Sociocultural Relativism

While the word ‘‘culture’’ was first used in 1877 by Edward Tylor to describe the totality of humans’ behavioral, material, intellectual, and spiritual products, it was Franz Boas who gave the term one of its most distinctive elaborations. Unlike some other anthropologists (e.g., Malinowski), Boas refused to devalue cultures regardless of how primitive they might appear to outsiders. For Boas, the principal task was to describe accurately and understand completely the cultures of the world, not to rank them from good to bad. Students of Boas, especially Benedict and Herskovits, carried on his legacy, especially his commitment to cultural relativity. They adopted cultural relativity as a principal way to generate respect and tolerance for human diversity, while defending indigenous peoples from threats to their collective and individual well being.


Intellectual and Social Context

Sociocultural relativism is a postulate, a method, and a perspective. One implication of the postulate of relativity is that actions and attributes vary from time to time, place to place, and situation to situation. If anything ‘‘real’’ or ‘‘objective’’ exists in the social world, it is the intrinsically situational nature of both rules and reactions and the dynamic, negotiated nature of social order (Becker 1973). A second implication of the postulate of relativity is that collective definitions of actions and attributes are elastic and also vary from time to time, place to place, and situation to situation (Cohen 1974). Things that are mightily upsetting to one generation may be trivial to the next (or vice versa), and a particular trait of an individual can be admired by friends but despised by enemies (Goode 2001: 37). The concept of relativism is based on the fact that at certain times and places, acts and attributes that an outsider might find distressing or wrong are not defined as such by individuals living in those times or places (Goode 2003). Sociocultural relativism is a method, too. It demands an actor relevant approach in which social scientists take the role of their subjects and understand the world through the subjects’ eyes. While this does not guarantee freedom from ethnocentrism, it does make this bias less likely. In Goffman’s (1961: 130) words, ‘‘the awesomeness, distastefulness, and barbarity of a foreign culture can decrease to the degree that the student becomes familiar with the point of view to life that is taken by his [her] subjects.’’ Sociocultural relativism requires that you put yourself in the shoes of another, maybe even an adversary’s, in order to understand why someone might wear those shoes at all (Fish 2001). Sociocultural relativism is also a perspective, as it is possible to find relativism or nonrelativism in human experience depending on how an observer’s eye is slanted. If you are looking for vacillation, drift, and indeterminacy, they are easy to find in this constantly changing, multiplex world of ours; if, however, you are looking for stability and constancy, you can find them, too. Not all sociologists consider themselves relativists, but all sociologists must wrestle with the ethical, philosophical, logical, theoretical, and empirical issues that surround a discussion of sociocultural relativism.

Respect for diversity must be tempered with the knowledge that some conditions can neither be easily overlooked nor dismissed as an example of the equivalency of human cultures. We have neither a convincing moral code that can be applied to all places and times nor any theory that makes it possible to understand human experience separate from its social context (Hatch 1997). Nonetheless, situations will be found in which it is impossible to maintain an attitude of indifference. Sociocultural relativists do not have to believe in the absolute equivalency of values, norms, or customs and blindly accept whatever they find. Romanticizing diversity blunts our ability to recognize the genuine tragedy, pathos, and harm that deviant social practices can produce.

Marx had relativistic leanings, apparent in his claim that economic forms are transitory and historical, and he was opposed to any fixed or determinate view of nature. However, the first extensive application of sociocultural relativism is found in Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method when he contrasts the ‘‘normal’’ with the ‘‘pathological.’’ He asks us to imagine a society of saints, a ‘‘perfect cloister of exemplary individuals’’ (Durkheim 1938: 68–9). Crimes like murder, rape, robbery, and drug addiction would not exist in this virtuous place, but crime would still be found even though it would seem minor to individuals from the less than saintly society. Durkheim was contending that it is the attitude about, and reactions to, some act (i.e., how it is judged and punished) by observers that is principally responsible for its categorization as criminal. Acts may be viewed as offenses even though they are not harmful in any essential or intrinsic way, as is found in proscriptions against allowing a sacred fire to die down or mispronouncing a ritual formula. Even when a crime is indeed harmful to a society, the intensity of the reaction may be disproportionate to the harm done (Durkheim 1933: 72). Deviance as an analytical and empirical category may be near universal, but the particular form that deviance takes most assuredly is not (Ben Yehuda 1990: 11).

