How cultures see each otherThe aim of this project is to collect comments made by travellers, now and in the past, about the way people behave in other countries or cultures.
These comments are stored in a database which is freely available for those interested in exploring the ways that we see people from other countries, the ways in which behaviour may vary in different countries, and the ways in which cultural differences may influence our perceptions.
UPDATE - VERSION 2 OF THE DATABASE TOOL, A MAJOR REVISION, IS IN PREPARATION. CONTACT THE EDITOR (see below) FOR MORE INFO.
Who are we?Cultures.org is an independant non-profit association based in Toulouse, France. Its only aim and activity is the establishment of an open database of cultural observations. Data collection is under way, and database development is progressing. We would welcome help from others, and also academic participation and/or adoption of this project.
A full presentation of the Cultures Observations Database, its raison d'être, its functions, and technical details are available here.
The pilot version of the database, which requires that you have the database programme Microsoft Access 2007 or later on your computer and approximately 6Mb of free disc space, can be downloaded here
Why do it?
1. Using data analysis techniques it may be possible to:
2. Anthropologists have traditionally observed people in distant societies. Unfortunately, people from those societies didn't often send anthropologists to study others, so major collections such as the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University are relatively poor in, for example, archives on industrialised societies. Travellers are not anthropologists, but they can be valuable sources of information when other data sources do not exist, and they have one major advantage: there are far more of them. Much old documentation has been lost, but there are still enormous quantities to be found in neglected books, personal letters, articles, radio and TV archives, etc. It is urgent to collect these unique sources of information from the past and to provide an easy way of looking at the data. That is what this database is intended to do.
- better distinguish between stereotypes and real behavioural phenomena;
- look for behaviour patterns and cause-and-effect theories at a cultural level;
- see if and how observed cultural behaviours change with time;
- better understand the ways in which the cultural environment may influence the way individuals think, and vice versa;
- anticipate areas of potential misunderstanding between cultures
- and no doubt to explore many other interesting phenomena (but this is a data collection, ethnographic project, not a theorising ethnological project...)
3. Cultural phenomena are habitually studied through observations by professionals (anthropologists), and this has resulted in the collection of much valuable material. But the notes of an English observer are likely to be different than those of a French, African, or Japanese observer. The Cultures Observations Database can help get around this problem by putting the observers on the same level as the observed.
4. This quote is from Gary Ferraro, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina:
"... what we know, or think we know, about our own culture is not necessarily perceived in the same way by culturally different people. In other words, we may see ourselves as holding a particular value or cultural trait, but then describe that trait in only the most positive ways. Those looking at us from the outside, however, are more likely to see some of the negative implications as well. Thus, if cultural anthropology is to help us function more effectively in an increasingly interconnected world, we will have to focus on accomplishing three tasks: understanding culture-specific information about other cultures; understanding our own culture; and understanding how culturally different people view us and our cultural patterns." (Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective, 6th edition 2006, Thomson Wadsworth)
5. Laland and Brown in Sense and Nonsense (2002), remark: "The trouble is, few people are actually engaged in the business of counting, recording, and measuring cultural variants or in tracking how they change in frequency."
6. "Although it would be ideal to have information on the perception of each culture’s character by itself and all other cultures, such data are not yet available." Robert R. McCrae and Antonio Terracciano, in Personality Profiles of Cultures: Aggregate Personality Traits, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2005)
7. "A key question that remains to be fully answered is whether, and how, the concept of a universal human nature might be combined with the large-scale behavioural flexibility and diversity that is observable between and within human populations". Gillian R. Brown, Thomas E. Dickins, Rebecca Sear and Kevin N. Laland, in Evolutionary accounts of human behavioural diversity, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. (2011)
8. "First, in generating new ideas, we often begin with our own folk models about human nature. Being cultural in origin, such folk models necessarily capture only a portion of the range of human behavior, and hence we are likely to overlook important aspects of psychology that are not prominent in our own culture’s portrait of the mind. Moreover, if we first fail to study the record of human diversity, and then later fail to test our ideas cross-culturally, we run the risk of tautologically confirming our culture’s folk model using data obtained from participants who subscribe to those same beliefs." Dan Fessler, Associate Professor of Anthropology, UCLA, in Twelve Lessons for Evolutionary Psychologists, www.cognitionandculture.net, 20 January 2012.
9. "Cultural transmission is theory rich but data poor. Few field studies of cultural transmission exist." Barry S. Hewlett, Washington State University, Evolutionary Approaches to Culture: Lessons from Africa.
10. "This is what’s most galling – the data that we need to test theories are there. Some of it is scattered over a multitude of published and unpublished articles. But most simply resides in the brains of historians or archaeologists specializing on particular regions and epochs. The only way to make these data useful (for a systematic testing of theories, that is) is to translate/transcribe them from human brains onto electronic, computer-readable media."
Prof. Peter Turchin, Social Evolution Forum
Selected extracts from current relevant research
Guidelines for those who'd like to participateThis is a project which lends itself well to public participation. Individuals in any part of the world are encouraged to participate. School or college classes can organise the search for travellers' comments on the web, on the bookshelf at home, in personal letters, the school or local library. The sources for travellers' comments can be written material such as letters, books, magazines, and websites,but comments may also be collected first-hand from travellers if simple basic rules are respected. You can then transmit the results of your researches to us by email at the address below and we will include them in the database. The final version of the database will be available to all as a flexible tool for testing theories of cultural behavior.
Source texts can be in any language, but should be accompanied by a translation into English. We may be able to help with translations if the need arises, and we already need volunteer translators (with internet access) from German and French into English. All English translations in the database are accompanied by the text in its original language as an essential check for researchers.
In collecting written material it is useful to note:
Collecting written material
Texts should be quoted in context, which may mean copying several extra lines or paragraphs. Text which has been cut should be clearly marked with four leading and/or trailing points (....) which mark where the cut has been made. Text should be sent in plain text (ascii) format, or in RTF format if it contains bold or italic characters. Do not send text in, for example, Word format. All word processors, including Word, permit saving of text in plain text format.
- the name and nationality or culture of the author, and biographical notes about him or her if available, especially those pertaining to the length of time he or she has lived in different cultures or countries;
- the title and date of publication, and the name and location of the publisher;
- the page number where the text is found.
See here for a typical example of a short extract from a book suitable for use in the database.
We are also establishing a reference library of travel books which could eventually be scanned and made available online when no longer subject to copyright restrictions. Donations of such books, in paper or digital form, are always welcome. For a list of books already in the collection see this book list or a version in RTF format.
Those who are interested in participating or otherwise supporting this project can contact me at the email address . No payment will be made for participation in this project. All material collected will be freely available on internet for research without charge.Bruce Lepper, editor
Some comments on the project
-What a wonderful web-site. I love it. - Lew Goldberg, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon.
-What you are proposing makes sense to me... I would only say that separating the stereotypical out from other evidence is very much a matter of judgement and difficult to be completely convincing on. But in my view the more evidence the better and judgement is after all what anthropologists, like historians, need to exercise. - Paul Langford, Professor of Modern History at Oxford.
-It appears to be an interesting and valuable project. It would certainly seem that your traits could be classified in terms of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) and thus national FFM profiles could be created. The most obvious question is whether those profiles would agree with either assessed national trait levels or national stereotype ratings. - Dr Robert McCrae (Ed. with J.Allik of The Five-Factor Model of Personality Across Cultures, Kluwer Academic, New York, 2002)