Using eHRAF World Cultures for Cross Cultural Studies

Is kissing a universal human trait? William Jankowiak, Shelly Volsche and Justin Garcia address this question in their recently published article in American Anthropologist. The authors used Human Relations Area Files’ online ethnographic database, eHRAF World Cultures, to compile the data. Check out our featured post, Romantic or disgusting: Kissing is not a human universal to learn more about the report and to read more in-depth ethnographic examples of cross cultural attitudes towards kissing.

You can look for even more full-text ethnographic evidence on kissing or try to recreate the type of cross-cultural research conducted by Jankowiak, et al., by searching the eHRAF World Cultures database for yourself. Your university library may already be a member, or free trials are available (contact

Searching eHRAF

There are several ways to begin a search in eHRAF. Our user guides contain general help on this topic. In this post, we will walk through several search options specific to the topic of romantic kissing to get an idea of how a typical search might work for you.

Basic Search

This is a good way to start a search in eHRAF.  Simply enter one or more keywords into the box. Any keywords get automatically “matched” or “mapped” against HRAF’s subject indexing system. The subject indexing system is how our analysts code all the rich ethnographic information inside the database. Each and every paragraph from thousands of pages of ethnography are coded with one or more subject codes so that comparative information can easily be found across cultures, even where those subjects might be described in different terms by the original ethnographer.

Advanced Search

In eHRAF Advanced Search, you can add specific subject codes or culture names in addition to a keyword search. In other words, while the Basic Search automatically matches your keywords to one or more OCM subjects, in Advanced Search, you have to decide which subjects to use. You can do this by using either the A-Z, Major Subjects, or OCM Code menus. Clicking on “Add Subjects” will bring up a box where you can toggle between these menus. Depending on the research topic, you can create quite a powerful and sophisticated search using keywords only, OCM subjects only, or keywords in combination with OCM subjects.

Using Keywords Only in an Advanced Search

A keyword search in the Advanced Search brings up any text that contains that word. This is a very broad search and, as such, while it is likely that a large number of results will be returned, they may not be relevant to your research topic. If you find that you have too many results, this is when using keyword(s) with OCM subject(s) might be a better choice. An example of a keyword search for this topic may be “kissing kiss kisses” with the “OR” operator selected, as shown below. Such a search tells eHRAF that you are interested in any of these keywords anywhere that they might appear in the database.

eHRAF World Cultures Advanced Search Kissing


Using Keywords with OCM Subject(s) in an Advanced Search

To avoid retrieving irrelevant results, a good solution is to combine keyword(s) with OCM subjects.  For example, OCM subjects for kissing might be: 831 Sexuality, 832 Sexual Stimulation, 833 Sexual Intercourse, 834 General Sex Restrictions, 835 Kinship Regulation of Sex, 836 Premarital Sex Relations, 838 Homosexuality, or 839 Miscellaneous Sex Behavior.  Note that the 3-digit numbers are just unique ID numbers for a topic (similar to a postal zip code for city).

You can browse for topics using the “Add Subjects” menu. If you’d like to see a full list, you can go to Topics Covered – a handy resource on our homepage – and locate the OCM codes. In this case, codes relating to kissing begin in the 830s. If you click the link for each subject title you’ll see a definition and description. Reading the description helps you to determine whether or not you want to use the OCM subject. Then return to the database and select your chosen codes from the menu.

Below is an example of keyword-OCM subject combination search for kissing as human sexual activity in the eHRAF Advanced Search. Notice that the word “kissing” is truncated with an asterisk (*). The asterisk means that any combination of letters can appear after “kiss-“. That will retrieve terms such as kiss, kisses and kissing.

Be mindful of the “And” and “Or” options at the top of the search form. To search both subjects and keywords at the same time, the operator in between must be set to “and”. Setting the Subject operator to “or” as in the image below means that you will get results that match any one or more of those topics. To learn more about Boolean operators, see eHRAF Advanced Search as they can enhance your search tremendously.
eHRAF World Cultures Advanced Search Sexual Kissing OCMs

Using OCM Subject(s) Only in an Advanced Search

Using OCM subjects without keywords in an Advanced Search is a good strategy for when you are interested in many aspects of a topic that can be broadly described by one or more OCM codes. Take the OCM subject for “sexual stimulation”, for example. Not using any keywords will retrieve paragraphs on any type of sexual stimulation, including kissing, along with other terms such as caressing or fondling. Check the subject description (see image below) to get a good sense of the type of information you may retrieve by using only an OCM subject.

OCM 832 Sexual Stimulation eHRAF Advanced Search

Refining a Search by Subsistence and Sample

Once you have chosen a search method, click “search” to get your results. First, you will be taken to the “Region and Culture Results” page. This is your starting point for exploring the specific ethnographic results that your search has produced. The page will be organized primarily by region, then sub-region and culture name.

At the top of the page, you have further options to fine-tune your results by subsistence and sample types. For example, if you were only interested in kissing as practice by hunter-gatherers, or by cultures included in the Probability Sample File, you can click the “Narrow Results by Subsistence and Sample” function or click the top of a column. Once sorted or narrowed, click on a culture name (e.g. San) to get to the search results in the ethnographic texts.

Culture Results Kissing

Document, Paragraph, and Page Results

Clicking on a culture name in the list of results brings you to a page containing snippets of text from relevant ethnographies. Click “Show Paragraph” above any text snippet to see the entire paragraph with the search terms highlighted in bold.

Click “Show Page” to see the paragraph(s) and the search result(s) in the original ethnographic context from the source document. From here, you can navigate the original text page by page using the “Next” and “Previous” buttons. (Note that although the texts contained in the database are always complete documents, they are only displayed one page at a time).

San Kissing Hunter-Gatherers eHRAF Page Results

To save specific paragraph or page results, use the check boxes to select paragraphs and then choose “Print” or “Email” at the foot of the page. The “Cite” button allows you to save bibliographic information to your citation manager or copy and paste it directly into your word processor.

Try it yourself!

If you’re interested in searching eHRAF for “kissing” or any other topic of interest, contact us for a temporary log-in.