Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.

It was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and later popularized by his students. Boas first articulated the idea in 1887: "civilization is not something absolute, but ... is relative, and ... our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes".[1] However, Boas did not coin the term.

The first use of the term recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary was by philosopher and social theorist Alain Locke in 1924 to describe Robert Lowie's "extreme cultural relativism", found in the latter's 1917 book Culture and Ethnology.[2] The term became common among anthropologists after Boas' death in 1942, to express their synthesis of a number of ideas Boas had developed. Boas believed that the sweep of cultures, to be found in connection with any sub species, is so vast and pervasive that there cannot be a relationship between culture and race.[3] Cultural relativism involves specific epistemological and methodological claims. Whether or not these claims necessitate a specific ethical stance is a matter of debate. This principle should not be confused with moral relativism.

Epistemological origins

Herodotus (Histories 3.38) observes on the relativity of mores (νόμοι):

If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one's country.

He mentions an anecdote of Darius the Great who illustrated the principle by inquiring about the funeral customs of the Greeks and the Callatiae, peoples from the extreme western and eastern fringes of his empire, respectively. They practiced cremation and funerary cannibalism, respectively, and were each dismayed and abhorred at the proposition of the other tribe's practices.

The epistemological claims that led to the development of cultural relativism have their origins in the German Enlightenment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that human beings are not capable of direct, unmediated knowledge of the world. All of our experiences of the world are mediated through the human mind, which universally structures perceptions according to a priori concepts of time and space.

Although Kant considered these mediating structures universal, his student Johann Gottfried Herder argued that human creativity, evidenced by the great variety in national cultures, revealed that human experience was mediated not only by universal structures, but by particular cultural structures as well. The philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt called for an anthropology that would synthesize Kant and Herder's ideas.

Although Herder focused on the positive value of cultural variety, the sociologist William Graham Sumner called attention to the fact that one's culture can limit one's perceptions. He called this principle ethnocentrism, the viewpoint that "one's own group is the center of everything", against which all other groups are judged.

As a methodological and heuristic device

According to George Marcus, Michael Fischer, and Sam Bohart,

20th century social and cultural anthropology has promised its still largely Western readership enlightenment on two fronts. The one has been the salvaging of distinct cultural forms of life from a process of apparent global Westernization. With both its romantic appeal and its scientific intentions, anthropology has stood for the refusal to accept this conventional perception of homogenization toward a dominant Western model.[4]

Cultural relativism was in part a response to Western ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism may take obvious forms, in which one consciously believes that one's people's arts are the most beautiful, values the most virtuous, and beliefs the most truthful. Franz Boas, originally trained in physics and geography, and heavily influenced by the thought of Kant, Herder, and von Humboldt, argued that one's culture may mediate and thus limit one's perceptions in less obvious ways. He understood "culture" to include not only certain tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion. He assumed a much broader notion of culture, defined as

the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of the individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relation to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself, and of each individual to himself.[5]

This view of culture confronts anthropologists with two problems: first, how to escape the unconscious bonds of one's own culture, which inevitably bias our perceptions of and reactions to the world, and second, how to make sense of an unfamiliar culture. The principle of cultural relativism thus forced anthropologists to develop innovative methods and heuristic strategies.

As a methodological tool

Between World War I and World War II, "cultural relativism" was the central tool for American anthropologists in this rejection of Western claims to universality, and salvage of non-Western cultures. It functioned to transform Boas' epistemology into methodological lessons.

This is most obvious in the case of language. Although language is commonly thought of as a means of communication, Boas called attention especially to the idea that it is also a means of categorizing experiences, hypothesizing that the existence of different languages suggests that people categorize, and thus experience, language differently (this view was more fully developed in the hypothesis of Linguistic relativity).

Thus, although all people perceive visible radiation the same way, in terms of a continuum of color, people who speak different languages slice up this continuum into discrete colors in different ways. Some languages have no word that corresponds to the English word "green". When people who speak such languages are shown a green chip, some identify it using their word for blue, others identify it using their word for yellow. Thus, Boas's student Melville Herskovits summed up the principle of cultural relativism thus: "Judgements are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation."

Boas pointed out that scientists grow up and work in a particular culture, and are thus necessarily ethnocentric. He provided an example of this in his 1889 article, "On Alternating Sounds"[6] A number of linguists at Boas' time had observed that speakers of some Native American languages pronounced the same word with different sounds indiscriminately. They thought that this meant that the languages were unorganized and lacked strict rules for pronunciation, and they took it as evidence that the languages were more primitive than their own. Boas however noted that the variant pronunciations were not an effect of lack of organization of sound patterns, but an effect of the fact that these languages organized sounds differently from English. The languages grouped sounds that were considered distinct in English into a single sound, but also having contrasts that did not exist in English. He then argued the case that Native Americans had been pronouncing the word in question the same way, consistently, and the variation was only perceived by someone whose own language distinguishes those two sounds. Boas's student, the linguist Edward Sapir later noted that also English speakers pronounce sounds differently even when they think they are pronouncing the same sound, for example few English speakers realize that the sounds written with the letter ⟨t⟩ in the words "tick" and "stick" are phonetically different, the first being generally affricated and the other aspirated – a speaker of a language where this contrast is meaningful would instantly perceive them as different sounds and tend not to see them as different realizations of a single phoneme.

Boas's students drew not only on his engagement with German philosophy. They also engaged the work of contemporary philosophers and scientists, such as Karl Pearson, Ernst Mach, Henri Poincaré, William James and John Dewey in an attempt to move, in the words of Boas's student Robert Lowie, from "a naively metaphysical to an epistemological stage" as a basis for revising the methods and theories of anthropology.

