Human Relations Area Files (HRAF)

The Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), a microfiche collection of information on more than 330 different ethnic, cultural, religious, and national groups worldwide, is used by social scientists and students studying a particular culture or cultural trait or for making cross-cultural analyses. Included are more than 750,000 pages of text from books, articles, and unpublished manuscripts as well as English translations of foreign texts available exclusively in HRAF. In 1937, under the direction of Professor George Peter Murdock, researchers at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations began to design a classification system for organizing cultural, behavioral, and background information on a society. Out of this Cross-Cultural Survey came the Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM), a universal topical classification scheme categorizing human activity into more than 700 categories, such as “settlement patterns” and “serfdom and peonage.” This system was used extensively by the government during World War II to classify information on modern societies.

Outline of Cultural Materials. 5th ed. 1982.

Subject index to HRAF. Assigns a numerical designation to more than 700 categories of human culture. Used in conjunction with the Outline of World Cultures to locate information in HRAF on cultural traits of particular groups. Mugar Micro X Z5111 M86 1982M. HRAF also has an online edition of the Outline of Cultural Materials.

The OCM uses a three-digit code to assign subject categories to cultural traits. For example, the OCM codes for “settlement patterns” and “serfdom and peonage” are 361 and 567, respectively.

HRAF materials are arranged by culture. All texts containing information about a particular culture (e.g., Amish, Hausa) are grouped together. Each culture collection is identified by an alphanumeric code according to the Outline of World Cultures (OWC).

Outline of World Cultures. 6th ed. 1983.

Classifies all known cultures of the world by geographic region. Assigns alphanumeric designations to cultural groups. Mugar Micro X Z5111 M87 1983. HRAF also has an online Outline of World Cultures.

In the OWC, cultures are classified according to geographical regions:

  • A=Asia
  • E=Europe
  • F=Africa
  • M=Middle East (including Muslim societies in Africa)
  • N=North America
  • O=Oceania
  • R=Russia (cultures located in the former Soviet Union and Russia)
  • S=South America

In the examples given above, the OWC codes for Amish and Hausa are NM6 and MS12, respectively.

How to use HRAF

  1. Locate your topic in the index of the Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM). Note the corresponding 3-digit category number (for example, 593 for family relationships). Check the category description in the text of the OCM to make sure that the category you have selected covers the topic in which you are interested.
  2. Locate your culture in the Outline of World Cultures (OWC). Note the letter/number code (OWC code) for that culture (for example, NT17 for Taos). To see whether files are available for that culture, check the list of “Human Relations Area Files Available” at the end of this research guide. Only about ten percent of the cultures listed in the OWC are covered in the HRAF archive.
  3. Go to the HRAF microfiche files and find the set of microfiche on your culture. [In Mugar Memorial Library these are housed in the Current Periodicals Room.] Files are arranged in the same order as they are in “Human Relations Area Files Available” (alphanumerically by OWC code). The name and OWC code for the culture appears in the header of each fiche.
  4. Find the fiche containing the information on your topic. Subject category numbers are on the upper left corner of each fiche. Categories are arranged in numerical order within each file.
  5. Looking at the fiche, you will notice “flashers,” eye-readable category numbers that tell you where each new category begins. Each category contains pages of text from books and articles on your culture. In the sample following, all information on Taos (NT17) family relationships (OCM code 593) will be found after the 593 flasher.Image of HRAF microfiche.
  6. Center the first page in your category on the microfiche reader screen. Only the pages containing information on the topic within your category are located in that category; do not expect to find entire articles or books. Each page is identified by a “source number” (each book or article is a source), followed by the author’s name, both located on the upper left corner of each page. This is followed by a code letter indicating author’s training (see key, below), a code number indicating source evaluation (see key, below), and other information. See page identification key, below.

Author Training Key:

  • A. Archaeologist, Antiquarian
  • B. Folklorist
  • C. Technical Personnel
  • D. Physician, Physical Anthropologist
  • E. Ethnologist
  • F. Foreign Resident
  • G. Government Official
  • H. Historian
  • I. Indigene
  • J. Journalist
  • K. Geographer
  • L. Linguist
  • M. Missionary, Clergy
  • N. Natural Scientist
  • O. Lawyer
  • P. Psychologist
  • Q. Humanist, Writer, Editor
  • R. Artisan
  • S. Social Scientist, other than designated
  • T. Traveler
  • U. Unknown
  • V. Political Scientist
  • W. Organizational Documents
  • X. Economist, Manager
  • Y. Educator
  • Z. Sociologist

Source Evaluation Key:

(An indication of the quality of the information)

  • 1=Poor source
  • 2=Fair source
  • 3=Good, useful source, but not uniformly excellent
  • 4=Excellent secondary data such as compilations or interpretations based on primary data
  • 5=Excellent primary data such as traveler’s accounts, ethnographies, legal documents, autobiographies, etc.

