This sample Cultural Relativism Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Like other free research paper examples it is not a custom research paper. If you need help with writing your assignment, please use research paper writing services and buy a research paper on any topic.
This research paper discusses views toward cultural relativism in the history of anthropology, from Franz Boas to the present. It shows the grounding of versions of relativism in the anthropological field experience of cultural diversity, and identifies the tensions between anthropology and more foundationalist philosophies. Yet it notes the openings toward more perspectival views in philosophy as well, and distinguishes between kinds of relativism in anthropological thought and practice. Debates argued over foundationalism and relativism too often draw on stereotyped depictions of the alternatives.
Relativism is a doctrine that, recognizing the importance of the perspectival in experience, offers a skeptical resistance to the philosophical and intellectual interest in universalisms and absolutes. This resistance in the Western tradition dates back to the Sophists, and running through Hume, Kant, Marx, and Nietzsche extends to the modern pragmatists who conceive of knowledge as relative to contexts of power and social solidarity. Anthropological or cultural relativism derives from the awareness produced by ethnographic fieldwork of the multitude of different lifeways and cultural perspectives in the world. It has also given evidence of local awareness of the impact of the perspectival in human affairs. This is found in the folklore of different peoples. In America, there has been a particularly strong strain of cultural relativism deriving from the work of the founder of American anthropology, Franz Boas, and his students. This American school emphasized the shaping force of culture on behavior and understanding. Strong forms of this relativism are found in the work of Benedict and Herskovits. Milder forms are found in the skepticism of Sapir and Geertz about the determined scientific pursuit of universals. In any clarifying discussion, anthropological relativism has to be differentiated into epistemological, descriptive, or methodological, and normative or moral forms. Few anthropological relativists would subscribe to all these forms and are usually partial to one or several only. Cultural relativism, despite the many attacks upon it, continues to inspire interest and commitment to one or another or all of its forms. Since the early 1990s anthropological interest in universal human rights has been a considerable challenge to relativistic thinking within the discipline.
Relativism, which may be taken in most general terms as the awareness of the presence and importance of the perspectival in judgment and understanding, is generally understood as a philosophical problem and a hobgoblin of the pretensions to generalization and universalization of thought characteristic of the intellectual classes. But much if not all that has been taken up and intellectualized by these classes was first found among the folk as part of their lore anchored in the particularities of experience. Anthropologists and folklorists can readily confirm this observation, for in practically any book of proverbs will be found axiomatic observations on particular experiences which are relativistic in import. People are usually aware from their domestic everyday experience of the difference of perspective and the relativity in understanding between men and women, the old and the young, the parent and the child, and the slow and the quick. We might observe that it is philosophers and theologians who have lived among absolutes and have worked to impose them, while in ‘the practice of everyday life’ the common people characteristically live among relatives. Lately, philosophers have been increasingly taking cognizance of that awareness and its implicit perspectivalism if not relativism.
In philosophy, to be sure, there has been a long tradition of relativistic thought. The Sophists’ cultivation of the contestatory rhetoric of community life and community organization is often taken as relativistic in implication and action, and Hume’s (1975) skepticism about general observations including any universal moral principles is surely relativistic in spirit. Kant’s view of the constructed nature of the metaphysical and Hegel’s historicism are instrumental in the development of the more radical relativisms found in Marx and Nietzsche. Modern-day French philosophers continue this perspectivalism whether in the ‘archaeology of knowledge’ and the ‘conditions of understanding’ explored by Michel Foucault (1979) or in Jacques Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ of arguments ordinarily taken as unquestionably foundational (1993). American pragmatism especially has anchored its ‘antifoundationalism’ in an awareness of the perspectival from William James’ A Pluralistic Universe (1909) to Richard Rorty’s emphasis on the community and cultural context of all understanding (1989, 1999). These scholars focus, respectively, on knowledge as conditioned by power, rhetorical or textual construction, and social solidarity. Such views have steadily and perhaps definitively been undermining overarching claims to metaphysical universals. It has certainly given rise, in respect to moral philosophy, to attempts to relate relativism to reason, that is, to practice a ‘reason within relativism.’