Boas and his students realized that if they were to conduct scientific research in other cultures, they would need to employ methods that would help them escape the limits of their own ethnocentrism. One such method is that of ethnography: basically, they advocated living with people of another culture for an extended period of time, so that they could learn the local language and be enculturated, at least partially, into that culture.

In this context, cultural relativism is an attitude that is of fundamental methodological importance, because it calls attention to the importance of the local context in understanding the meaning of particular human beliefs and activities. Thus, in 1948 Virginia Heyer wrote, "Cultural relativity, to phrase it in starkest abstraction, states the relativity of the part to the whole. The part gains its cultural significance by its place in the whole, and cannot retain its integrity in a different situation."[7]

As a heuristic tool

Another method was ethnology: to compare and contrast as wide a range of cultures as possible, in a systematic and even-handed manner. In the late nineteenth century, this study occurred primarily through the display of material artifacts in museums. Curators typically assumed that similar causes produce similar effects; therefore, in order to understand the causes of human action, they grouped similar artifacts together – regardless of provenance. Their aim was to classify artifacts, like biological organisms, according to families, genera, and species. Thus organized museum displays would illustrate the evolution of civilization from its crudest to its most refined forms.

In an article in the journal Science, Boas argued that this approach to cultural evolution ignored one of Charles Darwin's main contributions to evolutionary theory:

It is only since the development of the evolutional theory that it became clear that the object of study is the individual, not abstractions from the individual under observation. We have to study each ethnological specimen individually in its history and in its medium ... By regarding a single implement outside of its surroundings, outside of other inventions of the people to whom it belongs, and outside of other phenomena affecting that people and its productions, we cannot understand its meanings ... Our objection ... is, that classification is not explanation.[8]

Boas argued that although similar causes produce similar effects, different causes may also produce similar effects.[9] Consequently, similar artifacts found in distinct and distant places may be the products of distinct causes. Against the popular method of drawing analogies in order to reach generalizations, Boas argued in favor of an inductive method. Based on his critique of contemporary museum displays, Boas concluded:

It is my opinion that the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.[8]

Boas's student Alfred Kroeber described the rise of the relativist perspective thus:[10]

Now while some of the interest in (so called solial culture science) anthropology in its earlier stages was in the exotic and the out-of-the-way, yet even this antiquarian motivation ultimately contributed to a broader result. Anthropologists became aware of the diversity of culture. They began to see the tremendous range of its variations. From that, they commenced to envisage it as a totality, as no historian of one period or of a single people was likely to do, nor any analyst of his own type of civilization alone. They became aware of culture as a "universe", or vast field in which we of today and our own civilization occupy only one place of many. The result was a widening of a fundamental point of view, a departure from unconscious ethnocentricity toward relativity. This shift from naive self-centeredness in one's own time and spot to a broader view based on objective comparison is somewhat like the change from the original geocentric assumption of astronomy to the Copernican interpretation of the solar system and the subsequent still greater widening to a universe of galaxies.

This conception of culture, and principle of cultural relativism, were for Kroeber and his colleagues the fundamental contribution of anthropology, and what distinguished anthropology from similar disciplines such as sociology and psychology.

Ruth Benedict, another of Boas's students, also argued that an appreciation of the importance of culture and the problem of ethnocentrism demands that the scientist adopt cultural relativism as a method. Her book, Patterns of Culture, did much to popularize the term in the United States. In it, she explained that:

The study of custom can be profitable only after certain preliminary propositions have been violently opposed. In the first place any scientific study requires that there be no preferential weighting of one or another items in the series it selects for its consideration. In all the less controversial fields like the study of cacti or termites or the nature of nebulae, the necessary method of study is to group the relevant material and to take note of all possible variant forms and conditions. In this way we have learned all that we know of the laws of astronomy, or of the habits of the social insects, let us say. It is only in the study of man himself that the major social sciences have substituted the study of one local variation, that of Western civilization.[11]

Benedict was adamant that she was not romanticizing so-called primitive societies; she was emphasizing that any understanding of the totality of humanity must be based on as wide and varied a sample of individual cultures as possible. Moreover, it is only by appreciating a culture that is profoundly different from our own, that we can realize the extent to which our own beliefs and activities are culture-bound, rather than natural or universal. In this context, cultural relativism is a heuristic device of fundamental importance because it calls attention to the importance of variation in any sample that is used to derive generalizations about humanity.

As a critical device

Marcus and Fischer's attention to anthropology's refusal to accept Western culture's claims to universality implies that cultural relativism is a tool not only in cultural understanding, but in cultural critique. This points to the second front on which they believe anthropology offers people enlightenment:

The other promise of anthropology, one less fully distinguished and attended to than the first, has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves. In using portraits of other cultural patterns to reflect self-critically on our own ways, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions.[4]

The critical function of cultural relativism is widely understood; philosopher John Cook observed that "It is aimed at getting people to admit that although it may seem to them that their moral principles are self-evidently true, and hence seem to be grounds for passing judgement on other peoples, in fact, the self-evidence of these principles is a kind of illusion."[12] Although Cook is misconstruing cultural relativism to be identical to moral relativism, his point still applies to the broader understanding of the term. Relativism does not mean that one's views are false, but it does mean that it is false to claim that one's views are self-evident.

The critical function was indeed one of the ends to which Benedict hoped her own work would meet. The most famous use of cultural relativism as a means of cultural critique is Margaret Mead's dissertation research (under Boas) of adolescent female sexuality in Samoa. By contrasting the ease and freedom enjoyed by Samoan teenagers, Mead called into question claims that the stress and rebelliousness that characterize American adolescence is natural and inevitable.