Sample Page with Identification Key

Sample Page (partial page):
Image of sample page of HRAF microfiche.

  • Source No.: 20
  • Author: Beals & Siegel
  • Author Training- Source Evaluation: E-5
  • Date of Fieldwork: (no date)
  • Date of Publication: 1966
  • OWC Code: NT17
  • Name of Culture: Taos Taos
  • OWC Code: NT17

Bibliographic information on sources used in the Human Relations Area Files:

  • OCM category 111 contains a full bibliographic reference for all sources processed for a given file, arranged numerically by source number. Full citations to all documents included in the HRAF can be found in:
    HRAF Source Bibliography: Cumulative. 1976 -

    Citations to all documents in the HRAF are organized by cultural unit and are updated annually. Arranged in alphanumeric sequence by OWC code. Mugar Micro X Z5111 F69 1976M.

  • OCM category 112 contains bibliographical information on sources consulted by HRAF staff but not processed for that file.
  • OCM category 113 contains bibliographical information that appears in texts included in the file, such as footnotes, endnotes or reference lists.
  • OCM category 116 contains copies of entire texts (e.g., books, articles, manuscripts) processed for the file. It is especially useful if one wishes to see the entire document from which a given page has been taken. Because of copyright restrictions, not all documents will be found here.

For more detailed information on using the HRAF files, consult:

Instructor’s and Librarian’s Guide to the HRAF Archive. 1988.

This guide explains the organization of the HRAF archives, the microfiche files, and individual file pages. Discusses documentation, quality of the information. Includes a step-by-step guide to using the files. Mugar Micro X Z5111 L48 1988.

Guide to Cross-Cultural Research Using the HRAF Archive. 1988.

A step-by-step guide to using the HRAF archives to conduct cross-cultural research. Mugar Micro X Z5111 E42 1988.

Selective bibliography on the Human Relations Area Files:

  • Barry, Herbert III. Accessibility and Enrichment of Ethnographic Information in the Human Relations Area Files. In Growth and Progress in Cross-Cultural Psychology: Selected Papers from the Eighth International Conference of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology held at Istanbul, Turkey, July 6-10, 1986, edited by Çigdem Kagitçibasi, pp. 368-378. Berwyn: Swets North America; Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1987.
  • Clarke, Jack A. and David Henige. The Human Relations Area Files: Two Perspectives. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian 3 (summer 1984): 45-52.
  • Ember, Melvin. The Human Relations Area Files: Past and Future. Behavior Science Research 22 (1988): 97-104.
  • Ember, Melvin. Evolution of the Human Relations Area Files. Cross-Cultural Research 31 (February 1997): 3-15.
  • Goodenough, Ward H. Murdock as Bridge: From Sumner to HRAF to SCCR. Cross-Cultural Research 30 (August 1996): 275-280.
  • Kibbee, Jo. Ethnic Research and the Human Relations Area Files. Ethnic Forum 7 (1987): 18-25.
  • Levinson, David. The Human Relations Area Files. Reference Services Review 17 (fall 1989): 83-86, 90.
  • Martin, M. Marlene. Women in the HRAF Files: A Consideration of Ethnographer Bias. Behavior Science Research 13 (1978): 303-311.
  • Minturn, Leigh. Using HRAF Data for Supplemental Analysis. In Growth and Progress in Cross-Cultural Psychology: Selected Papers from the Eighth International Conference of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology held at Istanbul, Turkey, July 6-10, 1986, edited by Çigdem Kagitçibasi, pp. 379-384. Berwyn: Swets North America; Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1987.
  • Tobin, Joseph. HRAF as Radical Text? Cultural Anthropology 5 (November 1990): 473-487.
Human Relations Area Files.

HRAF’s Web page provides background information on HRAF and describes print publications for sale as well as electronic files available on subscription. It also describes some of their collections of manuscripts and archives.