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            Observations Database project

How cultures see each other

  The aim of this project is to collect comments made by travellers, now and in the past, about the way people behave in other countries or cultures. The comments are stored in a database tool available for those researching the ways that we see people from other countries and the ways in which cultural behavior may change over time.


                Explorer image                  

   Traits remarked by travelers are organized into groups by the user, facilitating analysis. The original text from which the trait was extracted is available with a double-click.


The French language version of Microsoft ACCESS 2007 (part of the French Office 2007 suite) should be installed on your computer to enable use of the database. The database will not function properly on English versions or more recent versions of Access.
Alternatively, you can install the free (English) Microsoft Runtime Programme for Access 2007, which might allow inspection of the database but not the creation of new functions and reports. The Runtime can be downloaded HERE.

My Trait Groups
 This screen makes it (relatively) easy for the user to choose which traits should be put into which groups. In this example traits are being assigned to
 pre-defined Big Five groups - Goldberg's 100 Revised Synonym Clusters.

Who are we?

Cultures.org is an independant non-profit association based in Toulouse, France. Its only activity is the creation of a proof-of-concept open database tool for the study of cultural observations. Data collection is under way, and development of the pilot project is progressing. We would welcome help from others, and especially academic participation and/or adoption of this project.

A full presentation of the Cultures Observations Database, its raison d'être, its functions, and technical details is here.

Who approves this project?

- Lew Goldberg, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon - "What a wonderful web-site.  I love it."

- Paul Langford, Professor of Modern History at Oxford - "What you are proposing makes sense to me...  I would only say that separating the stereotypical out from other evidence is very much a matter of judgement and difficult to be completely convincing on. But in my view the more evidence the better and judgement is after all what anthropologists, like historians, need to exercise."

- Dr Robert McCrae (Ed. with J.Allik of The Five-Factor Model of Personality Across Cultures, 2002) - "It appears to be an interesting and valuable project. It would certainly seem that your traits could be classified in terms of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) and thus national FFM profiles could be created. The most obvious question is whether those profiles would agree with either assessed national trait levels or national stereotype ratings."

- Peter Turchin, Professor of Biology and Anthropology at the University of Connecticut - "The project you are working on is both interesting and worthwhile."

Cultural Evolution Society: We were among the lucky few chosen by the Cultural Evolution Society to provide a poster presentation at the inaugural meeting of the society in Jena, Germany in September 2017. You can see our poster here.

Why do it?

Numerous reasons.

1.  Using data analysis techniques it may be possible to:
  • better distinguish between stereotypes and real behavioural phenomena;
  • look for behaviour patterns and cause-and-effect theories at a cultural level;
  • see if and how observed cultural behaviours change with time;
  • better understand the ways in which the cultural environment may influence the way individuals think, and vice versa;
  • anticipate areas of potential misunderstanding between cultures
  • and no doubt to explore many other interesting phenomena (but this is a data collection, ethnographic project, not a theorising ethnological project...)
2.  Anthropologists have traditionally observed people in distant societies. Unfortunately, people from those societies didn't often send anthropologists to study others, so major collections such as the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University are relatively poor in, for example, archives on industrialised societies. Travellers are not anthropologists, but they can be valuable sources of information when other data sources do not exist, and they have one major advantage: there are far more of them.  Much old documentation has been lost, but there are still enormous quantities to be found in neglected books, personal letters, articles, radio and TV archives, etc. It is urgent to collect these unique sources of information from the past and to provide an easy way of looking at the data. That is what this database is intended to do.

3.  Cultural phenomena are habitually studied through observations by professionals (anthropologists), and this has resulted in the collection of much valuable material. But the notes of an English observer are likely to be different than those of a French, African, or Japanese observer. The Cultures Observations Database can help get around this problem by putting the observers on the same level as the observed.

4.  This quote is from Gary Ferraro, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina:
"... what we know, or think we know, about our own culture is not necessarily perceived in the same way by culturally different people. In other words, we may see ourselves as holding a particular value or cultural trait, but then describe that trait in only the most positive ways. Those looking at us from the outside, however, are more likely to see some of the negative implications as well. Thus, if cultural anthropology is to help us function more effectively in an increasingly interconnected world, we will have to focus on accomplishing three tasks: understanding culture-specific information about other cultures; understanding our own culture; and understanding how culturally different people view us and our cultural patterns." (Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective, 6th edition 2006, Thomson Wadsworth)

Laland and Brown in Sense and Nonsense (2002), remark: "The trouble is, few people are actually engaged in the business of counting, recording, and measuring cultural variants or in tracking how they change in frequency."

