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Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited

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Our Common Denominator

Human Universals Revisited

Christoph Antweiler
Translated from the German by Diane Kerns

364 pages, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-78533-093-3 $135.00/£99.00 Hb Published (April 2016)

ISBN  978-1-78533-824-3 $34.95/£27.95 Pb Published (February 2018)

eISBN 978-1-78533-094-0 eBook

Hb Pb   Buy the eBook! $34.95 Request a Review or Examination Copy (in Digital Format) Recommend to your Library Available in GOBI®



“Antweiler's is a quite meticulous and lucid study of human universals in the discipline of anthropology after more than a century of neglect in favor of the particularistic, relativist study of human cultures through the method of ethnography. His review is comprehensive and searching.” • Choice

“Antweiler delivers a differentiated and well-organized overview of some previous, and many more recent, debates on universals within a range of anthropological sub-fields… what makes this book worth reading and consulting, beyond its merits as a good roadmap and overview through some parts of these debates, are its fair and accessible dialogical style; its clarity concerning basic concepts and methodological issues; and, last but not least, its respect for ethnography and for particular contexts. All of this is certainly helpful for anthropological reconsiderations and new explorations of universals.” • Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI)

“Antweiler’s special accomplishments are the dragonfly-eye view of “universal” and amalgamating consequences of both Darwinian and epigenetic modes of adaptation and evolution… The design-concept of the book accommodates linear and global reasoners alike. Tables, lists, and exposition are arranged to optimize utility. Systematic analytical methods are displayed with crystal clarity. In a nutshell, Antweiler succeeds. He gives persons a gyrocompass to muddle through mazes and conflicts in the post-truth era, namely Anthropocene society as we know it.” • International Social Science Review

“…as a clarion call to expand our anthropological minds to include more cultural commonalities, as well as for greater intellectual exchange between not only anthropologists working in disparate areas but also anthropologists and practitioners of other disciplines, Antweiler’s endeavour succeeds skillfully.” • JASO

“…represents a major contribution to the anthropological research on the contemporary issues and debates regarding universals or the commonalities among us. Berghahn press should be congratulated for producing such a work.” • Journal of International and Global Studies

“An impressively exceptional work of seminal scholarship, Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited is enhanced with the inclusion of figures, tables, an informative ten page introduction, a seventy-three page bibliography, and a twenty-six page index. Highly recommended and an extraordinary contribution to community and academic library, anthropology reference collections and supplemental studies lists.” • Midwest Book Review

“After many decades of one-sided emphasis on cultural differences in anthropology and related disciplines, we are badly in need of an examination like this that foregrounds what human beings have in common.” • Wilfried van Damme, Leiden University

“The book clearly is a heroic achievement. It offers a valuable contribution to the filling of a large gap.” • EthnoScripts


Since the politicization of anthropology in the 1970s, most anthropologists have been reluctant to approach the topic of universals—that is, phenomena that occur regularly in all known human societies. In this volume, Christoph Antweiler reasserts the importance of these cross-cultural commonalities for anthropological research and for life and co-existence beyond the academy. The question presented here is how anthropology can help us approach humanity in its entirety, understanding the world less as a globe, with an emphasis on differences, but as a planet, from a vantage point open to commonalities.

Christoph Antweiler is an anthropologist and Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. He is a member of the Academia Europaea, London and serves on the advisory board of the Humboldt Forum, Berlin.

Subject: Theory and Methodology


List of Tables    


Chapter 1. Humankind: Current Societal Debates

  • Universal Postulates Everywhere!
  • Popular Universality in Visual Media: “The Family of Man”
  • Normative Universalism

Chapter 2. A World of Cultures: Their Differences and Likenesses

  • Finding Patterns in Diversity: George Peter Murdock and Donald Edward Brown
  • Universals as Subject Matter: Concept, Terms and Metaphors
  • Universals do matter: The Relevance of Universals in General and for Cultural Studies
  • Universals in Cultural Anthropology Today: the forgotten Half in the Science of Humanity

Chapter 3. Cultures and Human Nature: Human Beings are biologically Cultural

  • The Nexus of Intra-cultural Diversity and Universals
  • Human Nature and the Proper Image of Who We Are
  • Homo sapiens: Uniqueness versus Special Status

Chapter 4. Universals: Examples from Several Realms

  • Qualifying Remarks
  • Narration and Expressive Culture
  • Sociality
  • Worldview and Images of Humanity
  • Rituals and Beliefs
  • Cognition and Knowledge
  • Languages and Speaking
  • Behavior and Experience
  • Gender, Sexuality and Social Reproduction

Chapter 5. Methods: Deduction, Case Studies and Comparison

  • Finding Potential Candidates and Deducing from Theory
  • Case Studies: Testing Postulated Universals
  • Concepts beyond Cultural Bias?
  • Inventories of Universals
  • Evaluating Lists of Universals and Holistic Forms of Representation
  • Cross-cultural Comparison
  • Cross-species Comparison

Chapter 6. Taxonomy: The Forms, Levels and Depth of Universals

  • Levels, Spheres and Time Frame
  • Substance and Depth
  • Degree of Universality
  • Conditional Universals and other Specific Forms
  • Relations between basic Anthropological Orientations

Chapter 7. Toward Explanation: Why do Universals exist?

  • Ten Pitfalls in Research and in Anti-universalism
  • Systematics of Explanatory Approaches
  • Cultural Contact: Universals through Cultural Transfer and Diffusion
  • Function, Convergence and Structural Implication: Emerging Universals through Real-Life Circumstances
  • Evolution: Universals Based on Adaptation
  • Complex Causes

Chapter 8. Critical Positions: Arguments against Universalism

  • Reification, Hidden Syllogisms and Implicit Primitivity
  • Relativist and Empirical Criticisms
  • Fundamental Criticism: Charges of Eurocentrism and Hegemony

Chapter 9. Synthesis: Human Universals and the Human Sciences


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