Explaining Human Culture

A database produced by the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University
Carol R. Ember, editor and compiler.

Anthropologists and other observers have collected an enormous amount of information about the societies and cultures of people living in all parts of the globe. Archaeologists have painstakingly described the ways of life of people living long ago. The Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) has encouraged and facilitated the cross-cultural study of human culture, society, and behavior in the past and present by providing researchers with finely subject-indexed ethnography and archaeological reports in its two databases — eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology.

In this database, Explaining Human Culture, our aim is different. We provide a searchable way for researchers to find out what we have learned from previous cross-cultural research about cultural universals and differences. We do this by summarizing the purpose of each study, the hypotheses tested, whether the hypotheses are supported, the variables, and the subject-categories in eHRAF that may apply to these variables. And we provide ancillary information, such as the sample used in each study, the citation, etc. We encourage you to use the references to delve into the theories, the measures, and the samples used in the actual research. Research usually gives rise to more questions or more research directions to pursue. We have barely begun to scratch the surface.

Beginners to this field might want to consult the online course on cross-cultural research for a discussion of the logic and methods of cross-cultural comparisons.

This work is ongoing. We know we have missed studies and because of time and labor constraints we limited ourselves to cross-cultural research involving 10 or more societies, cultures, or traditions. We invite you to send us comments and tell us what we might have missed. Send comments to hraf-support@yale.edu and put Explaining Human Culture in the subject line.


This project began as an extension and adaptation of HRAF’s A Guide to Social Theory: Worldwide Cross-Cultures Tests edited by David Levinson that was distributed in print in 1977. We thank Maureen Sacchetti for typing the original materials into the database. Kate Cummings, Jesse Cohen, Megan Farrer, Amelia Piazza, Tahlisa Brougham, and Christina Carolus contributed to project by locating, reading, and summarizing additional cross-cultural studies. Matthew G. Roth was responsible for developing the relational database, administrating the solr search indexes, and creation of the web application.


Ember, Carol R., ed. 2016. Explaining Human Culture. New Haven, Ct.: Human Relations Area Files. https://hraf.yale.edu/ehc

Terms and Use

The material in this database is intended for educational purposes only—either by individuals for personal use or for classroom use by instructors with appropriate attribution. For any commercial use or other uses please contact HRAF