Anthropology, a discipline mainly emergent since the mid-nineteenth century, has not been immune to these philosophical developments and the crisis of representation and legitimation they usher in. Indeed, it has become, through its various arguments for cultural and linguistic autochthony, a central player in the relativism/universalism wars. The interest of anthropologists, particularly in the issue of cultural relativism, derives first from ethnographic field experience of the variable proverbial wisdom of local life lived on the ground, as it were, or from the fact that anthropologists usually work comparatively across cultures and, therefore, across cultural and language perspectives, or from the long interest in anthropology in the difficult problem of universal human rights. Philosophy, understandably, has reacted by exercising pointed critique of the incoherence of anthropological relativism – it is inescapably self-refuting and it undermines its own truth claims – and the perniciousness of anthropological relativism – it undermines philosophical commitment to the improvement of thought and the discovery of ‘truth.’
The anthropology of Franz Boas is generally seen as the fountain head of cultural relativism in American anthropology. Although originally a physicist, Boas was increasingly cautious both about universalization of things human and the hierarchization of human groups which often accompanied such practice. His chief intellectual opponent was classic evolutionism, with its invidious ranking of societies on a scale from savagery to civilization. His chief popular opponent was racism, or in its benign form, the Civilizing Mission. Indeed one of Boas’ few popular books, in an otherwise vast oeuvre – The Mind of Primitive Man (Boas, 1938) – attacked ‘racial determinism,’ that is, the association between biology and ‘personality’ (by which he meant behavior in the broadest sense). He did this by focusing on the shaping force of culture upon behavior and understanding (that is, upon ‘mind’). In this book itself, therefore, preceded by any number of lectures and papers dating from the late nineteenth century, Boas laid the early ground work for the ‘cultural relativism’ of his students, although this was not a term he employed to any extent.
There are several other classic stimuli to relativistic views in the Boas oeuvre. In ‘The study of geography’ (Boas, 1887), while resisting geographical determinism, he stimulated thinking on methodological relativism by pointing to two different and justifiable approaches to field data, the nomothetic or law seeking and the idiographic or descriptive, each of which differently attuned to local circumstance gave different yet necessary understandings of the field data. It may be said, particularly in the postmodern times, that although increasingly convinced by the ‘structuring power of tradition,’ Boas in his emerging relativism never abandoned entirely the universalist hope of the scientific mission, and method and the seeking, however cautiously, of lawful generalizations.
Cultural relativism in its strong form is identified with two of Boas’ foremost students, Ruth Benedict and Melville J. Herskovits. In her widely read Patterns of Culture, Benedict (1934) took particular aim at universalist notions of the normal and abnormal. This argument was made effective through its arresting portraits of three cultures, Pueblo, Dobu, and Northwest Coast Indians, whose characteristic behaviors, abnormal from a Western perspective, are portrayed as normal from the local perspective.
Benedict repeatedly resisted ethnocentric and provincial views of the normal and argued a ‘great arc of human possibility’ (Benedict, 1934, p. 34) of which no culture could take full advantage and on which every culture had to make its particular choices. It was Melville Herskovits, however, who most directly framed the issue of ‘cultural relativism’ in his general text Man and His Works (Herskovits, 1948), and whose collected arguments could be posthumously published as Cultural Relativism (Herskovits, 1972).
None of the Boasians, including Herskovits, were out and out relativists in the epistemological sense that they gave up on the possibilities of discovering universals beyond the fact of cultural relativity. In all their writings there appears the promise of those eventual discoveries. They are all to be considered, rather, methodological and moral relativists whose main aim was to resist ignorance of and moral superiority toward other cultures, and exploitative intolerance of them. The aim was to increase mutual respect and tolerance in the world. Herskovits argued, however, that such cultural relativism was not derived from any kind of moral philosophy, but rather from the empirical anthropological observations on diversity by field-working anthropologists. Nevertheless, he struggled with many dilemmas of philosophical type in his ‘cultural relativism’: negotiating the universal and the particular, the practical and the ethical, the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’ anthropological science and anthropological humanism, the cross-cultural and the within-cultural view, and the applied and the philosophical. His strategy was to convert these dilemmas, which arise from the fate of the field-working man or woman of science finding himself or herself inescapably situated in the fold of philosophy, into the revelatory paradoxes of anthropological practice (Fernandez, 1990).
