Some of the most common questions I hear about anthropology from outside the discipline are about cultural relativism, and for good reason. It is taught as one of the core principles of the discipline of anthropology, and yet anthropologists, social scientists and philosophers still debate how it should be applied.
The debate surrounding cultural relativism is very layered and complex—it can’t easily be summarized in one blog post. Nevertheless, I’d like to relay some of my thoughts on the subject, based on my education in anthropology, discussions I’ve had with others, and my own personal beliefs.
Cultural Relativism in Anthropology
The concept of cultural relativism in anthropology is credited to Franz Boas (also known as the father of American anthropology). From what I understand, Boas’ original intention in creating this concept was to counter ethnocentrism, or the view that one’s own culture is ranked above other cultures. He aimed to teach others to approach cultures different than their own with the mindset that no group of people is inherently better or more “civilized” than another. This goes against the general white/European/U.S. American belief system at the time when he was alive (and unfortunately, still exists today in many ways). Put very simply, Boas sought to understand why certain groups of people do things the way that they do, without making judgmental comparisons to other groups.
The Relationship Between Cultural Relativism and Moral Relativism
At some point (I’m not sure when, it could be from the beginning) cultural relativism started to become intertwined with moral relativism as a concept. I can see why, as these two concepts could be seen as related to each other from a philosophical standpoint.
Moral relativism is the belief that there is no universal idea of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Instead, what is considered right and what is considered wrong always depends on cultural, societal and/or historical context.
Some who believe in moral relativism may take the concept a step further, saying that you cannot pass judgement on any person or group for doing something wrong, because maybe what they did was right from their point of view. I’ve honestly never met or heard of anyone who believes this way, I’ve only heard of the possibility of this belief as a reason for rejecting cultural and/or moral relativism.
Overtime it seems that many have begun to see cultural relativism and moral relativism as the same thing, or at least in agreement with each other. This brings me to my next point.
Cultural Relativism ≠ Moral Relativism
In my opinion, the issue of moral and cultural relativism being lumped together is an issue of word choice and definitions.
This is the definition of cultural relativism that I personally believe in:
The behaviors, traditions, and values of people and groups are best understood when they are studied within the context of their culture.
What this means to me is that you don’t have to like, promote, approve of, accept or participate in any aspects of other cultures if you don’t want to. What is most important is how you approach the topic of other cultures, whether you feel negatively or positively about them. If you approach other groups and cultures with an open mind, you seek to understand, rather than make a blind judgement. If you seek to understand, you show respect for your fellow human beings, even if you don’t agree with them.
I personally believe that there are some moral concepts which are so common they are almost universal, although they take an infinite number of different forms.
And as for the rest, I believe it is acceptable to pass moral judgement on certain cultural or social practices (especially from a human rights perspective), if you also seek to understand as much as you can about that practice and culture first. And there is a key difference between passing judgement on a practice, and passing judgement on a group of people who hold that practice because they look a certain way or live in a certain place. If you use a certain cultural practice as justification for condemning an entire group of people as bad or inferior human beings, then you are simply being prejudiced.
Practicing Cultural Relativism in Anthropology
In other words, I believe the study of anthropology is about exploring the ways that culture affects the values and morals that people uphold in their everyday lives.
One of the ways that I see cultural relativism (in the way I defined it earlier) as integral to anthropology is through the anthropological belief that cultures are not static, but always changing. Cultural practices change based on shifts in the environment around them. One will often find that certain cultural practices are newer than once believed, or have changed based on modern circumstances. As morals and values change, practices change, and vice versa.
If you want to stand up for human rights, anthropology can give you many philosophical and scientific principles to wield in your fight. Cultural relativism, when defined by understanding life in cultural context, can help you stand up for the rights of others by giving you a lens through which to study global issues. When you hear about a human rights violation, understanding the cultural, social or historical reasons behind the event can help you figure out how such events could be prevented in the future.
In Conclusion…Does Anthropology Need a New Tag Line?
The definition of cultural relativism that implies there is absolutely no such thing as right and wrong is not the definition I believe in.
However, it seems that almost everywhere I go there is a perception that moral relativism is a part of cultural relativism. Alright, so be it. I don’t think that anyone who believes this is incorrect. Terms and definitions evolve overtime just like culture does. If this is the general public consensus on the term “cultural relativism,” then I’m ready to reject the term and find one more suited to my beliefs about humanity.
I’m just not sure what that term would be. Perhaps “cultural contextualizing”?
Thank you for reading my thoughts. Now I want to hear yours!
What do you think?