Cultural anthropology: "ur trait" a term for universl beliefs/practices?
January 10, 2013 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Some decades ago I heard the term "Ur trait" (can't be sure of the spelling) in relation to a collection of cultural beliefs or possibly culturally driven practices that are universally distributed in humans around the globe, and which are believed to reach back to the early development of humans, so that they might represent bits of a core of human culture. I'm unsure enough of the concept that I don't want to make up examples which might lead respondents on a wrong path. Googling "ur trait" didn't yield any useful answers. The concept sounds similar, but is not identical to Jung's idea of a collective unconscious, which seems to be related a little more to psychology than cultural anthropology. I'm primarily interested in whether the phrase "ur trait" was ever in use, and secondarily in the concept it represents if not what I've described above.
posted by paphun123 to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not familiar with that particular construction, but it's consistent with the usual meaning of the prefix ur-.
posted by pullayup at 10:10 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ur was a very ancient city-state, and I'm pretty sure this concept of originality you're talking about is a reference to it. I imagine there was some discovery in anthropology at Ur that was the very earliest of its kind, and the term stuck.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:12 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Then again, there's this etymology straight from German.

So not sure if that relates to the city of Ur or not, actually.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:15 AM on January 10, 2013

I imagine there was some discovery in anthropology at Ur that was the very earliest of its kind, and the term stuck.

No, Ur- is just a common way to say "primeval" or "original" in academic language, as in pullayup's link.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:16 AM on January 10, 2013

The prefix "ur" is part of many basic German words (e.g., Ursprung, "source"). It is not related to the ancient city of Ur.
posted by Nomyte at 10:19 AM on January 10, 2013

Ur-trait would be transparent in meaning to a reasonably well-read cultural anthropologist, but I'm not aware of a particular person who uses the term. Ur-language I've certainly heard, and I can well imagine an off-the-cuff speculation like, "Are incest prohibitions a sort of cultural ur-trait, or is something like the Westermarck hypothesis more likely?"
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:20 AM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you're night. On further reflection that "city of Ur" thing was hearsay from something my friend Jeff told me once.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:20 AM on January 10, 2013

"Ur-" is flexible and widely understood, to the point that I can imagine "ur-trait" being a hapax legomenon of sorts rather than obscure anthropological argot. The author may have just coined it to illustrate the concept you describe.
posted by pullayup at 10:21 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

In history, archeology, and linguistics you have (German or German-inspired) terms like ursprache for "hypothetical ancestral language," urheimat for "ancestral homeland," and urtext for "the original text where some motif appears."
posted by Nomyte at 10:25 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

What you're describing is called Cultural Universal, I think.
'Ur-' is a German prefix, nomyte's explanation is excellent. I haven't heard the word 'ur-trait', the German word for what you're describing is (Kulturelle) Universalie.
posted by The Toad at 10:31 AM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: pullayup, Monsieur Caution, and The Toad have it.

I was an anthropology major and remember learning the term "cultural universal" for what you describe. But ur-trait would be a perfectly good synonym, and I suppose that when writing anthropology papers you have to bust out the thesaurus every once in a while.

Not 100% germane to your question, but I don't think anthropologists think that cultural universals necessarily indicate some kind of shared ancient human culture. Or, at least, the implications of ancientness aren't really dwelled on at all.
posted by Sara C. at 11:11 AM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Very interesting and helpful. Special thanks to Sarah C. for clarity on whether universality is regarded as an indicator of shared ancient culture.
posted by paphun123 at 11:44 AM on January 10, 2013

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