Outline of World Cultures


The Outline of World Cultures (OWC) is a classification system of the cultures of the world. The OWC is used to organize the eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology databases.

The Outline of World Cultures or OWC was first developed by G.P. Murdock in the 1950s as a classification system of cultures of the world originally organized by region and country. It is presently organized by region and subregion and covers over 2500 cultures.

The OWC can be used to organize and index a wide variety of databases and collections. At HRAF, the OWC is used to organize and index the eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology databases. In the past, the OWC was used to organize and index the paper and microfiche versions of the HRAF Collection of Ethnography. Every document in eHRAF is indexed with OWC culture categories.

The OWC is now maintained in digital format in an information retrieval thesaurus structure. As such, in addition to being a classifying system, it is also a terminology cross-referencing system. The OWC Index matches a researcher’s or an author’s own culturally-related terms, particularly ethnonyms and country names, with the OWC category. Additionally, the thesaurus structure adds flexibility and power by making use of hierarchical organization of categories, cross-hierarchy associative relationships, and Boolean query constructs. Work is currently ongoing to make the OWC conform to the ISO 25964 international standard for thesauri.

Because of the terminology cross-referencing aspect of the OWC, it is not necessary for researchers to have a deep knowledge of the OWC culture categories or of the OWC identifiers, formerly called OWC codes. Now, using various thesaurus tools, the researcher can find the appropriate OWC culture category by using his or her own vocabulary terms for the culture. For instance, a researcher interested in finding material related to Seneca can find the word Seneca in the OWC A-Z Index to learn that the correct category to use for material related to Seneca is identified by the term, IROQUOIS, which has an OWC identifier of NM09. You can see how this works in eHRAF by going to Browse Cultures by A-Z Index. It is even possible to let the programmatic system automatically look up the correct category and perform a search. To see how this works in eHRAF, go to Basic Search . Because finding a culture by country is so frequently desired, country terms can be isolated to their own index. In eHRAF, go to Browse Cultures by Country.

The hierarchical thesaurus organization of the OWC allows researchers to more easily customize their searches to either broaden a search, thus maximizing recall, or to narrow a search, thus maximizing precision. If you choose categories higher up in the hierarchy and all the descendants of the category, all of the sibling children, and all of the children’s children will also be included in the search, thus increasing recall. If you choose categories further down in the hierarchy and only those chosen narrower categories and their descendants, if any, will be included in the search, thus increasing precision. In eHRAF, the hierarchy can also be browsed beginning at the top level of its Browse Cultures by Region

While not necessary, it is still valuable to have significant knowledge of the OWC culture categories and of the OWC structure. For instance, when the built-in terminology cross-referencing is not sufficient for particular search purposes, it might work best to customize a search by choosing cultures based on understanding the category scope notes and descriptions. The OWC can also serve as a valuable outline of world cultures. Finally, it is useful to know the OWC identifiers to use as shorthand for the OWC categories.

In eHRAF, you can examine the details of an OWC culture category and related eHRAF document collection in the Culture Profile or in pop-up windows available by clicking on an OWC identifier wherever an OWC category is referenced in Search Results or Advanced Search.

The OWC category (or concept) is the fundamental building block of the OWC thesaurus. The OWC category has the following parts:

  • an identifier, also called OWC code,

  • a preferred term, also called Descriptor,

  • a broader category with corresponding Broader Term and broader term identifier,

  • a list of narrower categories with their corresponding Narrower Terms and narrower term identifiers,

  • a list of non-preferred terms, also called Used Fors,

  • a short Description of the culture

  • a Scope Note describing the scope of the material is that indexed with this category-

  • a History Note describing changes to scope of the category