Kurtis Scaletta's Site

Info about me and my books

In author circles, particularly those writing fantasy and science-fiction, there’s a lot of talk about “world building,” which I visualize as writing ad-hoc descriptions of physical and political structures. (I know world building is more than that; I can’t help what I visualize.)

So I now use the expression “culture building” knowing that “world building” encompasses that, but finding that gets more at what I would want to do in a work of speculative fiction, and because it gets more to the heart of the matter. How are these humans (or animals, or aliens) human, and what shape is their humanity? I came across this incredible list, written by the anthropologist George P. Murdock (via E.O. Wilson; you might have seen that coming), who sought to create a comprehensive list of all the human cultures he’d encountered. The list follows.

  1. age-grading
  2. athletic sports
  3. bodily adornment
  4. calendar
  5. cleanliness training
  6. community organization
  7. cooking
  8. cooperative labor
  9. cosmology
  10. courtship
  11. dancing
  12. decorative art
  13. divination
  14. division of labor
  15. dream interpretation
  16. education
  17. eschatology
  18. ethics
  19. ethnobotany*
  20. etiquette
  21. faith healing
  22. family feasting
  23. fire making
  24. folklore
  25. food taboos
  26. funeral rites
  27. games
  28. gestures
  29. gift giving
  30. government
  31. greetings
  32. hair styles
  33. hospitality
  34. housing
  35. hygiene**
  36. incest taboos
  37. inheritance rules
  38. joking
  39. kin groups
  40. kinship nomenclature
  41. language
  42. law
  43. luck superstitions
  44. magic
  45. marriage
  46. mealtimes
  47. medicine
  48. obstetrics
  49. penal sanctions
  50. personal names
  51. population policy
  52. postnatal care
  53. pregnancy usages
  54. property rights
  55. propitiation of supernatural beings
  56. puberty customs
  57. religious ritual
  58. residence rules
  59. sexual restrictions
  60. soul concepts
  61. status differentiation
  62. surgery
  63. tool making
  64. trade
  65. visiting
  66. weaving
  67. weather control

It’s meant to be descriptive, but I think it could be to creative writers — like Joseph Campbell’s work — prescriptive, a means of planning. Murdock’s list is a series of hints and suggestions to creators of imagined and imaginary cultures the many things they might consider working into their book. As I prepare myself to delve into a project that would require full-scale world/culture building, and wondering if I am up to the task, I find this list is extremely helpful. Each item is a question to answer, a challenge that leads me to fully develop my world… and some could lead to passages, with key plot points and character development, that might not have occurred to me otherwise. I don’t think I’ll need to plod people through ALL 67, but I know I would return to this list again and again for ideas.  I also see those points that other authors covered, that made their books rich and wonderful, whether or not they actually read anthropology books: Rowling and 2, Jacques and 22, Richard Adams and 15. They might have had muses whispering in their ear, but for me this list will help me fake it.



* Because I had to look it up: the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses.

** If, like me, much of your career has been charting the lives of middle-school-aged boys, this one is optional.

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