6.  "Although it would be ideal to have information on the perception of each culture’s character by itself and all other cultures, such data are not yet available."
Robert R. McCrae and Antonio Terracciano, in Personality Profiles of Cultures: Aggregate Personality Traits, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2005)

7.  "A key question that remains to be fully answered is whether, and how, the concept of a universal human nature might be combined with the large-scale behavioural flexibility and diversity that is observable between and within human populations".
Gillian R. Brown, Thomas E. Dickins, Rebecca Sear and Kevin N. Laland, in Evolutionary accounts of human behavioural diversity, Phil. Trans. R. Soc.  (2011)

8.  "
First, in generating new ideas, we often begin with our own folk models about human nature. Being cultural in origin, such folk models necessarily capture only a portion of the range of human behavior, and hence we are likely to overlook important aspects of psychology that are not prominent in our own culture’s portrait of the mind. Moreover, if we first fail to study the record of human diversity, and then later fail to test our ideas cross-culturally, we run the risk of tautologically confirming our culture’s folk model using data obtained from participants who subscribe to those same beliefs." Dan Fessler,Associate Professor of Anthropology, UCLA, in Twelve Lessons for Evolutionary Psychologists, www.cognitionandculture.net, 20 January 2012.

9.  "Cultural transmission is theory rich but data poor. Few field studies of cultural transmission exist." Barry S. Hewlett, Washington State University, Evolutionary Approaches to Culture: Lessons from Africa.

10.  "This is what’s most galling – the data that we need to test theories are there. Some of it is scattered over a multitude of published and unpublished articles. But most simply resides in the brains of historians or archaeologists specializing on particular regions and epochs. The only way to make these data useful (for a systematic testing of theories, that is) is to translate/transcribe them from human brains onto electronic, computer-readable media." Prof. Peter Turchin, Social Evolution Forum

11. "Many studies of the evolution of human behavior situate behavior in the context of ecological, cultural, and social environments. The task now is to test explicit evolutionary models against real-world data, preferably on different scales." Ruth Mace, Department of Anthropology, University College London, in Human behavioral ecology and its evil twin, Behavioral Ecology (2014), 25(3), 443–449

12. " Anthropologists debate the degree to which the world is becoming more or less culturally homogeneous, but to the extent that it is, we will become less able to use crosscultural comparisons. We recommend the use of publicly
available database(s) for cataloging psychological variation across the world’s many diverse populations."
Coren L Apicella and H Clark Barrett, in Cross-cultural evolutionary psychology,
Current Opinion in Psychology 2016, 7:9297

Guidelines for those who'd like to participate

This is a project which lends itself well to public participation. Individuals in any part of the world are encouraged to participate. School or college classes can organise the search for travellers' comments on the web, on the bookshelf at home, in personal letters, the school or local library. The sources for travellers' comments can be written material such as letters, books, magazines, and websites,but comments may also be collected first-hand from travellers if simple basic rules are respected. You can then transmit the results of your researches to us by email at the address below and we will include them in the database. The final version of the database will be available to all as a flexible tool for testing theories of cultural behavior.

  • Language

Source texts can be in any language, but should be accompanied by a translation into English. We may be able to help with translations if the need arises, and we already need volunteer translators (with internet access) from German and French into English. All English translations in the database are accompanied by the text in its original language as an essential check for researchers.

  • Collecting written material

In collecting written material it is useful to note:
  • the name and nationality or culture of the author, and biographical notes about him or her if available, especially those pertaining to the length of time he or she has lived in different cultures or countries;
  • the title and date of publication, and the name and location of the publisher;
  • the page number where the text is found.
Texts should be quoted in context, which may mean copying several extra lines or paragraphs. Text which has been cut should be clearly marked with four leading and/or trailing points (....) which mark where the cut has been made. Text should be sent in plain text (ascii) format, or in RTF format if it contains bold or italic characters. Do not send text in, for example, Word format. Most word processors, including Word, permit saving of text in plain text format & RTF.

See here for a typical example of a short extract from a book suitable for use in the database.
  • Books

We are also establishing a reference library of travel books which could eventually be scanned and made available online when no longer subject to copyright restrictions. Donations of such books, in paper or digital form, are always welcome. For a list of books already in the collection see this  book list or a version in RTF format.

Those who are interested in participating or otherwise supporting this project can contact me at the email address bruce@cultures.org.  No payment will be made for participation in this project. All material collected will be freely available on the web for research.

Bruce Lepper, editor

Links to notes and web sites about study and analysis of cultures and behaviour:

  Selected extracts from current relevant research

D-Place Database of Places, Language, Culture and Environment
Evolutionary Human Sciences - Open Access journal | Cambridge Core
Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology
SESHAT: Global History Databank
Geert Hofstede's Country Comparer
Cultaption Research program
The Norms And Preferences Network
International Cognition & Culture Institute
Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity at University College, London
Culture and cognition program at the University of Michigan
Human Relations Area Files
Useful links at the Human Behaviour & Evolution Society site
Links at the Nationalism Project
Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University
(Free) Online readings in Psychology & Culture at WWU
Anthropological Index of the Royal Anthropological Institute
EthnoAtlas by White and Veit
Ethnographic Atlas by Michael Fischer
Centre de Recherche sur la Littérature des Voyages
International Personality Item Pool
World Values Survey
European Social Survey
Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions
- Studies published in the journal "World Cultures"
Centre de Recherches Interculturelles sur les Domaines Anglophones et Francophones University Paris 13

This page last edited 1 December 2020