The heyday of ‘cultural relativism’ in the United States – in the sense of seeking to define a durable doctrine in the face of persistent assault from various moral philosophies on the one hand and philosophies of science on the other – were the decades of the mid-twentieth century, the 1930s through the 1960s. Subsequently, however, some notable contributions to this enduring issue have come forth together with a contemporary challenge to relativistic thought: the human rights movement. Marshall Sahlins (1976), although not espousing ‘cultural relativism’ in its paradoxical sense of moral obligation to defend diverse local moral orders, nevertheless conducted a compelling argument against the culture-free universalization, mainly among economists and political economists, which accepts utility interests as the dominant principle in practical reasoning. In the 1980s, a notable argument developed over relativism and the role of culture in determining reality principally among three anthropologists: Renato Rosaldo, Clifford Geertz, and Melville Spiro.
Rosaldo (1989) addresses the impact on older notions of the stable truths and dispassionate objectivities of classic social analysis made by awareness of both the anthropologist and his or her informants as ‘positioned (and repositioned) subjects’ recurrently engaged in an ongoing dramatic process of ‘relational understanding.’ In such a process truth becomes a very moving target only perspectivally to be apprehended, if at all, and in any case best interpreted by narrative analysis firmly set within and not beyond cultural contexts. While not espousing a straight-line cultural relativism, he notes and resists the return of a ‘nostalgia’ for the authoritative, often imperious, truths of objective social science – a nostalgia most often self-justifying by using a stereotyped notion of relativism.
This strategy of skepticism has also been that of Geertz, the central player in the interpretive approach that puts the play of perspectives at the center of anthropological inquiry. In 1984 he offered an intricate argument, exemplified in the double negative of the title of the article, ‘Anti–anti relativism’ (Geertz, 1984). He takes to task the resurgence of absolutist interests in affirming some metaphysical or, what is the same, very physical, that is to say biological, realities behind the influence of cultural and language differences. This search for ‘nature’s own vocabulary,’ and the security of objective biological truths on this side of culture, truncates what anthropology is all about, and Geertz questions the kind of ‘hearty common sense’ that simply ignores the diversity of lifeways plentifully evidenced in the anthropological archive. While written in defense of that broadly rather than narrowly humanizing knowledge of diversity laboriously acquired by anthropology, Geertz neither directly espouses in any direct way the moral commitments present in an earlier ‘cultural relativism’ nor denies the probability that on the other side of culture there may be some universals to discover.
In defense of the possibility of scientific, which is to say universal, measurability and explanation across cultural boundaries, Spiro (1986) develops a useful contrast between three types of cultural relativism: descriptive (that there are important empirical differences between cultures), normative (that evaluative judgment of the norms expressed in these differences are always relative to cultural contexts and hence not generalizable), and epistemological (that culture determines what we know and how we know it). Spiro accepts descriptive relativism and the perspectivalism it reflects, and the cautions of field methods it enjoins. He rejects the strong form of normative relativism, which argues against any possibility of cross-cultural judgment of human practices, as well as epistemological relativism in general, which would argue both for ontological incommensurability between cultures and for the irrelevance or perversity of the discovery of biological and psychological commonalities in humankind. It has been the tendency, he argues, in the fin-de-siècle age of textual hermeneutics, to espouse an immoderate form of epistemological relativism; something that the earlier cultural relativists, although committed to descriptive and moderate normative relativism, never did. The consequence is simply to deny the possibilities of an explanatory science of humans anchored in a valid and verifiable logic of discovery, with all the implications for professional authority that such a denial of principled comparative inquiry entails.
In the 1990s, an important area of challenge to cultural relativism arose in the argument for universal human rights. At first glance, cultural relativism would seem to be an impediment to such universalization of a value. Indeed, oppressive states proclaiming state sovereignty over their citizens often claim justification in ‘cultural relativism.’ This defense begs the question for all concerned of cultural boundaries within states, which is to say the question of the definition of culture and its boundaries in a pluralizing, globalizing world. That the relation between cultural relativism and universal human rights need not be taken as inevitably oppositional is seen in recent efforts on the part of the Human Rights Commission of the American Anthropological Association, to posit a species-wide disposition to create culture and cultural difference, and the corresponding right to such creation and such difference as long as it does not impose on that right in others (American Anthropological Association, 1998; Turner, 1997).