As Marcus and Fischer point out, however, this use of relativism can be sustained only if there is ethnographic research in the United States comparable to the research conducted in Samoa. Although every decade has witnessed anthropologists conducting research in the United States, the very principles of relativism have led most anthropologists to conduct research in foreign countries.

Comparison to moral relativism

According to Marcus and Fischer, when the principle of cultural relativism was popularized after World War II, it came to be understood "more as a doctrine, or position, than as a method". As a consequence, people misinterpreted cultural relativism to mean that all cultures are both separate and equal, and that all value systems, however different, are equally valid. Thus, people came to use the phrase "cultural relativism" erroneously to signify "moral relativism".

People generally understand moral relativism to mean that there are no absolute or universal moral standards. The nature of anthropological research lends itself to the search for universal standards (standards found in all societies), but not necessarily absolute standards; nevertheless, people often confuse the two. In 1944 Clyde Kluckhohn (who studied at Harvard, but who admired and worked with Boas and his students) attempted to address this issue:

The concept of culture, like any other piece of knowledge, can be abused and misinterpreted. Some fear that the principle of cultural relativity will weaken morality. "If the Bugabuga do it why can't we? It's all relative anyway." But this is exactly what cultural relativity does not mean.

The principle of cultural relativity does not mean that because the members of some savage tribe are allowed to behave in a certain way that this fact gives intellectual warrant for such behavior in all groups. Cultural relativity means, on the contrary, that the appropriateness of any positive or negative custom must be evaluated with regard to how this habit fits with other group habits. Having several wives makes economic sense among herders, not among hunters. While breeding a healthy scepticism as to the eternity of any value prized by a particular people, anthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes. Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behavior of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable.[13][14]

Although Kluckholn was using language that was popular at the time (e.g. "savage tribe") but which is now considered antiquated and coarse by most anthropologists, his point was that although moral standards are rooted in one's culture, anthropological research reveals that the fact that people have moral standards is a universal. He was especially interested in deriving specific moral standards that are universal, although few if any anthropologists think that he was successful.[13]

There is an ambiguity in Kluckhohn's formulation that would haunt anthropologists in the years to come. It makes it clear that one's moral standards make sense in terms of one's culture. He waffles, however, on whether the moral standards of one society could be applied to another. Four years later American anthropologists had to confront this issue head-on.

It was James Lawrence Wray-Miller who provided an additional clarification tool, or caveat as some would call it, of cultural relativism's theoretical underpinnings by dividing it into two binary, analytical continuums: vertical and horizontal cultural relativism. Ultimately, these two analytical continuums share the same basic conclusion: that human morality and ethics are not static but fluid and vary across cultures depending on the time period and current condition of any particular culture.

Vertical relativism describes that cultures, throughout history ("vertical" meaning passage through past and future), are products of the prevailing societal norms and conditions of their respective historical periods. Therefore, any moral or ethical judgments, made during the present, regarding past cultures' belief systems or societal practices must be firmly grounded and informed by these norms and conditions to be intellectually useful. Vertical relativism also accounts for the possibility that cultural values and norms will necessarily change as influencing norms and conditions change in the future.

Horizontal relativism describes that cultures in the present ("horizontal" in time – meaning the present period of the culture) are products of the prevailing norms and conditions developed as a result of their unique geographies, histories, and environmental influences. Therefore, moral or ethical judgments, made during the present, regarding a current culture's belief system or societal practices must account for these unique differences to be intellectually useful.

Statement on human rights

The transformation of cultural relativism as a heuristic tool into the doctrine of moral relativism occurred in the context of the work of the Commission of Human Rights of the United Nations in preparing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Melville Herskovits prepared a draft "Statement on Human Rights" which Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association revised, submitted to the Commission on Human Rights, and then published.[15] The statement begins with a fairly straightforward explanation of the relevance of cultural relativism:

The problem is thus to formulate a statement of human rights that will do more than phrase respect for the individual as individual. It must also take into full account the individual as a member of a social group of which he is part, whose sanctioned modes of life shape his behavior, and with whose fate his own is thus inextricably bound.

The bulk of this statement emphasizes concern that the Declaration of Human Rights was being prepared primarily by people from Western societies, and would express values that, far from being universal, are really Western:

Today the problem is complicated by the fact that the Declaration must be of world-wide applicability. It must embrace and recognize the validity of many different ways of life. It will not be convincing to the Indonesian, the African, the Chinese, if it lies on the same plane as like documents of an earlier period. The rights of Man in the Twentieth Century cannot be circumscribed by the standards of any single culture, or be dictated by the aspirations of any single people. Such a document will lead to frustration, not realization of the personalities of vast numbers of human beings.

Although this statement could be read as making a procedural point (that the Commission must involve people of diverse cultures, especially cultures that had been or are still under European colonial or imperial domination), the document ended by making two substantive claims:

  1. Even where political systems exist that deny citizens the right of participation in their government, or seek to conquer weaker peoples, underlying cultural values may be called on to bring the peoples of such states to a realization of the consequences of the acts of their governments, and thus enforce a brake upon discrimination and conquest.
  2. Worldwide standards of freedom and justice, based on the principle that man is free only when he lives as his society defines freedom, that his rights are those he recognizes as a member of his society, must be basic.

These claims provoked an immediate response by a number of anthropologists. Julian Steward (who, as a student of Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, and as a professor at Columbia University, was situated firmly in the Boasian lineage) suggested that the first claim "may have been a loophole to exclude Germany from the advocated tolerance", but that it revealed the fundamental flaw in moral relativism: "Either we tolerate everything, and keep hands off, or we fight intolerance and conquest – political and economic as well as military – in all their forms." Similarly, he questioned whether the second principle means that anthropologists "approve the social caste system of India, the racial caste system of the United States, or many other varieties of social discrimination in the world".[16] Steward and others[17] argued that any attempt to apply the principle of cultural relativism to moral problems would only end in contradiction: either a principle that seems to stand for tolerance ends up being used to excuse intolerance, or the principle of tolerance is revealed to be utterly intolerant of any society that seems to lack the (arguably, Western) value of tolerance. They concluded that anthropologists must stick to science, and engage in debates over values only as individuals.

