Database main screen

▲ Main data entry screen of Cultures Observations Database


An open database
Why collect observations from people who have no training as anthropologists?

● How is it possible to make scientific use of such disparate, unverified and disorganised data?
A flexible, multi-disciplinary tool



Typical travellers
(from the Luttrell Psalter, c1325AD, British Library)

Baskets are flexible tools
(from the Luttrell Psalter, British Library)

Collecting material is a chore
(from the Luttrell Psalter, British Library)

Organising is another chore
(from the Luttrell Psalter, British Library)


Detailed presentation




An open database

  The Cultures Observations Database is an open database of observations made by travellers and other observers, from ancient times to the present day, describing the behaviour of people in other (and their own) cultures. These observers may include anthropologists and other professionals, but are mainly ordinary people who have been in a position to note variances of behaviour between their own cultures and others.

The bulk of the observations in the database will consequently concern cultures in accessible regions of the world, such as Europe, where voyagers have been able to travel in large numbers. This is in contrast to other collections of ethnographic information, which contain a majority of anthropological studies of relatively isolated cultural groups. Such collections are traditionally poor in European, "modern", or "western" culture studies.

Why collect observations from people who have no training as anthropologists?

In the same way as historians do not always get their evidence from other historians, those investigating the phenomenon of human cultures need raw material. The database itself has no other function than to collect and safeguard examples of this material and to render them freely accessible to scholars. Much historical material of this kind has no doubt already disappeared, but an enormous amount can still be saved. It is to be found in well-known classics of travel literature but also in obscure books and other publications, in private letters, in broadcast and other documentary material, and in commercial studies.

● How is it possible to make scientific use of such disparate, unverified and disorganised data?

This is a collection of observations made by travellers about behaviour in other cultures. The individual observations have little apparent scientific value, being the product of many possible influences, such as the native culture of the traveller, his particular personality, his status, the circumstances of his voyage, the particular people that he had interactions with, even the climatic conditions at that moment... However, when a large number of such observations is available concerning a particular culture, patterns of behaviour in that culture, if they exist, may be discernible, thrown into light by a significant number of concurring or complementing observers.
A multi-cultural analysis might show which "observer cultures" (the native culture or country of the person making the comments) were in broad agreement concerning the behaviour characteristics of a "subject culture" (the country or culture which is being commented on) at a particular period, and which were not. It is statistical data that we are looking at, which gives this examination a possible validity despite the fuzzy nature of the definitions and categories which must be invented.
The subject in hand is definitely not "national character" (a concept pursued by a number of researchers, particularly in the period following the second world war). The subject is how people from different cultures see each other, what differences they remark compared to their own culture, and how this situation changes across time.



  ● A flexible, multi-disciplinary tool

Researchers will be able to draw on these units of data according to their needs, filtering for example by the observer's culture, by the culture which is the subject of observations, by behaviour trait, by behaviour category, by date, and by observer.

In view of the current interest in evolutionary analysis, based on quantifiable observations in the fields of biology and animal and human behaviour, a database of this nature can be an aid in the formulation and control of theories in history, psychology, sociology, anthropology and cultural evolution.

It would equally be of value to students of intercultural relations and political science, in particular in the investigation and comprehension of different cultural groups such as, for example, the multi-faceted European Community.

For more precise examples of possible research themes see section 3 (IMPACT).






This is a path-finding project in the sense that there are no antecedents of this nature. The closest parallel as far as raison d'être goes would be the long-established and monumental Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University. The HRAF Collection of Ethnography contains over 800,000 pages of indexed information on more than 365 different cultural, ethnic, religious, and national groups around the world. The collection was set up in 1949 as a centralised repository for cultural and behavioural data and has more recently been successfully transformed into an easily-accessible eHRAF website of inestimable value to researchers.
An earlier version of the  HRAF User Guide stated that development of the HRAF Collections began with the belief that valid generalizations about human behaviour and culture will emerge from a wealth of knowledge about the ways in which the different peoples of the world live. The idea behind the Cultures Observations Database is to assist in this mission by collecting information about the ways in which different peoples of the world see, and have seen, each other. But apart from this broad correspondence of utility, there is little similarity between HRAF and the Cultures Observations Database (COD) project. Most studies included in HRAF concern non-national, relatively discrete and homogeneous cultures, which permits them to be rigorously academic and subject to close peer-appraisal. It should, however, be noted that HRAF does not exclude the idea of using the observations of non-academics: 

