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring Edition 2014

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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