10 Cultural Universals: How Does Geography Impact Culture?

Last week, we glanced at the 10 Cultural Universals. For the next several weeks, we’ll take a closer look at each of them, in turn. Let’s start with geography.

Let me paint a picture:

It’s the 16th century. The astounding Andean Mountains serve as the backdrop to the epic uprising of the Inca culture – a culture that sprung up in the highlands of Peru and thrived for three centuries.

Surprisingly, for being such an important empire – and perhaps the largest in history – technology isn’t so advanced as to include wheeled vehicles, partially due to the terrain and lack of draft animals to pull plows and wagons.

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And yet, still, the Incas create enormous architectural structures and road networks that stand to this day. Their diet is primarily vegetarian, and they produce agricultural innovations – like warehouses to conserve grain – that aid their culture’s survival in this difficult environment. The government, too, does their job to drive the empire to greatness, enforcing labor management and organization strategies that are crucial to their success.

Of course, clothing in the highland is warmer and often made out of wool. The textiles are woven or knitted and are never tailored, held together, instead, by metal pins. Clothing styles indicate the status of the individual, with commoners wearing garments of coarser textiles.

The bodies of the Inca people, as well, have physically adapted to the high altitude, with an increase in red blood cell count and lung capacity.

As you can tell, geography plays a major hand in directing the Inca’s cultural formation and development. All of this is studied in cultural geography, one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Cultural Geography

Defined as “The study of the relationship between culture and place,” in Dartmouth’s words, cultural geography:

“Examines the cultural values, practices, discursive and material expressions and artefacts of people, the cultural diversity and plurality of society, and how cultures are distributed over space, how places and identities are produced, how people make sense of places and build senses of place, and how people produce and communicate knowledge and meaning.”

Rooted in Friedrich Ratzel’s anthropogeography, the study of the relationship of a culture with its natural environment began in the early 20th century, with the intent to understand social organizations and cultural practices in relation to place and environment.

This includes such topics as the isolation or interconnectedness of a culture, clothing, traditions, government, economy, religion, etc., all with respect to its geography.

Cultural geography looks at how groups adapt to their environment, but also how they shape the landscape, through architecture, agriculture, and engineering.

New Cultural Geography

In the late 1980s, ‘new cultural geography’ challenged the above approach by expanding these areas of research. New cultural geography looks more broadly at the many ways in which culture impacts places and everyday life.

“Othering,” imperialism, colonialism, religion, and nationalism are studied to determine how these practices impact the locale, including various groups’ sense of rejection or acceptance in society.

While the study of culture and geography is as ever-changing as a landscape, one thing’s certain: culture and geography are indelibly interconnected.

The 10 Cultural Universals

The word, “culture,” covers a broad spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what falls under the umbrella of culture by drawing more definitive lines.

When you talk about culture, what topics can you expect the discussion to encompass?

These 10 cultural universals are a start.

10 Cultural Universals

  1. Geography – Location, location, location. Location defines so many aspects of a culture – from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten – that it would be remiss not to consider geography when discussing culture. The landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and of course the rich history generated from the region all impacts a culture’s evolution.
  2. Language – Language is significantly important to culture and can afford those studying any social group some insight into what’s important to them (think: polite language, masculine/feminine use, slang, etc.). When discussing language, you should also consider the group’s written language, body language, sign language, and numbers systems.
  3. Family – Family dynamics are a key part of cultural studies, from the roles of each family member, child to grandparent, to the rites of passage that members undergo. Labor division across genders is also part of this cultural universal.
  4. FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The basics of survival form the skeletal structure of culture. Think architectural styles, building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cuisine and clothing, etc.
  5. VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab. This category also includes the rituals, beliefs, and religious practices of a culture, such as myths and legends, ceremonial rituals and holidays, and stances on contemporary science versus traditional beliefs.
  6. Economics – Jobs, the market, finance, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are paramount to societal development and quality of life, making a group’s economy a cultural universal.
  7. Education – This category includes not only formal education, but societal education – i.e. passing cultural values, survival skills, and various types of training onto youth.
  8. Politics – The type of government and the organization of a society, from rule of law to the enforcement of these laws, form the group’s hierarchies, structures, and most important institutions. The politics of a nation can also determine whether that nation is prone to war or peace.
  9. Technology – Technology available to a culture – tools, weapons, digital technology, etc. – contributes to all aspects of everyday life, as well as to the bigger picture, the way the culture operates.
  10. Cultural Expression – This is often the category that first springs to mind when the word, “culture,” is used. That’s because art, music, literature, sport, and every other form of cultural expression is the most bright and vivid rendering of the culture’s essence, its spirit. Creative expression brings culture to life.

Now that you know what constitutes “culture,” we’ll put each of these universals under the microscope in the coming weeks.