Subject Headings for Cross-cultural Research

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

Question/Answer on Cataloging Issues – February 2016

By Wade Kotter, Weber State University

Question: What subject headings are used for works in the area of cross-cultural research?

Melvin and Carol Ember define cross-cultural research in anthropology as focusing on “systematic comparisons that explicitly aim to answer questions about the incidence, distribution, and causes of cultural variation.”[i] Although cross-cultural research as described by the Embers developed primarily in the mid-20th century under the influence of Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock, over the years researchers in many disciplines, including sociology, psychology, and even consumer studies, have adopted and applied a variety of related approaches involving the comparison of cultural and behavioral phenomena across different cultural groups. Perhaps in response to the emergence of these broader approaches to cross-cultural comparison, which do not necessarily involve the specific methods advocated by Murdock and his followers, the Library of Congress does not use “cross-cultural research” as a subject heading. Instead, it uses the heading Cross-cultural studies [may subdivide geographically] for works about cross-cultural studies in general; the free-floating topical subdivision Cross-cultural studies for works about the results of cross-cultural studies of specific cultural or social phenomena, as well as works on the methodology of conducting cross-cultural studies of such specific phenomena; and the free-floating form subdivision Cross-cultural studies for works reporting the results of cross-cultural studies of specific cultural or social phenomena. This usage pattern is briefly described in the “See also” section of the authority record for the heading Cross-cultural studies:

“See also subdivision Cross-cultural studies under topical headings, e. g. Child-development – Cross-cultural studies” (, emphasis mine)

More specific instructions for using Cross-cultural studies as a subdivision, which is not subdivided geographically, are provided in instruction sheet H 1510 of the Library of Congress Subject Headings Manual. Specifically, it is to be used “as either a form or topical subdivision under topical headings for works that report the results of cross-cultural studies on those topics or discuss the methods and techniques of conducting such studies.” The following examples and explanation forwarded to me by my committee colleague Isabel del Carmen Quintana[ii], should help further clarify these instructions:

“For a work that talks ABOUT the results of cross cultural studies on Food habits, we would use: Food habits |x Cross-cultural studies.

“For a work that reports, or gives us, the actual results of the cross cultural studies on Food habits, we would use: Food habits |v Cross-cultural studies.”

Paraphrasing Isabel’s explanation, the |x preceding Cross-cultural studies in the first example is used by the Library of Congress to designate a topical subdivision, while the |v preceding Cross-cultural studies in the second example is used to designate a form subdivision. In an OPAC that facilitates sorting results into different facets based on this distinction (not all OPACs do this), understanding the difference can be helpful in interpreting the results of a search.

Two restrictions on the use of Cross-cultural studies as a subdivision are also mentioned in the instructions: 1) It is to be used only for research on “cultural traits or culturally modifiable phenomena” and 2) It should not be used “under names of individual ethnic groups or for works that discuss a single ethnic group.” With respect to the first restriction, the instructions state that “topics such as physiological processes may be compared, but the topic in question should be one that is modifiable by the social environment or through the socialization process.” Examples provided of such physiological processes include breast feeding and childbirth.

In addition, the “Background” section of H 1510 provides further clarification on how the Library of Congress defines the term Cross-cultural studies:

“Cross-cultural studies are studies in which comparable data on cultural traits or behavior from two or more cultures or societies are presented. These studies may assess similarities or diversities occurring in those cultures or test hypotheses concerning individual or group behavior.” (H 1510)

Although not mentioned in the authority record or subject headings manual instructions for Cross-cultural studies, the Library of Congress does provide the free-floating subdivision Comparative method for use under disciplines; this certainly seems to be a related concept and it is difficult to understand why the differences between the two are never clarified. The authority record for Comparative method describes its use as follows:

“Search under subdivision Comparative method under disciplines for works on methods of comparing data relevant to the field, e. g. Social medicine – Comparative method; Social sciences – Comparative method” (, emphasis mine)

It is important to note that the subdivision Comparative method is not subdivided geographically (see p. 15 in section H 1095 of the Library of Congress Subject Headings Manual).

The Library of Congress has used the free-floating subdivision Comparative method to create the following headings and others like them for application to works about the use of comparative methods in specific disciplines.

Anthropology – Comparative method

Ethnology – Comparative method

Sociology – Comparative method

However, the book by Carol and Melvin Ember mentioned above seems to fit well within the parameters of Comparative method as a subdivision of anthropology and/or ethnology, but it was only assigned one heading, Cross-cultural studies. This suggests that individuals searching for works on the methodology of comparative research in these disciplines using the Comparative method subdivision would likely not find this very important volume. It appears, therefore, that individuals searching for works about cross-cultural research in anthropology, sociology, and related fields should use both the authorized heading Cross-cultural studies and the subdivision Comparative method in combination with the discipline in question, while those searching for works reporting the results of cross-cultural research on specific phenomena or discussing methodology with respect to such research should use the subdivision Cross-cultural studies along with appropriate topical headings for the specific phenomenon or phenomena in question.


[i] Ember, C. R. & Ember, M. (2009). Cross-cultural research methods. (2nd ed.) Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

[ii] Personal communication.