Cultural relativism is the idea that beliefs are affected by and best understood within the context of culture. It is a theory and a tool used by anthropologists and social scientists for recognizing the natural tendency to judge other cultures in comparison to their own and for adequately collecting and analyzing information about other cultures, without this bias. Cultural relativism was born out of and can also be applied to epistemology, which is the philosophical study of human knowledge. Empiricism is the theory that knowledge and understanding come from experience with the world. Cognitive relativists claim that differing belief systems are equally valuable, such as theories about what exists and how people interact with the world. Epistemological relativism acknowledges the role one’s environment plays in influencing an individual’s beliefs and even the concepts behind the words contained in a language.
Moral relativism is often mistakenly assumed to be the same concept as cultural relativism. While there are similarities, there are also key differences. Relativistic moral judgments are determined relative or according to the values and beliefs held by a particular culture. In the extreme sense this implies that there is no universal right and wrong in ethics. Most ethicists consider relativistic theories to be inferior to stricter normative, or rule-directed, theories that prescribe how a person ought to act. (If there is no absolute right and wrong, then there is no purpose in debating ethical questions. Morality would be empty and instead just describe how people act rather than how they ought to act.) Many people operate with a relativistic approach, however, in an effort to avoid the dangers of ethnocentrism—the same pitfall that anthropologists sought to correct through cultural relativism. Ethnocentric thinkers focus on the values of their own group as superior to those of others. Behaviors and beliefs in a different culture are compared and judged according to a narrow idea of what is normal. Cultural relativism—also sometimes called “pluralism”—cautions against unfairly condemning another group for being different and instead respects the right for others to have different values, conduct, and ways of life. Cultural relativism approaches awareness of cultural differences as a tool for appreciating and analyzing other cultures without assuming one’s own group to be superior.
The concept of cultural relativism was developed by Franz Boas (1858-1942) and his anthropology students. Boas sought to study cultures of people in terms of how they interacted with their environment, and he acknowledged that rather than holding a single set of unchanging core beliefs, the ideas valued by most cultures changed over time. He observed that individual members of a community both affect and are affected by the larger whole. The implication of this changed the way anthropologists approached what were formerly understood to be distinctions between modern and traditional cultures. Because the interactions between the individual and the society were active in both directions, there was no longer a basis for assuming traditional cultures to be unchanging and modern cultures exclusively dynamic, or in motion. Boas proposed that there was room for both progress and enduring values in both types of society. Furthermore, because of the potential for rapid change, his theories encouraged anthropologists to conduct their studies from within the culture itself, or ethnographically. Thus began a new paradigm for methods of collecting and analyzing cultural data.
In addition to ethnography, the method of ethnology was inspired by cultural relativism in anthropology. Ethnology is the study of a wide collection of cultural subjects within the same study. In-depth data are collected detailing the unique characteristics of each culture and then considered as part of a larger pool of several cultures. By expanding the distribution or range of cultures studied, a new picture of human history began to develop. Anthropology shed the centuries-old ethnocentrism that celebrated particular Western-focused societies, no longer presuming one’s own group to be the most advanced and all others primitive. Subsequently, with this broader purview, anthropology emerged as the unique field that studies the overall development of human culture.
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), a student of Boas, saw the role of anthropology as studying human cultures from an unbiased perspective, much in the same manner that an astronomer studies stars or a biologist studies cells. The role of the scientist is that of objective observer; however, there is also a deeper understanding of one’s own culture to be gained in the recognition of how values are instilled in other cultures. Her 1934 book Patterns of Culture advanced the term cultural relativism and compared three distinct groups in search of the universal trait that all cultural groups have in common. Her work with the U.S. government during World War II identified distinct differences in the attitudes of Japanese and American soldiers and civilians. Cultural relativism in this manner serves as an instrument of diplomatic relations.
A potential difficulty with cross-cultural comparison is incompatible values. It is possible that a phenomenon occurring in one group is so unique that is does not have a parallel in another culture, or as Margaret Mead (1901-1978) realized following her studies of Polynesian teenaged girls, the values revealed through anthropological study can be controversial. In 1928 her Western readers were shocked to learn that premarital sexual exploration was widely practiced in Samoa among even respectable members of society. Such a reaction demonstrates ethnocentric tendencies; in this case, religious-inspired American views saw anything other than sexual abstinence as immoral. The reaction also demonstrates the challenge of cross-cultural comparison. There is a universal feature of each culture having particular codes of acceptable social and sexual behavior. Where they differ is in the application, in what specific behaviors are acceptable for whom at certain times. Adolescent sexual activity in these two diverse societies could appear to represent conflicting values. Cultural relativism instructs the anthropologist to consider the cultural context instead of judging. The beliefs of either group are necessarily affected by the individuals and the evolving community itself. The cultural relativist steps outside the home group’s perspective to gain a less biased understanding of the cultural dynamics of the subject group.
- Boas, F. (1928). Anthropology and modern life. New York: Norton.
- Mead, M. (1934). Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Rapport, N., & Overing, J. (2000). Social and cultural anthropology: The key concepts. London: Routledge.