Cultural relativism is a methodological concept rooted in social theory. The term indicates that a society’s beliefs, values, normative practices, and products must be evaluated and understood according to the cultural context from which they emerge. No society should be evaluated with reference to some set of universal criteria, and no foreign culture should be judged by the standards of a home or dominant culture. Based on these ideas, cultural relativists would never deem a particular thought or behavior to be “right” or “wrong.” Rather, they would argue that rightness or wrongness is relative to a specified group or society.
Roots of the Concept of Cultural Relativism
Cultural relativism can be traced to the writings of philosopher Immanuel Kant and, later, works by Johann Gottfried Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt. These scholars defined the mind as a critical mediator of sensate experience. They argued that when the mind apprehends stimuli from the environment, it molds perceptions with reference to (a) the specifics of one’s spatial surroundings, (b) the cultural practices and artifacts that define those surroundings, and (c) the temporal or biographical lineage that places one in those surroundings. From this perspective, reality cannot be defined as a universal or objective phenomenon. Culture and biography add a subjective dimension to reality.
In the mid-1900s, anthropologist Franz Boas took the aforementioned ideas and used them to establish a formal research methodology. Under his methodology he urged a rejection of universal evaluative criteria.
He advised researchers to adopt an objective, value-free stance, to free themselves from the conscious and unconscious bonds to their own enculturation. Boas also demanded that no culture be considered superior or inferior. Rather, all cultures must be viewed as equal. For Boas, the purpose of research was not moral evaluation but the discovery and understanding of cultural differences.
Boas’s ideas stood in direct contrast to popular comparative methods of the day—methods more concerned with the evolutionary foundations of cultural similarities. But cultural relativism was steeped in political issues as well. Its tenets directly addressed what many believed was a Western European tendency toward “ethnocentrism.” Ethnocentrism, as defined by sociologist William Graham Sumner, refers to the perception of one’s group as the center of civilization and, thus, a gauge by which all other groups should be judged. In the 1900s, a period in which international contact was becoming increasingly routine, distinguishing between observation and evaluation proved a critical task.
Cultural Relativism Examples From the Field
One can invoke many concrete examples to illustrate the usefulness of cultural relativism in field research. Consider a common gesture—sticking out one’s tongue. Americans commonly interpret this gesture as a sign of defiance, mockery, or provocation. Yet, if American researchers applied this meaning while engaged in global studies, they would likely miss important information about their object of inquiry. Anthropologists tell us, for example, that in Tibet, sticking out one’s tongue is a sign of polite deference. In India, it conveys monumental rage. In New Caledonia, sticking out one’s tongue signifies a wish of wisdom and vigor. And in the Caroline Islands, it is a method of banishing devils and demons. To garner the variant meanings of this single behavior, researchers must immerse themselves in the culture they are studying. They must draw meaning from the target culture’s inhabitants as opposed to making assumptions drawn from their own cultural dictionaries.
Cultural relativists claim that language is at the center of their studies, in that a society’s structure emerges from the structure of its language. British explorer Mary Kingsley forcefully illustrated this idea in her writings on Samoan culture. As an unmarried woman, Kingsley discovered that spinsterhood was a foreign concept to Samoans. A woman alone was viewed as a taboo presence. Once discovering this belief, Kingsley proved able to circumvent the problem. When she needed to travel, she would tell the Samoans that she was looking for her husband and point in the direction she wished to travel. By presenting herself as a married woman wishing to reunite with her spouse, she conformed to the social structure established by the Samoan language. With Samoans now happy to facilitate her reunion, Kingsley regained her ability to move throughout the country.
Demographer David Helin notes that failing to consider the relative nature of culture can prove costly. Many American businesses have learned this lesson the hard way. For example, ethnocentrism blinded General Motors to the reasons behind the poor international sales of its Chevrolet Nova. Within Spanish-speaking nations, the automobile’s name Nova translated to the phrase “No Go.” A similar disaster befell American chicken mogul Frank Purdue. While his slogan “It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken” enjoyed success in the United States, when translated to Spanish, Purdue’s slogan became “A Sexually Excited Man Will Make a Chicken Affectionate.” With these examples, we learn the importance of avoiding simple translation of one’s ideas to cultures with different meaning systems.
The Moral Debate
The objectivity to which cultural relativists aspire is admirable for some. Yet, many feel that the method introduces problems of its own. For example, Robert Edgerton asks, If practices such as cannibalism, infanticide, genital mutilation, genocide, and suicide bombings are normative to a particular cultural context, does that make them right? The cultural relativist position, taken to its extreme, would frame events such as the Holocaust, the 9/11 attacks, torture at Abu Ghraib, and ethnic cleansing in Darfur as normative to the cultures from which they emerge and, thus, morally justifiable. Edgerton supports the notion of objective evaluation. But he also argues that once such data are gathered, researchers must carefully review their findings. If a culture’s values, beliefs, and behaviors are different yet beneficial and adaptive, then they must be respected. But according to Edgerton’s point of view, if values, beliefs, and behaviors endanger people’s health, happiness, or survival, ranking cultures in terms of their moral health becomes necessary.
- Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Boas, Franz.  1982. Race, Language and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Edgarton, Robert. 1992. Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. New York: Free Press.
- Helin, David W. 1992. “When Slogans Go Wrong.” American Demographics 14(2):14.
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