A relativizing motif is a driving force of socio logical consciousness, and sociologists call into question what most other people take for granted. One of sociology’s strengths is that it can make sense of groups and relationships in a world in which values have been radically relativized (Berger 1963: 48). Sociologists uncover and critically evaluate the pretensions and propaganda individuals use to hide, distort, or legitimize what they are doing. They shift from one perspective to another, ranging from the impersonal and remote transformations of the wider society to the inner experiences of individuals in order to understand the interconnections between the two. Sociologists participate men tally in the experiences of individuals differently situated from themselves no matter where or when they are found. Sociocultural relativism can help us to understand the experiences of people in groups and subcultures within the boundaries of any one society, as well as the experiences of people drawn from different societies and cultures.

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Pathology, Basic Human Rights, and Sociocultural Relativism

To describe some culture, social arrangement, group, or human being as ‘‘sick’’ may be con venient, but it does little, or nothing, to further our understanding of human experience. Things do not have to be categorized as pathological for them to be recognized as harmful or to admit that humans and their societies would be better off without them. Sociologists are inclined to think that the concept of pathology fails to illuminate actual happenings and needs to be rejected. The principal defect of pathologizing diversity is that it fails to explain correctly the phenomenon under review (Matza 1969: 44). It fails to recognize the functionality and durability of deviance.

Even as the notion of pathology was being purged from sociology, it was being replaced by a notion of intrinsic harm and a normative definition of deviance. The global concern with basic human rights, principally in response to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, was formalized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of the United Nations (1948). Before World War II, human rights protections were viewed as a domestic, not international, project. The atrocities of the war, especially the Holocaust, changed things. It became clear that individuals were at a disadvantage when faced with governmental power, and they needed more protection against abuse than the legal system of any one nation could provide. The UDHR was sanctioned by each member country of the United Nations in 1948, and it continues to be viewed as a standard against which human decency should be measured. It forbids murder, torture, and slavery, even while it authorizes freedom of conscience, speech, and dissent. Specific sections of the document confirm the rights to employment and fair working conditions; to health, food, and security; to education; and to participation in the cultural life of the community. These human rights claims are based on principles of fairness, rightness, justice, or equity that should in principle extend to people in all parts of the world.

A normative approach to basic human rights is not without its problems. Mills’s critique of the ideology of ‘‘social pathologists’’ (specialists on social problems and deviance) was thoughtful and thought provoking. His discussion offers a cautionary note to any normative approach that defines harms in terms of universal social norms. Norms, Mills (1943) instructed, reflect the interests, experiences, and resources of the people who fashion them, not a universal morality or global consensus. Norms do not simply create and channel human behavior, they also serve as the standards against which deviation is defined and measured. To the extent that norms are ideological, so are definitions of right and wrong or proper and improper. The push for universal human rights is difficult to justify in the face of substantial cultural and religious diversity, and profound doubts exist about the workability of implementing uniform moral standards cross culturally (Zechenter 1997). Rights and harms must be understood from a study of particular social historical groupings and their relationships with other social groupings, not from the application of abstract, self contained sets of rules.

We must be careful not to be duped by what may be called ‘‘expedient relativism.’’ This exists when elites in sovereign nations justify everything they do, no matter how harmful it is, by insisting that they should be allowed to do whatever they want. Countries that violate the human rights of their populations most often are the ones whose leaders are most likely to justify their actions by appealing to sovereignty and cultural relativity. They defend practices such as corporal or capital punishment, the abuse of women (including genital mutilation), sexism and racism, and political violence by claiming that their critics are ethnocentric or indifferent to their local customs. The concept of relativity, which was developed to encourage an awareness of, and respect for, human diversity has returned to haunt the social sciences. It is used to legitimize the subjugation of indigenous groups, women, and minorities and to excuse human rights abuses.

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Relativity of Deviance

Sociocultural relativism has kindred ties with Matza’s (1969) idea of ‘‘natural deviation.’’ Naturalism is an approach that views the human actor as a self conscious, reflexive being who engages in meaningful activity. Naturalism rejects determinism, and its only obligation is to offer a correct rendition of worldly activities. It combines observation with empathy, intuition, and experience, while it views humans as individuals who intentionally create the world within which they live. ‘‘The growth of a socio logical view of deviant phenomena involved . . . the replacement of a correctional stance by an appreciation of the deviant subject, the tacit purging of a conception of pathology by new stress on human diversity, and the erosion of a simple distinction between deviant and conventional phenomena, resulting from more intimate familiarity with the world as it is’’ (Matza 1969: 10). The difficulty in defining deviance is due neither to flaws in the concept of deviance nor in sociocultural relativism. The difficulty lies in the unruly nature of society and the indeterminacy of interpersonal relationships. Definitions of deviance are naturally ambiguous because deviance lacks inherent or essential characteristics, and human relationships are characterized by both drift and defiance. We have a right to our views of proper and improper but, if we are studying deviance, we have to pay attention to how such judgments are constructed and vary through time and space. How visitors to some culture or group react to some act, attribute, or condition is a completely separate issue from how its members do (Goode 2003).

