Cross-cultural research overview

Cross-cultural research most commonly involves comparison of some cultural trait (or relationships between traits) across a sample of societies. What is most important to keep in mind is that cultures change over time, so most cross-cultural comparisons need to focus on particular time frames (and sometimes particular place foci) for each culture. The choice of focus often depends upon the research question. For example, if you want to know about traits that were present prior to colonialization, you might choose the earliest time frames. If you want to know about responses to the introduction of money, later time frames might be more appropriate.

Introducing Cross-Cultural Research, a visual online course, overviews the logic of cross-cultural research, framing a research question, deriving hypotheses from theory, design of measures, coding procedures, sampling, reliability, and the use of statistics to analyze results. HRAFs more text-based Basic Guide to Cross-Cultural Research remains on our home page. It also provides an overview of cross-cultural methods, but it is geared explicitly toward working with the HRAF Collection of Ethnography in paper, fiche, and online (eHRAF World Cultures).

The research design should depend upon the research question.


    • If you want to estimate the frequency of a particular trait, a representative sample is essential
    • If your research question is about a relatively rare trait, you should over-sample societies with that trait
    • Ask yourself whether any of the variables that are important have been coded by other researchers? Are these codes that you want?

Decide on a sample that fits your design.

What kind of sample is eHRAF World Cultures as a whole?
Because the HRAF Collections contain some special programs, such as immigrant and other subcultures in North America, the whole collection should not be considered a good sampling frame for scientific research. See the bullet below on representative samples within eHRAF

Do you want to match eHRAF World Cultures to other cross-cultural samples?
If you want to choose the overlap between eHRAF and some other cross-cultural sample, such as the Ethnographic Atlas (EA) or the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) you might find it helpful to look at matches between HRAF and these other samples.  An updated list for the SCCS sample cases now included in eHRAF is now on our homepage as is the list of Ethnographic Atlas cases now in eHRAF. After performing a search in eHRAF World Cultures you can now choose to narrow to the SCCS sample or the EA sample and find the matching documents.  To find out how to do this, click here for the SCCS. The procedure for the EA is similar. We plan to add additional SCCS cases every year until we have the entire sample included in eHRAF World Cultures. This should be accomplished by 2020. We currently do not plan to have all the EA cases in eHRAF.

Representative samples within eHRAF: the PSF and SRS
Follow this link to the relevant section in the Basic Guide to Cross-Cultural Research

Samples in eHRAF Archaeology
eHRAF Archaeology contains a representative sample of the world’s prehistoric traditions. It is randomly sampled from the Outline of Archaeological Traditions compiled by Peter Peregrine. In eHRAF Archaeology it is labelled SRS (Simple Random Sample). It can be used to test hypotheses. We also include tradition sequences leading to civilizations. While these may be compared, eHRAF Archaeology does not yet contain all known sequences nor were the choices random. We based processing of sequences based on member interest.[/expand]

Coding data in eHRAF and pre-coded data.  

If using coded data from another sample pick the same foci in eHRAF
Unlike most cross-cultural samples, the HRAF Collection of Ethnography as a whole (including eHRAF) purposely tries to include ethnographic information for more than one time and more than one place. This allows you to study changes over time and regional variation. Almost all coded data has a time and a place focus giving an “ethnographic snapshot” of social and cultural life at a particular time and place. If you use some data from other researchers and code some yourself you will introduce measurement error unless you pick the same focus.

Where can I find precoded data?
Most cross-cultural researchers make their codes available to scholars either in print or upon request. Many have put their codes into the electronic journal World Cultures. World Cultures mostly includes codes from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, but it also includes codes from the Ethnographic Atlas as well as other data sources. Click here for information on how to find precoded data for the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample and the Ethnographic Atlas from that electronic journal. Codes for the Ethnographic Atlas and the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample can now also be found online in D-PLACE ( In addition to coded cultural variables, D-PLACE has linguistic and environmental data as well. HRAF has a limited set of coded data for the Probability Sample Files (contact us at:

Recommendations if you are using precoded data
It is extremely important to read the original article or book from which codes come. That is where the author explains the purpose of the code, the coding instructions, and the coding scale. If a code seems like it is something you want to use, it is also important to try to code at least a portion of the societies yourself. If you can follow the instructions and come up with the same decisions, it should give you more confidence. However, it may also suggest that it isn’t really close enough to what you really want to measure. If so, you may want to design your own code.

Designing measures to code yourself
See the relevant section in Basic Guide on Measures.


Ember, C. R. (2007). Using the HRAF collection of ethnography in conjunction with the standard cross-cultural sample and the ethnographic atlas. Cross-Cultural Research41(4), 396-427.