Current debates

The debates over the Statement on Human Rights, then, was not merely over the validity of cultural relativism, or the question of what makes a right universal.[18] It forced anthropologists to confront the question of whether anthropological research is relevant to non-anthropologists. Although Steward and Barnett seemed to be suggesting that anthropology as such should restrict itself to purely academic affairs, people within and without the academy have continued to debate the ways non-anthropologists have used this principle in public policy concerning ethnic minorities or in international relations.

Political scientist Alison Dundes Renteln has argued that most debates over moral relativism misunderstand the importance of cultural relativism.[19] Most philosophers understand the Benedictine–Herskovitz formulation of cultural relativism to mean

what is right or good for one individual or society is not right or good for another, even if the situations are similar, meaning not merely that what is thought right or good by one is not thought right or good by another ... but that what is really right or good in one case is not so in another.[20]

Although this formulation clearly echoes the kinds of example anthropologists used in elaborating cultural relativism, Renteln believes that it misses the spirit of the principle. Accordingly, she supports a different formulation: "there are or can be no value judgements that are true, that is, objectively justifiable, independent of specific cultures".[21]

Renteln faults philosophers for disregarding the heuristic and critical functions of cultural relativism. Her main argument is that in order to understand the principle of cultural relativism, one must recognize the extent to which it is based on enculturation: "the idea that people unconsciously acquire the categories and standards of their culture". This observation, which echoes the arguments about culture that originally led Boas to develop the principle, suggests that the use of cultural relativism in debates of rights and morals is not substantive but procedural. That is, it does not require a relativist to sacrifice his or her values. But it does require anyone engaged in a consideration of rights and morals to reflect on how their own enculturation has shaped their views:

There is no reason why the relativist should be paralyzed, as critics have often asserted.[22] But a relativist will acknowledge that the criticism is based on his own ethnocentric standards and realizes also that the condemnation may be a form of cultural imperialism.

Renteln thus bridges the gap between the anthropologist as scientist (whom Steward and Barnett felt had nothing to offer debates on rights and morality) and as private individual (who has every right to make value judgements). The individual keeps this right, but the scientist requires that the individual acknowledge that these judgements are neither self-evident universals, nor entirely personal (and idiosyncratic), but rather took form in relation to the individual's own culture.

Post-colonial politics

Boas and his students understood anthropology to be a historical, or human science, in that it involves subjects (anthropologists) studying other subjects (humans and their activities), rather than subjects studying objects (such as rocks or stars). Under such conditions, it is fairly obvious that scientific research may have political consequences, and the Boasians saw no conflict between their scientific attempts to understand other cultures, and the political implications of critiquing their own culture. For anthropologists working in this tradition, the doctrine of cultural relativism as a basis for moral relativism was anathema. For politicians, moralists, and many social scientists (but few anthropologists) who saw science and human interests as necessarily independent or even opposed, however, the earlier Boasian principle of cultural relativism was anathema. Thus, cultural relativism came under attack, but from opposing sides and for opposing reasons.

Political critique

On the one hand, many anthropologists began to criticize the way moral relativism, in the guise of cultural relativism, is used to mask the effects of Western colonialism and imperialism. Thus, Stanley Diamond argued that when the term "cultural relativism" entered popular culture, popular culture coopted anthropology in a way that voided the principle of any critical function:

Relativism is the bad faith of the conqueror, who has become secure enough to become a tourist.

Cultural relativism is a purely intellectual attitude; it does not inhibit the anthropologist from participating as a professional in his own milieu; on the contrary, it rationalizes that milieu. Relativism is self-critical only in the abstract. Nor does it lead to engagement. It only converts the anthropologist into a shadowy figure, prone to newsworthy and shallow pronouncements about the cosmic condition of the human race. It has the effect of mystifying the profession, so that the very term anthropologist ("student of man") commands the attention of an increasingly "popular" audience in search of novelty. But the search for self-knowledge, which Montaigne was the first to link to the annihilation of prejudice, is reduced to the experience of culture shock, a phrase used by both anthropologists and the State Department to account for the disorientation that usually follows an encounter with an alien way of life. But culture shock is a condition one recovers from; it is not experienced as an authentic redefinition of the personality but as a testing of its tolerance ... The tendency of relativism, which it never quite achieves, is to detach the anthropologist from all particular cultures. Nor does it provide him with a moral center, only a job.[23]

George Stocking summarized this view with the observation that "Cultural relativism, which had buttressed the attack against racialism, [can] be perceived as a sort of neo-racialism justifying the backward techno-economic status of once colonized peoples."[24]

Defense by Clifford Geertz

On the other hand, the most common and popular criticisms of relativism come not from anthropologists like Stanley Diamond, but rather from political conservatives. By the 1980s many anthropologists had absorbed the Boasian critique of moral relativism, and were ready to reevaluate the origins and uses of cultural relativism. In a distinguished lecture before the American Anthropological Association in 1984, Clifford Geertz pointed out that the conservative critics of cultural relativism did not really understand, and were not really responding to, the ideas of Benedict, Herskovits, Kroeber and Kluckhohn.[25] Consequently, the various critics and proponents of cultural relativism were talking past one another. What these different positions have in common, Geertz argued, is that they are all responding to the same thing: knowledge about other ways of life.