Sociocultural relativists are inclined to view deviance as a relationship instead of a condition that some people have that others lack (Curra 2000). Social control can actually cause deviance by categorizing acts, attributes, and actors as deviant and helping to mold deviance into a pattern or career (Becker 1963: 25–39). Goffman (1961) showed that rules and reactions regularly produce counter rules and resistance, which inevitably produce new categories of ‘‘deviance’’ and ‘‘deviant’’ because resistance to authority is usually defined as a serious matter by those who do not want their authority challenged. Cohen (1974) noted that social definitions continually work to ensure that all positions on a continuum from good to bad are always filled, so some individuals will always be classified as worse than other individuals. The wickedness of the villain, like the virtue of the saint, may have to be invented. Parsons (1951) made it clear, at least as clear as he could, that social control agents assigned the status of ‘‘deviant’’ to individuals and ‘‘deviance’’ to acts because it helped to sup port and sustain the normative order, as well as masking or disguising legitimate social conflicts over proper and improper motivational orientations and behaviors. In creating an ‘‘other,’’ groups may manufacture a scapegoat that can be used to explain away continuing or worsening social problems.

Becker’s writings synthesize the sociological concept of deviance with sociocultural relativism. In fact, relativism is at the core of the interactionist or labeling approach to deviance. With his ideas of ‘‘sides’’ (Becker 1967), ‘‘sentimentality’’ (Becker 1964, 1967), ‘‘hierarchies of credibility’’ (Becker 1967), and ‘‘moral entrepreneurs’’ (Becker 1963), Becker was able to draw attention to the role played by labeling, power, and audience reactions in producing careers of deviance. By moving away from the inclination of many other theorists to define deviance in terms of intrinsic qualities of actions and attributes, Becker gave a new spin to the sociology of deviance. Groups of people create deviance as they act together; no individual can create deviance alone. Social control agents, as Goffman (1961) showed with both precision and elegance, have both personal and bureaucratic reasons to create labels and apply them to individuals. If individuals refuse to follow rules or resist the labels being applied to them, control agents will view the resistance itself as a problem and in need of correction. In this way, deviance grows exponentially to the number of institutions established to deal with it (Sumner 1994).

Lemert’s idea of ‘‘putative’’ deviance allowed sociologists of deviance to clarify the parameters of sociocultural relativism in regard to war ranted or unwarranted definitions and reactions. ‘‘The putative deviation is that portion of the societal definition of the deviant which has no foundation in his [her] objective behavior. Frequently these fallacious imputations are incorporated into myth and stereotype and mediate much of the formal treatment of the deviant’’ (Lemert 1951: 56). Reactions to deviance can be disproportional, and individuals can be falsely accused (Becker 1963). Members of a society may come to believe that the threats from deviance are greater than they actually are (Goode & Ben Yehuda 1994). Objective mole hills can be transformed into subjective mountains ( Jones et al. 1989), and moral enterprises can evolve into moral panics (Goode & Ben Yehuda 1994).

Becker’s concept of sentimentality shows that what is deviant depends on whose view is being taken. He borrowed the term from Freidson’s (1961) study of physicians and their patients. Freidson was willing to give credibility and authority to patients’ views of their physicians, even when these views were at odds with what physicians thought of themselves. Becker defined sentimentality as a disposition on the part of a researcher to leave certain variables in a problem unexamined or to refuse to consider alternate views or distasteful possibilities (Becker 1964). We are sentimental particularly when we refuse to consider the merits (or lack thereof ) of both conventional and unconventional social actors only because we do not want to face the possibility that some cherished sympathy of ours might be shown to be untrue (Becker 1967). Putative deviance, coupled with ‘‘unsentimentality,’’ can serve as an excellent foundation upon which to identify and, if necessary, condemn inhumane practices and, more important, the sociocultural features that produce them in the first place. If sociocultural relativists believe in anything universal, it is their belief in human potentialities and their confidence that individuals can be better than they are.

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  2. Becker, H. (1964) Introduction. In: Becker, H. (Ed.), The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance. Free Press, New York, pp. 1-6.
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  25. Zechenter, E. (1997) In the Name of Culture: Cultural Relativism and the Abuse of the Individual. Journal of Anthropological Research 53: 319-47.

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