More recently Carrithers (2005) has made a convincing argument that there is a moral universal implicit in anthropology’s dedication, through its field working requirement of participation and observation, to obtaining the fullest possible understanding of the other’s cultural perspective. The success of such dedication, he argues, is only possible if the anthropologist and his or her interlocutors are persuaded in their interaction by the universal principles of mutual trust, forebearance, and acceptance of the other’s worth. These principles, in turn, rest upon the knowledge, nurtured by the pluralism of understandings so evident in the great multitude of human lifeways studied by anthropologists, that the human condition ‘could always be otherwise.’
There may remain problems with these enlightenment arguments, as theory and practice, but they move the debate away, as for example does Geertz’ argument before them, from a simple and fruitless opposition in which one or another pole of the debate is confined to a stereotyped reading. Also they preserve the practical and methodological consequences of cultural relativism as an open, generous, and locally attuned posture of critical cultural inquiry into the ‘other.’
In reviewing this century-long argument over relativism in the social sciences, we may note several principal points. First, there is the tendency for stereotypic views of the opposite argument to emerge, with the consequence that the opponent’s views are trivialized and simplified. Second, strong and moderate forms of cultural relativism in its various aspects (descriptive, normative, and epistemological) must be distinguished if the argument is to obtain to any clarifying power. Third, the methodological aspect of cultural relativism and its importance, in its descriptive and normative aspect, as a posture of inquiry must be recognized for those, mostly but not exclusively anthropologists, who have chosen to work in other cultures. Fourth, the discussion of cultural relativism is inevitably related to one’s definition of culture and particularly cultural boundedness. Fifth, it must be recognized that the logics of inquiry differ significantly between the sciences and the humanities. Hence the discussion of relativism is itself relative to what disciplinary faculty is anchoring and being evoked in the discussion. Sixth, there is a politics of relativism which is inevitably present – the Boasian relativists, for example, were pronouncedly egalitarian, pluralist, and antiauthoritarian in their values. Relativism has been a recurrent irritation, a valuable provocation, and a useful restraint on imperious inquiry in the academy, and has produced over this long period some of the most interesting arguments about just how individual scholars and researchers with different agendas working in different cultures with differing worldviews are to come together and engage in a productive and fair-minded inquiry. Without the gadfly of relativism, the horsemen of social science, galloping through their research agendas and in pursuit of theoretical confirmation, might well be more headstrong and less empathetic beings.
- American Anthropological Association, 1998. Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association. Web Document. http://s3.amazonaws.com/rdcms-aaa/files/production/public/FileDownloads/pdfs/issues/policy-advocacy/upload/ethicscode.pdf
- Benedict, R., 1934. Patterns of Culture. Riverside Press, Cambridge, UK.
- Boas, F., 1887. The study of geography. Science 9, 137–141.
- Boas, F., 1938. The Mind of Primitive Man. Macmillan, New York.
- Carrithers, M., 2005. Anthropology as a moral science of possibilities. Current Anthropology 46, 433–456.
- Derrida, J., 1993. Aporias: Dying–Awaiting (One Another at) the ‘Limits of Truth’ (Mourir–s’ Attendre aux ‘Limites de la Vérité’) (T. Dutoit, Trans.). Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
- Fernandez, J.W., 1990. Tolerance in a repugnant world and other dilemmas in the cultural relativism of Melville J. Herskovits. Ethos 18, 140–164.
- Foucault, M., 1979. Passim. In: Morris, M., Patton, P. (Eds.), Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy. Feral, Sydney, Australia.
- Geertz, C., 1984. Distinguished lecture: anti–anti relativism. American Anthropologist 86, 263–279.
- Herskovits, M.J., 1948. Man and His Works. Knopf, New York.
- Herskovits, M.J. (Ed.), 1972. Cultural Relativism; Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism. Random House, New York.
- Hume, D., 1975/1777. Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.
- James, W., 1909. A Pluralistic Universe. Longmans, New York.
- Rorty, R., 1989. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press, New York.
- Rorty, R., 1999. Introduction: Relativism: Finding and Making, Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin, New York. pp. xvi–xxxii.
- Rosaldo, R., 1989. Culture and Truth. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
- Sahlins, M.D., 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Spiro, M.E., 1986. Cultural relativism and the future of anthropology. Cultural Anthropology 1, 259–286.
- Turner, T., 1997. Human rights, human difference: anthropology’s contribution to an emancipatory cultural politics. Journal of Anthropological Research 53, 273–291.