The supposed conflict between Benedict's and Herskovits's call for tolerance and the untolerant passion with which they called for it turns out not to be the simple contradiction so many amateur logicians have held it to be, but the expression of a perception, caused by thinking a lot about Zunis and Dahomys, that the world being so full of a number of things, rushing to judgement is more than a mistake, it is a crime. Similarly, Kroeber's and Kluckholn's verities – Kroeber's were mostly about messy creatural matters like delirium and menstruation, Kluckholn's were mostly about messy social ones like lying and killing within the in-group, turn out not to be just the arbitrary personal obsessions they so much look like, but the expression of a much vaster concern, caused by thinking a lot about anthrōpos in general, that if something isn't anchored everywhere nothing can be anchored anywhere. Theory here – if that is what these earnest advices about how we must look at things if we are to be accounted as decent should be called – is more an exchange of warnings than an analytical debate. We are being offered a choice of worries.

What the relativists – so-called – want us to worry about is provincialism – the danger that our perceptions will be dulled, our intellects constricted, and our sympathies narrowed by the overlearned and overvalued acceptances of our own society. What the anti-relativists – self-declared – want us to worry about, and worry about and worry about, as though our very souls depended on it, is a kind of spiritual entropy, a heat death of the mind, in which everything is as significant, and thus as insignificant, as everything else: anything goes, to each his own, you pays your money and you takes your choice, I know what I like, not in the couth, tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner.

Geertz concludes this discussion by commenting, "As I have already suggested, I myself find provincialism altogether the more real concern so far as what actually goes on in the world."

Geertz' defense of cultural relativism as a concern which should motivate various inquiries, rather than as an explanation or solution, echoed a comment Alfred Kroeber made in reply to earlier critics of cultural relativism, in 1949:[26]

Obviously, relativism poses certain problems when from trying merely to understand the world we pass on to taking action in the world: and right decisions are not always easy to find. However, it is also obvious that authoritarians who know the complete answers beforehand will necessarily be intolerant of relativism: they should be, if there is only one truth and that is theirs.

I admit that hatred of the intolerant for relativism does not suffice to make relativism true. But most of us are human enough for our belief in relativism to be somewhat reinforced just by that fact. At any rate, it would seem that the world has come far enough so that it is only by starting from relativism and its tolerations that we may hope to work out a new set of absolute values and standards, if such are attainable at all or prove to be desirable.

Use by nations

Several nations have used cultural relativism as a justification for limiting the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, despite the World Conference on Human Rights rejecting it as a refugee of human rights violations. A 2011 study by international legal expert Roger Lloret Blackburn, examining the Universal Periodic Reviews, distinguishes several different groups of nations. One group consists of nations where the current regime has been installed by revolution and that deny the need for political plurality: China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cuba and Iran. Another group are certain Islamic nations that adhere to sharia and certain traditional practices: Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan. A third possible group is nations that give special rights to specific groups: Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia, and Colombia.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Franz Boas 1887 "Museums of Ethnology and their classification" Science 9: 589
  2. ^ "cultural, adj. and n.", OED Online, Sept 2009, Oxford University Press,, citing Locke's article "The Concept of Race as Applied to Social Culture", Howard Review 1 (1924): pp. 290-299.
  3. ^ Glazer, Mark (December 16, 1994). "Cultural Relativism". Texas: University of Texas-Pan American. Archived from the original on June 13, 2007. Retrieved June 13, 2007.
  4. ^ a b George Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer 1986 Anthropology as Cultural Critique: The Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences Chicago: University of Chicago Press. page 1
  5. ^ Franz Boas 1963 [1911] The Mind of Primitive Man New York: Collier Books. page 149
  6. ^ Franz Boas 1889 "On Alternating Sounds", American Anthropologist 2:47-53
  7. ^ Heyer, Virginia 1948 "In Reply to Elgin Williams" in American Anthropologist 50(1) 163-166
  8. ^ a b Boas, Franz 1974 [1887] "The Principles of Ethnological Classification", in A Franz Boas reader ed. by George W. Stocking Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-06243-0. page 62,62
  9. ^ Boas, Franz 1887 "Museums of Ethnology and their Classification", in Science 9: 587-589.
  10. ^ Kroeber, Alfred (1948) "Anthropology" p. 11. Harcourt and Brace, New York.
  11. ^ Ruth Benedict 1959 [1934] Patterns of Culture Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, page 3
  12. ^ Cook, John, 1978. "Cultural Relativism as an Ethnocentric Notion", in The Philosophy of Society
  13. ^ a b Kluckhohn, Clyde 1944 Mirror For Man
  14. ^ Caleb Rosado. "Cultural Relativism".
  15. ^ Executive Board, American Anthropological Association 1947 "Statement on Human Rights" in American Anthropologist 49(4) 539-543
  16. ^ Steward, Julian 1948 "Comments on the Statement of Human Rights" in American Anthropologist 50(2) 351–352
  17. ^ Barnett, H. G. "On Science and Human Rights" in American Anthropologist 50(2) 352–355. June 1948.
  18. ^ [1]
  19. ^ Renteln, Alison 1988 "Relativism and the Search for Human Rights" in American Anthropologist 90(1) 56–72
  20. ^ Frankena, William 1973 Ethics
  21. ^ Schmidt, Paul 1955 "Some Criticisms of Cultural Relativism" in Journal of Philosophy 52: 780–791
  22. ^ Hartung, Frank 1954 '"Cultural Relativity and Moral Judgements" in Philosophy of Science 21: 11–125
  23. ^ Stanley Diamond 2004 [1974] In Search of the Primitive New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers page 110
  24. ^ Stocking, George W. Jr., 1982. "Afterward: A View from the Center" in Ethnos 47: 172–286
  25. ^ Geertz, Clifford, 1984. "Anti-Anti-Relativism" in American Anthropologist 86 (2) 263–278.
  26. ^ Kroeber, Alfred, 1949. "An Authoritarian Panacea" in American Anthropologist 51(2) 318–320
  27. ^ Roger Lloret Blackburn, Cultural Relativism in the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council, ICIP Working Papers 2011/3, Institut Català Internacional per la Pau, Barcelona, September 2011,

