Why Are Cross-Cultural Studies Important For Our Understanding of Sex and Gender?

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Cross-cultural studies use statistical comparisons of data from different cultures to uncover ideas about cultural universals. Often, these analyses are performed on archival data which has been coded by ethnographers or compiled from other sources into the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF).

The increased interest in using data from non-Western societies has expanded the scope of cross-cultural research. This expansion raises important questions about responsible research practices.


Biology is the study of life on Earth, which began 3.7 billion years ago. It includes the study of a wide range of living organisms from bacteria to plants, animals and humans. While each organism has its own unique characteristics, there are some basic traits that all living things share. For example, all organisms are made up of chemical elements like oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and sulfur. The study of biology encompasses many fields including botany, anatomy and biochemistry.

It is a common assumption that the differences between boys and girls, men and women, are due to biology, especially hormonal changes. For example, sex differences in behavior and attitudes have often been explained by the fact that males have higher testosterone levels than females, which cause them to be more physically aggressive and commit 85%-90% of all violent crimes (see Chapter 7 “Deviance, Crime, and Social Control”).

Many anthropologists argue that such biological explanations are flawed because they ignore the role that culture and socialization play in gender differences. If gender differences stem solely from biological differences, they may be permanent and will remain unchanged, whereas if culture and socialization play an important role in shaping sex and gender, then the status quo can change. This is why it is important to conduct cross-cultural studies to examine gender differences in a variety of cultural contexts.

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Culture and Socialization

It is important to understand that a person’s environment has an impact on how they think, feel and behave. Culture is an organized system of beliefs, values and practices that people share with one another. It includes social rules, settings, languages and processes for teaching and socialization. It also provides a kind of blueprint for behavior.

Researchers study cultures to learn how they differ and what common characteristics exist among humans. They use the information from cross-cultural studies to inform their theories of human nature. Behavioral laws proposed by scientists need to be tested against the universal human being, and this can only be done through cross-cultural comparisons.

In the early days of cross-cultural research, many scholars looked for comparable cultural traits or stereotypes across different societies. For example, Williams and Best (1990) collected data about sex role ideology, gender expectations and work values in 14 countries. They used this data to identify social expectations about the roles of men and women. They then compared these expectations in each culture to determine if they were similar or dissimilar.

There are a number of issues with cross-cultural research, including questions about translation and measurement equivalence. In addition, researchers must carefully choose the communities from which they will collect their data. The temptation to select a culture that is most easily analyzed must be balanced with the need for cultural sensitivity. Moreover, some researchers engage in what is called ‘extractive research’, in which they select a culture for the sole purpose of advancing their own scientific or professional goals without benefiting the community.

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The biological differences between males and females lead many scholars and no doubt much of the public to believe that gender is to a large degree biologically determined. However, anthropologists and sociologists tend to view gender as largely a social construction. Gender refers to a set of culturally invented expectations, roles and behaviors that are imposed on a person by their culture. These are sometimes called gender ideologies. Gender and sexuality can be defined in a variety of ways, depending on the context and culture in which one lives.

Gender is not an “identity” in a psychological sense but a role that one assumes more or less consciously. In some societies, such as the United States, there is considerable pressure to conform to a predetermined gender identity linked to one’s biologic sex.

The socially constructed nature of sex and gender makes cross-cultural research crucial for our understanding of sex and gender. Cross-cultural studies are research designs that compare the characteristics and behaviors of people in different cultures. By examining how these differences and similarities are influenced by the cultural context, researchers can gain new insights into human behavior and how it differs across cultures. By comparing and contrasting the behaviors of people in various cultures, researchers can also evaluate the validity of their own assumptions about why people behave differently.

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The study of cross-cultural patterns is a central area of research in anthropology and in sister disciplines such as sociology, psychology, economics, political science and history. The method is called comparative research (option c). It compares societies using statistical methods such as chi-square and phi for the correlation of culture features. This is a very important research technique that requires careful attention to the issues of statistical equivalence (option d).

The issue of sampling bias in cross-cultural studies was raised by scholars such as Harold Driver (1907-1992) and Frank W. Moore, who argued that the equivalence of test scores on comparable measures across cultures is only guaranteed if the tests are constructed in a way that eliminates plausible rival hypotheses. They also advocated for the use of standard scoring procedures such as translation-back-translation, committee designs and decentering.

The importance of cross-cultural studies of sex and gender lies in the fact that they help us to see how cultural processes influence sex and gender. For example, anthropologists’ work on pre-industrial societies shows that although the biological differences between males and females are quite clear, they do not determine whether a society is patriarchal or matriarchal. In addition, the great variability of physical traits within both men and women underlines the fact that there is much more to sex and gender than a fixed biological determination.

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