Cultural Patterns

Are you good at pattern recognition? Look around: there are cultural patterns everywhere! Two people strolling down the street, hand in hand. An old man walking his dog. An old lady feeding the pigeons. In the distance, shouting at a sporting match. The cultural patterns that surround us are like a kaleidoscope of the human experience. Let's take a look.

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Table of contents

    Cultural Patterns Definition

    Patterns are, in a way, the architecture of culture.

    Cultural Patterns: Structures that are common to all similar cultures.

    Different Cultural Patterns

    Human cultures come in many shapes and forms. There are thousands of ethnic cultures alone and a nearly uncountable number of sub-cultures. Culture is always changing. New cultures emerge; old ones die out or change form.

    Among this diversity and flux, certain patterns stand out. They range from the family, if we are talking about ethnic cultures, to a holy text, when we invoke religion, and even to shoe types in sports subcultures.

    Generally, the broader the category of cultural trait (dress, cuisine, belief, language), the more likely it is to be found as a pattern across most cultures. More specific traits, such as types of shoes or what you eat on December 31, may be a quite limited pattern.

    In this explanation, we are concerned with a representative sample of the broad patterns of culture.

    The Family

    Every ethnic culture and subculture ever has had a distinct definition of "family." This is because the family unit has been the basic means whereby humanity reproduces itself, both biologically and culturally.

    In the West, the "nuclear family" refers to the household comprised of Mom, Dad, and the kids. Because of the dominance of Western culture through globalisation, this image is widespread worldwide. However, Western culture, not to mention other cultures, have numerous other ways of defining what a family is and what it isn't.

    Extended Family

    In many cultures, "family" means grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and others in addition to the nuclear family unit. Households may be comprised of some of these relatives (from the paternal or maternal side, or both). "Family" may mean something much bigger and more extensive than whoever resides in your home.

    In traditional societies, for example among Australian Aboriginal people, relationships with people who are your kin are incredibly complex and also centrally important to cultural preservation. From an early age, one must learn the correct things to say and how to act around each and every type of relative, including in-laws and extending out to second-degree cousins and beyond.

    In some Western societies, "family" means more than the nuclear family, though they may not be carefully defined kinship networks.

    In Spanish-speaking Latin America, "mi familia" is likely to signify your close kin, or your blood relations in general, rather than just who lives in your household.

    Post-Nuclear Family

    There are many other ways of defining who your family is and what it is for. In the West, it may consist of one rather than two parents, guardians, or caregivers; no children; pets; it may include a heterosexual couple or a homosexual couple; etc.

    Part of this is affirmative: traditional or "conservative" definitions of what a family is, or should be, have given way in many sectors of society to broader definitions.

    However, another element involves the so-called "breakdown" of the nuclear family. Single-parent homes exist where one partner has abandoned the other and their children.

    Age-based Rituals

    Ethnic cultures (and other types of cultures as well) typically have different roles for people depending on their ages. As will become a familiar theme, religion often has a lot to say in how these are defined and how you transition from one stage to the next.

    Pregnancy, Birth, and Childhood

    Many patterns exist in the way mothers, infants and children (and fathers) are expected to behave from conception and pregnancy through birth and all the way to adulthood. Each culture has expected norms as well as punishments for transgressing those norms.

    Many cultures carefully proscribe the lives of pregnant women. In the West, this is typically cast in terms of suggested diet, exercise, and related "health of the child" concerns. However, some cultures limit what and whom pregnant women can see and interact with, everything that is eaten and drunk, and on through the intricate details of everyday life. The well-being of the mother and the child are typically of concern, though the wider strength of the culture is also sometimes important.

    Coming of Age

    Most societies that are not Western or "modern" in a broad sense have a clearly defined boundary between childhood and adulthood. This frequently involves coming-of-age ceremonies that include physical and mental challenges. These can be extraordinarily painful and even dangerous because they are meant to separate the "men from the boys" and the "women from the girls." They may include scarring, genital mutilation, combat events, tests of endurance, or other types of trials.

    Cultural Patterns bullet ant gloves StudySmarterFig. 1 - Bullet ants, which have stings that can make adults faint, sewn into gloves worn by 13-year-old boys as a painful coming-of-age ritual among the Satere-Mawe of the Brazilian Amazon

    Successfully becoming an adult, in traditional societies, typically involves induction into a secret or secretive society with various grades, levels, or positions. These secretive inner groups usually help to preserve cultural traditions well-hidden from outsiders, and otherwise work to maintain internal order within the culture as well as protect it from external influences where necessary.

    If one is unable or unwilling to successfully come of age, banishment or marginalization can occur. Sometimes, people who are neither female nor male (i.e., third gender) are relegated to defined cultural roles; in other cases, "failures" become perpetual "children" but are still tolerated.

    In modern societies, coming-of-age rituals sometimes also exist.

    Quinceañera culture surrounds the event of a girl turning 15 in Hispanic Catholic societies. Traditionally, it meant the girl became a woman and, as such, was eligible for courtship and marriage. Today, quinceañera celebrations, thrown by parents and with generous financial help from patrons, involve a special Roman Catholic Mass as well a lavish celebration costing up to tens of thousands of US dollars with hundreds of guests.

    Even in societies where formal rituals don't exist, graduating from school, getting a full-time job, driving a car, drinking alcohol, or joining a certain club may signify that one has become an adult.


    Marriages that include weddings are common to most ethnic cultures, though no longer strict norms in some. In some societies, weddings are events costing a year's salary; in others, they are simple affairs before a judge. Religion, as you might guess, has a lot to say about what marriage is, who can do it, and when they can do it.