Further reading

  • Ankerl, Guy. 2000. Global Communication without Universal Civilization. vol.I: Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. Geneva: INU PRESS, ISBN 2-88155-004-5
  • Barzilai, Gad. 2003. Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Herskovitz, Melville J. 1958 "Some Further Comments on Cultural Relativism" in American Anthropologist 60(2) 266-273
  • Herskovitz, Melville J. 1956 Man and His Works
  • Jarvie, I. C. 1995 "Cultural Relativism" (a critique)
  • Mathews, Freya 1994 "Cultural Relativism and Environmental Ethics" IUCN Ethics Working Group Report No 5, August 1994.
  • Murphy, Robert F., 1972 Robert Lowie
  • Nissim-Sabat, Charles 1987 "On Clifford Geertz and His 'Anti Anti-Relativism'" in American Anthropologist 89(4): 935-939
  • Rachels, James, 2007, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-282574-X
  • Sandall, Roger 2001 The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
  • Wong, David, 2006, Natural Moralities, A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism, Oxford UP, ISBN 978-0-19-530539-5
Boasian anthropology

Boasian anthropology was a school within American anthropology founded by Franz Boas in the late 19th century.

Cross-cultural studies

Cross-cultural studies, sometimes called holocultural studies or comparative studies, is a specialization in anthropology and sister sciences (sociology, psychology, economics, political science) that uses field data from many societies to examine the scope of human behavior and test hypotheses about human behavior and culture. Cross-cultural studies is the third form of cross-cultural comparisons. The first is comparison of case studies, the second is controlled comparison among variants of a common derivation, and the third is comparison within a sample of cases. Unlike comparative studies, which examines similar characteristics of a few societies, cross-cultural studies uses a sufficiently large sample so that statistical analysis can be made to show relationships or lack of relationships between the traits in question. These studies are surveys of ethnographic data.

Cross-cultural studies are applied widely in the social sciences, particularly in cultural anthropology and psychology.

Cultural anthropology

Cultural anthropology is a branch of anthropology focused on the study of cultural variation among humans. It is in contrast to social anthropology, which perceives cultural variation as a subset of the anthropological constant.

Cultural anthropology has a rich methodology, including participant observation (often called fieldwork because it requires the anthropologist spending an extended period of time at the research location), interviews, and surveys.

One of the earliest articulations of the anthropological meaning of the term "culture" came from Sir Edward Tylor who writes on the first page of his 1871 book: "Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." The term "civilization" later gave way to definitions given by V. Gordon Childe, with culture forming an umbrella term and civilization becoming a particular kind of culture.The anthropological concept of "culture" reflects in part a reaction against earlier Western discourses based on an opposition between "culture" and "nature", according to which some human beings lived in a "state of nature". Anthropologists have argued that culture is "human nature", and that all people have a capacity to classify experiences, encode classifications symbolically (i.e. in language), and teach such abstractions to others.

Since humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, people living in different places or different circumstances develop different cultures. Anthropologists have also pointed out that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so people living in different environments will often have different cultures. Much of anthropological theory has originated in an appreciation of and interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature, or the web of connections between people in distinct places/circumstances).The rise of cultural anthropology took place within the context of the late 19th century, when questions regarding which cultures were "primitive" and which were "civilized" occupied the minds of not only Marx and Freud, but many others. Colonialism and its processes increasingly brought European thinkers into direct or indirect contact with "primitive others." The relative status of various humans, some of whom had modern advanced technologies that included engines and telegraphs, while others lacked anything but face-to-face communication techniques and still lived a Paleolithic lifestyle, was of interest to the first generation of cultural anthropologists.

Parallel with the rise of cultural anthropology in the United States, social anthropology, in which sociality is the central concept and which focuses on the study of social statuses and roles, groups, institutions, and the relations among them—developed as an academic discipline in Britain and in France. The umbrella term socio-cultural anthropology draws upon both cultural and social anthropology traditions.

Cultural communication

Cultural relativism is the view that cultures are merely different, not deficient, and each culture’s norms and practices should be assessed only from the perspective of the culture itself, not by standards embraced by another culture. It is the idea that one cannot make judgments about a culture just because they are not a part of one's own. Outsiders should be able to see the cultural from a neutral perspective and not judge the culture before understanding it. Each culture should be viewed with respect and as an equal because no one culture is better than any other. They should be allowed to practice their own beliefs, what a cultures believes to be true, and values, a shared view about what is right. Cultural relativism emphasizes that ethnocentrism, which is the belief that one’s culture is superior to everyone else’s, should not be forced upon cultures, and cultures should remain unprejudiced toward each other. Cultural relativism is the moral and ethical way to look at different cultures.

Cultural emphasis

Cultural emphasis is an important aspect of a culture which is often reflected though language and, more specifically, vocabulary (Ottenheimer, 2006, p. 266). This means that the vocabulary people use in a culture indicates what is important to that group of people. If there are a lot of words to describe a certain topic in a specific culture, then there is a good chance that that topic is considered important to that culture.

Ethical implications in contracts

When creating a contract, a negotiator is not only doing so to reach an agreement between two or more parties, but to create an agreement that is durable; whereby parties of the contract are legally bound and committed to its promises (Wade and Honeyman 2005, 7). A legally binding contract is defined as an exchange of promises or an agreement between parties that the law will enforce, and there is an underlying presumption for commercial agreements that parties intend to be legally bound (Contracts 2007).