   "The ideal document is one which consists of a detailed description of a culture, or of a particular community or region within that culture, written on the basis of prolonged residence among the people documented by a professional social scientist. Many documents which do not meet all the criteria are included in the Collection of Ethnography because they are still important pieces of information-in fact, it is likely that they may be the only sources available for particular time periods, regions, or subjects. Thus the collection for each culture may contain documents written by travelers, missionaries, colonial officials, traders, etc." (from User's Guide: HRAF Collection of Ethnography - section A Basic Guide to Cross-Cultural Research by Carol R.Ember and Melvin Ember)

Descriptive documents written by anthropologists on the basis of prolonged residence in, for example, France, Germany, Italy, England or Spain are rare. These politico-cultural entities are too diffuse and heterogenous for classic anthropological study. On the other hand, documents written by non-professionals are legion, ranging from profound historical and social studies to comments made by tourists after their first visit to a foreign place. It is the premise of the Cultures Observations Database that all such documents and observations have intrinsic value within their special context and can be informative. The objective of the pilot version of the database, programmed in Access 2000, is to find efficient ways to collect and organise such material.





The individual units of data, the observations, consist of one or several paragraphs of text containing descriptions of one or several behaviour traits. These texts are stored in their original language, together with a translation into English.

Certain minimum criteria need to be met for observations to qualify for entry in the database:

  • Approximate date of the observation
  • Name of the observer and biographical details if available
  • Native culture of the observer
  • Details of publication: when, where, how published
  • Name and details of the contributor (the person who proposed the data for inclusion in the database)
  • Name and details of the translator into English.
  • An essential requirement is that the observer is writing from personal experience and is not quoting a third party or hearsay.
  • Depending on the funding available, it may be possible and it would be desirable to associate with the database the original physical material and publications from which the observations were drawn.


 Add publication or Observer data-entry
Data-entry window for adding a publication or an observer

  Here, briefly, is the procedure for adding an observation to the database:

1. A new, empty record is opened by using the New Record button:  

2. The text of the observation, usually an extract of several paragraphs from a book or other publication, is entered into the Observation box's text window on the main page. A short extract is pasted into the Snippet box.

3. If the publication has already been cited in the database, which is often the case where multiple extracts are taken from the same book, these details can simply be selected from the drop-down Existing Publications list.

4. If the publication or observer has not yet been cited in the database, a click on the Add publication or Observer button obtains the data-entry window shown above.   Details of the observer, date and place of publication, etc., are entered here.

5. The names and details of the collaborator (the Contributor) who sent in the data and the Translator (if the original is not in English) can be entered if changes are needed. By default, these items do not change and are entered automatically.



  6. The name of the culture being commented on (the Subject Culture) is entered separately from a drop-down list.

Now comes the hard part...

  7. The behaviour traits mentioned in the text being treated must now be identified in the text and entered in the database.

First, it must be ascertained if the traits mentioned  have already been used in the database. This task is facilitated by:
  •  word-searches through the list of traits already noted by observers, or
  •  searching in the Trait Groups.
The trait groups are created or added-to by the operator when new traits are added. They currently have no purpose other than that of helping to find if traits are already in the database. By examining the list of traits in the group which seems to be most appropriate as a "family" for the trait in question, the operator can locate the trait if it already exists in the database,  or if not, start the procedure for entering a new trait.

Here are the current trait groups:

As an example, here are the five traits currently in the Integrity trait group:

Integrity trait group

If a trait mentioned in the text is nowhere to be found (neither in the general list of traits, nor in the list of traits already assigned to that subject culture, nor in one of the groups (all of which are consultable in the handy Traits Viewer pop-up box), then it is necessary to enter the trait in the database as a new trait by clicking the New Trait button on the Traits from this Observation box.

  8. An additional classification of the observation is possible but by no means mandatory in the Observation Category list. In the pilot database this list currently contains the following categories:
Observation Category
Arts & architecture
Attitude to other cultures
Cause and effect theory
Child rearing
Clothing Dress
Cultural Change
Culture characteristic
Education & science
Food and drink
Nation characteristic
Physical characteristics
Politics & government
Poll material
Press TV radio
Professional group
Research Data
Role of women
Social classes
Sports and Pastimes
Vocalisation and speech
Wealth and money

   These categories, like the Trait Groups, can be changed or enlarged according to the preferences and needs of the user. They are essentially boxes for classifying comments which do not take the form of simple traits, or which develop broader themes. A researcher using the COD data can create his own list of Observation Types and Trait Groups from the basic data.

