Structural and Cultural Universals
A structural universal refers to issues that must be addressed if a society is to survive and evolve. We have referred to these earlier as the basic problems of human existence. In effect, we are talking here about the kinds of social tasks that people must accomplish for their survival as a society. In this respect, examples of structural universals are not particularly difficult to find, given that all human societies have, at one time or another, to solve certain problems if they are to survive.
A cultural universal refers to possible similarities in the particular way a society (or social group) chooses to solve structural problems of existence.
The problem we have, when looking at the idea of cultural universals is that of deciding how specific something has to be in order to count as a universal feature of human social organisation. In effect, how widely or narrowly we draw the definition of universal affects the conclusion we reach about cultural patterns. The main point to consider here is: Do we define universal as simply meaning :
"Being present at some point in every society's development"?
Or do we define it as
"The only or dominant cultural form in a society"?
In some ways, this question appears rather academic since it refers to a very fine distinction. However, there are two major reasons for seeing it as important:
Firstly, in terms of sociological theory it is important because if we are to understand and explain the nature and process of human social development it is necessary to ensure that all theories of cultural development refer to the same thing.
Secondly, of more immediate practical significance is the idea that if it is possible to identify universal cultural features, this can lead to the idea that one form of cultural organisation is natural, and by implication right and better, than another form of organisation. Thus, non-universal features can come to be seen as unnatural or deviant (and societies should, by implication, take steps to eradicate these practices).
This introduces the concept of ideology since it is evident from the above that when trying to understand the concept of cultural universals, we need to be aware that knowledge can be used to promote the political and ideological aims of social groups. This is not to say that, as sociologists, we should suppress what we believe to be true for political convenience.
Rather, we have to be careful about the information we present as true. This idea will be developed when we look at the ideas of ethnocentric and culturally relative approaches to the study of cultural development.
Having noted this, the next question to address, therefore, is whether or not it is possible to identify customs and practices that are truly universal cultural features of human society.