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Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual's own culture.
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." However, Boas did not coin the term.
The first use of the term recorded in the 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. 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 cultures and races. 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.
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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.
According to George Marcus, Michael Fischer, and Sam Bohart,
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
This understanding 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.
Between World War I and World War II, "cultural relativism" was the central tool for American anthropologists in this refusal 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' 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" 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 didn't exist in English. He then argued that cases 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' 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' 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' 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."
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:
Boas argued that although similar causes produce similar effects, different causes may also produce similar effects. 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:
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' 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:
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.
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 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". 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.
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:
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.
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.
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. The statement begins with a fairly straightforward explanation of the relevance of cultural relativism:
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:
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:
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". Steward and others 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.
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. 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 (see this interview or this article on cultural relativism and human rights for examples of this debate).
Political scientist Alison Dundes Renteln has recently argued that most debates over moral relativism misunderstand the importance of cultural relativism. Most philosophers understand the Benedictine-Herskovitz formulation of cultural relativism to mean
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".
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:
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.
In the wake of the breakup of the British and French colonial empires, and in the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam War, anthropologists became especially attentive to relations of domination and subjugation that link Western and non-Western societies, and that structure relations within any given society. In the context of the Cold War, however, anthropologists once again confronted the relationship between politics and science.
Boas and his students understood anthropology to be an 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.
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:
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".
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, 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. 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.
Geertz concludes this discussion by commenting, "As I have already suggested, I myself find provincialism altogether the more real concern as far what actually goes on in the world is concerned."
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:
Several nations have used cultural relativism as a justification for limiting the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, despite World Conference on Human Rights rejects it as a refugee of human rights violation. 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 deny equal rights for men and women and adhere to Sharia and certain traditional practices: Yemen, Iran, Pakistan. A third possible group, are nations that give special rights to groups such as minorities: Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia, and Colombia.