Data in the COD will inevitably in some cases be unreliable or false. However, as mentioned earlier (see 1.Relevance/Objectives) the trait-based nature of the collection will help sift valuable observations from the more biased or inaccurate ones. The sheer quantity of data will enable researchers to refine controls for identifying observations which, by force of repetition by independent observers from different cultures, are evidence of real phenomena. Observations which are not repeated or rarely repeated will carry less or no weight.






Internet technology means that the information gathered in this database can be freely and instantly accessible to researchers everywhere. It also means that an international network of contributors can be created, feeding data into the COD through an administrator or administrative committee responsible for the final selection and entering of the data.

The database can begin in a relatively modest way with inclusion of the better-documented European cultures, the USA, and perhaps an Asian culture and an African culture. If its usefulness is proven it can be expanded to any number of cultures where sufficient observations are available.

Even where no historical data is available, contemporary data from travellers can be gathered expressly for the purposes of the Cultures Observations Database.

  In its initial pilot form the database is downloadable here as an integral  database file for independent use by researchers and those who wish to collaborate in this project. Future versions will permit on-line data searches and other manipulations by researchers.



  Human behaviour has typically been studied in small-scale societies (anthropology), in controlled laboratory experiments (social sciences), in clinical situations (psychology), in questionnaires on attitudes (opinion polls), and no doubt in many private and undisclosed consumer studies (commercial enterprises). The Cultures Observations Database proposes the addition of another dimension, that of the quantitative analysis of travellers' comments.

This is not a new idea, but the methodology, using a trait-based multi-cultural database, is ground-breaking.

The usefulness of the comparative approach is best illustrated by taking a recent example of the use of travellers' comments, the book Englishness Identified by Paul Langford, Professor of Modern History at Oxford University (OUP 2000).

Here is an extract from Langford's introduction:

  "By Englishness I mean those distinctive aspects of national life that struck either outsiders or insiders or both as characteristic. I give outsiders higher priority than they would normally be accorded by historians of English nationalism or patriotism.  ..  There is, after all, the freshness of perspective that foreign views bring, as intermediaries between the historian and his subject. .. There is also the likelihood that if their testimony is not objective, it is at least disengaged. And above all, they shine light where it would not occur to their English counterparts to do so. Things that are taken for granted as part of the fabric of everyday life may to outsiders be sufficiently novel to merit scrutiny. .."

  In analysing several hundred travellers' comments Langford found that between the 17th and the 19th centuries "ideas of what constituted Englishness changed from a stock notion of waywardness and unpredictability to one of discipline and dedication". As a historian he discusses these changes and their possible causes and effects.
It is clear that the conclusions of a long and detailed historical study of this nature have implications in other fields than history. The existence of databank tools containing both historical and contemporary multi-cultural observation data can facilitate research in those areas which cross the frontiers between history, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology and evolutionary studies.

Why do "stock notions" change in this way? Has behaviour changed, or perhaps the perception of behaviour (as may be expressed in stereotypes), or both? Is the phenomenon (the drift from waywardness towards dedication) to be seen in other cultures? Researchers who ask themselves these questions may be from any of the above-mentioned disciplines.

Emic and Etic
Anthropologists distinguish between the emic approach (the insider view, which seeks to describe another culture in terms of the categories, concepts, and perceptions of the people being studied), and the etic approach (the outsider view, in which anthropologists use their own categories and concepts to describe the culture under analysis). By including comments on the observer's own culture, COD provides a pathway towards understanding the relationship between these two points of view.


  It seems likely that there are patterns of human behaviour, both at personal and cultural levels.  Looking at travellers' observations on other cultures will no doubt tell us as much about the travellers themselves, or their cultures, as about the cultures they are commenting on. But in order to investigate this we need data on frequencies, and analytical studies of this data by historians,  anthropologists, biologists, psychologists, economists, sociologists, and maybe philosophers. The Cultures Observations Database aims to help in consolidating one of the essential foundations: the data.