In order to be a legally binding contract, most contracts must contain two elements:

• All parties must agree about an offer made by one party and accepted by the other.

• Something of value must be exchanged for something else of value. This can include goods, cash, services, or a pledge to exchange these items.

In addition, certain contracts are required by state law to be in writing (real estate transactions, for example), while others are not.Wade and Honeyman (2007, 7) describe a ‘durable’ contract as one in which all parties substantially perform without abandonment and without resorting to legal proceedings. With only anecdotal evidence, it is difficult to know what percentages of contracts are in fact breached. It is probable that the statistics vary greatly over differing class, culture, wealth and type of transaction (Wade and Honeyman 2005, 7). The reasons for a breach of contract are also varying, and ethical issues can emerge in some situations.

Some ethical considerations which may become apparent in the durability of contracts are cultural relativism and moral relativism.

Grace and Cohen (2005, 200) describe cultural relativism as the extent to which different societies and cultures have different values and ethical standards in the fields of business and organisational life. Those who embrace cultural relativism believe that all beliefs (religious, ethical, aesthetic, and political) are relative to the individual within a culture. Types of relativism include moral (where ethics depend on the social assembly), situational (where right or wrong is dependent on the situation), and cognitive (where truth itself has no objective standard). The legislative system is having a harder time defining laws with the diminishing set of standards, and our court system is having a harder time interpreting them (Cultural Relativism – Illogical Standard 2006).

Moral relativism views ethical standards, morality, and positions of right or wrong as being culturally based. This therefore subjects these views as being an individual’s choice. While modern society was previously governed by a "Judeo-Christian" standard, this view has increasingly been acknowledged as the chief moral philosophy of modern society (Moral Relativism – Neutral Thinking?. 2006). However, these "Judeo-Christian" standards continue to be the foundation for civil law, as most people believe that right and wrong are not absolutes, but are determined by the individual.

Following are reasons for breaches in contracts and the way in which these ethical considerations may impact upon them. In most of these situations, the law may not agree with moral or cultural relativism and award in favour of what people generally view as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is therefore imperative that contracts are created to be as durable as possible so parties are unable to find legal ‘loopholes’ and use their power, wealth, ignorance or cultural differences in setting contracts aside. Following these descriptions is a list of ways on which contracts can be made more durable.


Ethnocentrism is the act of judging another culture based on preconceptions that are found in the values and standards of one's own culture. Ethnocentric behavior involves judging other groups relative to the preconceptions of one's own ethnic group or culture, especially regarding language, behavior, customs, and religion. These aspects or categories are distinctions that define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity.William G. Sumner defined ethnocentrism as "the technical name for the view of things in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it." He further characterized ethnocentrism as often leading to pride, vanity, the belief in one's own group's superiority, and contempt for outsiders. These problems may occur from the division of societies into in-groups and out-groups. Ethnocentrism is explained in the social sciences and genetics. In anthropology, cultural relativism is used as an antithesis and antonym to ethnocentrism.

How to Observe Morals and Manners

How to Observe Morals and Manners is a sociological treatise on methods of observing manners and morals written by Harriet Martineau in 1837–8 after a tour of America. She stated that she wasn't looking for fodder for a book, but also privately remarked that "I am tired of being kept floundering among the details which are all a Hall and a Trollope (writer of Domestic Manners of the Americans) can bring away.”As opposed to Victorian prescriptive handbooks of how societies ought to behave, Martineau focuses on observing locals on their own terms and emphasizes the need to accept cultural relativism of other people.

List of years in anthropology

The following entries cover events related to the study of anthropology which occurred in the listed year.

Melford Spiro

Melford Elliot "Mel" Spiro (April 26, 1920 – October 18, 2014) was an American cultural anthropologist specializing in religion and psychological anthropology. He is known for his critiques of the pillars of contemporary anthropological theory—wholesale cultural determinism, radical cultural relativism, and virtually limitless cultural diversity—and for his emphasis on the theoretical importance of unconscious desires and beliefs in the study of stability and change in social and cultural systems, particularly in respect to the family, politics, and religion. Explicated in numerous theoretical publications, they are empirically exemplified in monographs based on his fieldwork in Ifaluk atoll in Micronesia, an Israeli kibbutz, and a village in Burma (now Myanmar).He was a significant figure in a series of debates over cultural relativism and postmodern theory among American cultural anthropologists in the 1980s and early 1990s, in which he consistently argued for the importance of the comparative method and the appreciation of universal cultural and psychological processes.Spiro received his B.A. from the University of Minnesota, where he majored in philosophy, following which he studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Having developed an interest in culture theory, he explored this interest by enrolling in the anthropology department at Northwestern University, where he worked with Melville Herskovits and A. Irving Hallowell, and received his PhD in 1950. He taught at Washington University (St Louis), University of Connecticut, University of Washington, and University of Chicago before moving In 1968 to the University of California, San Diego where he was invited to found the department of anthropology. He received postgraduate training in psychoanalysis at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Center and practiced as a lay analyst, additionally overseeing a course series at UCSD that exposed graduate students in anthropology to psychiatric training.

Spiro became professor emeritus at UCSD in 1990, but continued teaching for another decade. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served terms as president of the American Ethnological Society and the Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA) and was one of the founders of the SPA's journal, Ethos.

Mel Spiro was married for 62 years to Audrey Spiro, with whom he had two sons. He died in La Jolla, CA, in October 2014 of natural causes.

