Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism, a highly complex doctrine surrounded by various epistemological, political, and ethical controversies, can be broadly defined as the view that culture is the key variable to explain human diversity and that an individual’s behavior, thought, emotion, perception, and sensation are relative to and bound by the culture of the group he or she belongs to. Within this frame of thought, culture is usually conceptualized as a holistic, historically grown entity with distinctive features and clear cut boundaries. The period of enculturation during early childhood is regarded as crucial. The autonomy of the individual is seen as more or less negligible, intragroup differences are usually minimized, and intergroup differences maximized. In the history of ideas, the emphasis on the cultural diversity, the cultural relativity, and boundedness of human experience has often been linked to and, at times, conflated with normative relativism, holding that all cultures are of the same ‘‘worth’’ and that an individual’s ethical behavior ought to be judged in terms of the values of his or her culture (cf. Spiro 1986). Cultural relativist arguments have also often been employed to support moral skepticism and to criticize the values of one’s own culture. Michel de Montaigne’s (1533–92) famous essay ‘‘Of Cannibals’’ might serve as a famous example of the argumentative intertwining of the descriptive and the moral aspect of cultural relativism.

The cultural relativist stance is opposed to the universalist position according to which the cultural context is irrelevant to the concepts of truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and so on. It is also opposed to other forms of relativism, such as biological or racial relativism, which holds that differences between groups are due to differences in innate endowments. Analytically, the various forms of cultural relativist arguments can be distinguished along the two dimensions of extent and intensity. In its broadest form, cultural relativism extends to all manifestations of human existence. In this context even truth is regarded as a local and culture bound phenomenon, a position known as epistemological or cognitive relativism. In its narrow form, cultural relativists argue that culture is relevant only to certain aspects of human life (e.g., aesthetics and ethics) and irrelevant to others (e.g., knowledge). With regard to the dimension of intensity, one can distinguish between those cultural relativists who argue that culture is the sole explanans versus those who hold that culture is a significant explanans of human thought, emotion, volition, and so on. In its broadest and most intense version, radical cultural relativism, a position favored today by some postmodernist thinkers, can be seen as a form of group solipsism beset with the various methodological difficulties and inconsistencies associated by R. K. Merton with the doctrine of insiderism (cf. Merton 1972).

Cultural relativist patterns of argumentation have been a constant feature of social analysis and criticism in the intellectual history of the West since the days of the ‘‘founding fathers’’ of ethnography, Hecataeus of Miletus and Herodotus of Halicarnassus. Modern day cultural relativism, an intellectual twin of historicism, can be traced back to the eighteenth century critical appraisal and partial rejection of the Enlightenment’s over rationalistic and atomistic picture of the human being and its progressivist conception of history. Opposing the stage theories of civilizational development, the thinkers of the so called Counter Enlightenment, most notably Vico, Moser, and Herder, argued that every historical period and every culture has to be understood as an end in itself and as intrinsically valuable. The German American cultural anthropologist Franz Boas and his students (e.g., A. L. Kroeber, R. H. Lowie, E. Sapir, R. Benedict, M. Herskovits, and M. Mead), the scholars most often associated with the doctrine of cultural relativism in the twentieth century, can be seen as the heirs to this Counter Enlightenment’s emphasis on the uniqueness of each culture. By criticizing simultaneously unilineal theories of social evolutionism, racial relativist explanations of cultural differences, and the axiological relativism a` la Levy Bruhl’s prelogical mentality, Boas and his school contributed decisively to the contemporary relativistic and pluralistic concept of culture (cf. Stocking 1982 [1968]). The epistemological and moral issues associated with cultural relativism have been hotly debated within and without anthropology throughout the twentieth century. Identifying a number of human universals, critics argued that there existed a ‘‘common denominator of cultures’’ and that the diversity of cultural forms was limited by the psycho physical constitution of humans (e.g., B. Malinowski), the external environmental constraints (e.g., M. Harris), and/or the possible number of functional relations and logical combinations of society’s subsystems (e.g., G. P. Murdock). With regard to the moral questions, it was above all the human rights movement, arising in the aftermath of World War II, that severely challenged and undermined cultural relativist thinking. If one contextualizes the cultural relativism of the early twentieth century, however, it is important to note that to the first generation of professional anthropologists cultural relativism was not so much a codified doctrine and an epistemological position as part of the attitudinal tool kit when working in the field. As such, it amounted to a liberal minded plea for tolerance, implying the postulate to rid oneself of one’s own cultural prejudices, to suspend moral judgments, and to approach ‘‘strange’’ cultural values as ‘‘objectively’’ as possible. This legacy still deserves attention as even today a certain dose of cultural relativism might be a good, if not the best, medicine against the universal disease of ethnocentrism.


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