    Senescence and Death

    In Western society, old age may mean elderly retirees spending their pensions in Florida, or people living on fixed wages, shut into their homes and abandoned by their kin, and everything in between.

    In traditional societies, "elders" are seen as people who are wise and to be respected. They often retain considerable cultural and political power.

    Death as a cultural pattern involves not just the event of dying but also the entire process of "laying the person to rest," as it is often called. Beyond that, it may or may not involve veneration of ancestors, which, while not universal, has a centrally important cultural role in cultures as distinct as Mexican and Han Chinese. At the very least, most cultures bury their dead in certain places such as cemeteries.

    Cultural Patterns and Processes

    Every cultural pattern includes numerous constituent processes. These are sequences of events defined by cultural mores. Let's see how this works for marriage.

    The cultural pattern of marriage takes many forms in many cultures. Each culture has a different set of processes leading up to the unification ("wedding"). You could (and many do!) write extensive rulebooks for this.

    None of these processes are universal. Courtship? You have probably heard it called "dating." You might think that getting to know your partner comes prior to the mutual decision to get married.

    Cultural Patterns Hindu marriage StudySmarterFig. 2 - Hindu wedding in Kerala, India. Traditional marriages in South Asia are arranged by families

    But in many cultures across time, the survival of the culture itself was not left up to the decisions of love-struck youngsters! Indeed, the entire concept of romantic love might not have been recognized or seen as important. Marriage was (and still is, in many cultures) seen as primarily a means to strengthen the bonds between extended family networks. It might even have involved the unification of two royal families! Not uncommonly, the partners did not even meet for the first time until their wedding night.

    Types of Cultural Patterns

    Above, we looked at cultural patterns that involve the human life cycle. There are many other types of patterns. Here are just a few:

    • Time. Each culture defines and subdivides time differently, from the things one should do during the day, to the calendars that may stretch over eons; time may be seen as linear, cyclical, both, or something else.

    • Meals. What, when, where, and how people eat is of fundamental importance.

    • Work. What constitutes "work"? Some cultures do not even have the concept. Others carefully define what type of people can do what jobs.

    • Play. Children, and adults as well, engage in play. This ranges from board games in the home, to telling jokes, to the Summer Olympics. Recreation, sports, fitness, gaming: whatever you want to call it, every culture has and does it.

    • Gender roles. Most cultures align biological sex to gender identification and have male and female genders. Some cultures include these and many others as well.

    Universal Cultural Patterns

    The anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in Patterns of Culture,1 became famous for championing cultural relativism almost a century ago. Seeing the incredible varieties of patterns across the world, she made famous the notion that Western cultural values weren't the ONLY worthwhile values and that non-Western cultural mores needed to be understood on their own terms and respected.

    Today, the "culture wars" rage on, pitting (broadly speaking) cultural relativists against cultural absolutists. In other words, at the extremes, some relativists, it is said, believe that "anything goes," while conservative absolutists claim there are certain fixed cultural patterns that are the norm. They typically argue that these norms are biological imperatives or else mandated by a deity (or sometimes both). The nuclear family comprised of a biological woman and a biological man, with children, is a common example.

    So where is the truth about all this? Probably somewhere in between, and it depends which pattern you are talking about.

    Incest Taboo

    An oft-cited truly universal cultural pattern is the incest taboo. This means all ethnic cultures prohibit and penalize reproductive relationships between close-blood kin. This is an example of a biological imperative: the in-breeding of close kin produces genetic defects, which has many disadvantages.

    Cultural Patterns Atahualpa StudySmarterfig. 3 - Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor. He was polygamous. Coya Asarpay was his sister and first wife

    However, the universality of this trait does not mean it isn't tolerated or even encouraged in some societies (the same goes for other "extreme" practices, such as cannibalism: you can always find some culture somewhere that engages in it). Indeed, the first thing popping into many people's minds is historical inbreeding among members of royal families. Widely reputed to have occurred in Europe, it was also practised among the ruling class of the Inca Empire (the leader married his sister).

    Cultural Patterns - Key takeaways

    • Cultural patterns are common structures of culture found, with variations, across similar cultures.
    • A universal cultural pattern is the family.
    • The human life-cycle involves many cultural patterns, from pregnancy, birth, and infancy to childhood, adulthood, old age, death, and ancestor worship.
    • Cultural relativism asserts that no universal cultural patterns are unchangeable, whereas cultural absolutism asserts the opposite.
    • The incest taboo is an example of a universal cultural pattern that exists as a biological imperative.


    1. Benedict, R. Patterns of Culture. Routledge. 2019.
    2. Fig. 1 Bullet ants ( by Joelma Monteiro de Carvalho is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    3. Fig. 2 Hindu wedding (,_Kerala.jpg) by Jinoytommanjaly is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Patterns

    What are cultural patterns?

    Cultural patterns are types of cultural traits that are found across many cultures of the same type.

    How do cultural patterns affect communication?

    Cultural patterns affect communication by dictating what can and cannot be said in a given situation. For example, the cultural pattern of marriage involves a complex set of communications, and things that can't be said, between not just spouses but also other related people.

    What are some cultural patterns?

    Cultural patterns include rituals associated with childhood, adulthood, old age, death, and marriage; the incest taboo; time-keeping; meals; and so forth.

    Why are cultural patterns important?

    Cultural patterns are important as the basic structures of culture. They allow cultures to cohere and also to distinguish themselves from other cultures.

    Where do cultural patterns come from?

    Cultural patterns come from universal human structures that have evolved over time.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    "Nuclear family" is best defined as:

    Quinceañera culture involves a ceremony wherein:

    The incest taboo is an example of a _______.


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