Of Cannibals

Of Cannibals is an essay, one of those in the collection Essays, by Michel de Montaigne, describing the ceremonies of the Tupinambá people in Brazil. In particular, he reported about how the group ceremoniously ate the bodies of their dead enemies as a matter of honor. In his work, he uses cultural relativism and compares the cannibalism to the "barbarianism" of 16th-century Europe.An English translation, Of the Caniballes, appeared in John Florio's 1603 translation of the Essais. This has often been viewed (first by Edward Capell in 1781) as an influence on Shakespeare's The Tempest, in particular Act II, Scene 1.

Outline of anthropology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to anthropology:

Anthropology – study of humanity. Anthropology has origins in the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. The term was first used by François Péron when discussing his encounters with Tasmanian Aborigines.

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is professor of anthropology at McGill University.

Postmodernist anthropology

Postmodern theory (PM) in anthropology originated in the 1960s along with the literary postmodern movement in general. Anthropologists working in this vein of inquiry seek to dissect, interpret and write cultural critiques.

One issue discussed by PM anthropologists is about subjectivity; because ethnographies are influenced by the disposition of the author, should their opinions be considered scientific? Clifford Geertz, considered a founding member of postmodernist anthropology, advocates that, “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third ones to boot” In the 21st century, some anthropologists use a form of standpoint theory; a person's perspective in writing and cultural interpretation of others is guided by their own background and experiences.

Other major tenets of postmodernist anthropology are:

an emphasis on including the opinions and perspectives of the people being studied,

cultural relativism as a method of inquiry

skepticism towards the claims of science to producing objective and universally valid knowledge

the rejection of grand, universal schemes or theories which explain other cultures (Barrett 1996).A critique by non-anthropologists has been to question whether anthropologists may speak/write on behalf of cultural others. Margery Wolf states that, “it would be as great a loss to have first-world anthropologists confine their research to the first world as it is (currently) to have third-world anthropologists confine theirs to the third world”. In the 21st century, the question has been resolved by pointing out that all cultural descriptions are of cultural others. All ethnographic writing is done by a person from one standpoint writing about others living in a different standpoint. Thus, the notion of anthropologists as 'culture brokers' (see Richard Kurin) has been adopted to explain why anthropologists from any given country write about cultural others.

Regressive left

"Regressive left" (also formulated as "regressive liberals" and "regressive leftists") is a neologism and political epithet, used as a pejorative to describe a section of left-wing politics who are accused of holding paradoxical, reactionary views by their tolerance of illiberal principles and ideologies, particularly identity politics (emphasis on group identities like race and gender, rather than on the individual), and opposition to free speech for the sake of multiculturalism and cultural relativism.

British political activist Maajid Nawaz, American political talk-show hosts such as Bill Maher and Dave Rubin, as well as New Atheist writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are among those who have used the term.

Reza Afshari

Reza Afshari is professor of history at Pace University. He received his Ph.D. at Temple University. His studies center on human rights in Iran, Islamic politics, and Islamic cultural relativism in particular.

Systems theory in anthropology

Systems theory in anthropology is an interdisciplinary, non-representative, non-referential, and non-Cartesian approach that brings together natural and social sciences to understand society in its complexity. The basic idea of a system theory in social science is to solve the classical problem of duality; mind-body, subject-object, form-content, signifier-signified, and structure-agency. System theory suggests that instead of creating closed categories into binaries (subject-object); the system should stay open so as to allow free flow of process and interactions. In this way the binaries are dissolved.

Complex systems in nature—for example, ecosystems—involve a dynamic interaction of many variables (e.g. animals, plants, insects and bacteria; predators and prey; climate, the seasons and the weather, etc.) These interactions can adapt to changing conditions but maintain a balance both between the various parts and as a whole; this balance is maintained through homeostasis. Human societies are complex systems, as it were, human ecosystems. Early humans, as hunter-gatherers, recognized and worked within the parameters of the complex systems in nature and their lives were circumscribed by the realities of nature. But they couldn't explain complex systems. Only in recent centuries did the need arise to define complex systems scientifically. Complex systems theories first developed in math in the late 19th century, then in biology in the 1920s to explain ecosystems, then to deal with artificial intelligence (cybernetics), etc.Anthropologist Gregory Bateson is the most influential and earliest founder of system theory in social sciences. In the 1940s, as a result of the Macy conferences, he immediately recognized its application to human societies with their many variables and the flexible but sustainable balance that they maintain. Bateson describes system as "any unit containing feedback structure and therefore competent to process information." Thus an open system allows interaction between concepts and materiality or subject and the environment or abstract and real. In natural science, systems theory has been a widely used approach. Austrian biologist, Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, developed the idea of the general systems theory (GST). The GST is a multidisciplinary approach of system analysis.

The Mind of Primitive Man

The Mind of Primitive Man is a 1911 book by anthropologist Franz Boas which takes a critical look at the concept of primitive culture. The work challenged widely held racist and eugenic claims about race and intelligence, particularly white supremacy.In 1895, Boas made the first speech that would form this book, as vice-president of the Section of Anthropology of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He later made a speech by this title at the 1900 American Folk Lore Society conference held at Johns Hopkins University.The material was further expanded as a course of lectures delivered before the Lowell Institute in Boston and the National University of Mexico in 1910 and 1911. Following the 1911 publication, the book was revised several times. It is considered an important work in cultural anthropology and in the methodological concept of cultural relativism.


Xenocentrism is the preference for the products, styles, or ideas of someone else's culture rather than of one's own. One example is the romanticization of the noble savage in the 18th-century primitivism movement in European art, philosophy and ethnography. Xenocentrism is countered by ethnocentrism, the perceived superiority of one's own society to others. Both xenocentrism and ethnocentrism are a subjective take on cultural relativism.

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