Cultural relativism

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Cultural Relativism is a theory of anthropology that views all cultures as equal. Early anthropologist Franz Boas first used the idea of cultural relativism in 1887, but the concept did not have a name until Alain Locke coined the term in 1924.[1] This concept is now accepted by anthropologists around the world.

Methodological Tool[change | change source]

Franz Boas noticed that people who study other cultures still tend to be ethnocentric. This means that other cultures are viewed through one's own ideas of how a culture or society should work. A person may be ethnocentric without meaning to be. Ethnocentrism is the idea that one’s own culture is the best, and other cultures are studied or viewed with this outlook. In Boas’ article “On Alternating Sounds,” he explains how different cultures experience sound differently. When people study or come into contact with other cultures, people misunderstand sounds and language.[2] An example used by Boas, is when he studies Inuit texts, words, and languages that are spelled in the Bureau of Ethnology by British Columbia. There were many misspellings explained by a misunderstanding by other cultures that have a different phonetic system rooted in a person's life.

In order to reduce this ethnocentrism from happening when anthropologists study other cultures, Boas thought that the person would need to live with people that they were studying for a long period of time. A person would be able to learn the culture and language better, and then decrease the number of times they misinterpret sounds and language of that culture.

Analytical and Political Device[change | change source]

One of Franz Boas’ students, Ruth Benedict, was an anthropologist that studied the beliefs and practices within a culture’s social system. She noticed that they became mixed patterns of ideas and practices. Benedict believed that people should learn all of the ways people live. The way people show emotions, carry out daily routines or perform normal functions changes based on each individual’s own culture.[3] By studying these cultures, Benedict thought that people could understand that every culture has a different way of living and the way that person lived was not the only way

Cultural relativism was also used as a political device. Alfred L. Kroeber used ideas like cultural relativism to argue that indigenous populations are equal to settlers, since indigenous people have culture as well. [4] Melville J. Herskovits argued that cultural diffused from West Africa and still existed during and after slavery. This idea was meant to fight against the myth that Africans do not have any culture or cultural roots. [5]

Moral Relativism[change | change source]

Ruth Benedict also noticed that an individual’s view of what actions were right and what actions were wrong relied on one’s own culture.[3] A person formed what was right and wrong based on social norms and values of their culture. They then formed their system of morals, which told them how to live. Benedict believed that no one person’s morals were necessarily better or worse than another’s; it was all relative on the society in which they lived.

Critical Device[change | change source]

Two anthropologists, George Marcus and Michael Fisher, explain cultural relativism as being a critical device used in analyzing and studying other cultures. It is also used to self-reflect on our own culture.[6] The research of anthropologist Margaret Mead is a great example of cultural relativism. After looking at young female sexuality in Samoa, located in New Guinea, Mead questions the ‘natural’ stress related to American adolescence and sexuality as bound to happen.[7] Her research on this is found in her book "Coming of Age in Samoa."

Variations of Relativism[change | change source]

Richard Feinberg, an anthropologist, identifies cultural relativism as having three types: contextual, ethical and epistemological.[8] Contextual relativism is defined as members of a community or society having beliefs and practices that are represented through symbols and meanings that need to be understood within that culture. A practice that appears to be similar in two different cultures could be understood completely different among those two communities, which is an idea that Boas highlighted in his works. Ethical relativism is identified as cultures having no good or bad practices and beliefs, so people would not be able to make these judgments. Epistemological relativism is explained as the view that a person cannot truly understand another culture in a useful or meaningful way, which is similar to Boas’ ‘historical anthropology’ now identified as historical particularism.

References[change | change source]

  1. Boas, F. (1974). The principles of ethnological classification. In: Stocking, G. (ed.), A Franz Boas Reader. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 62.
  2. Boas, F. (1889). On alternating sounds. American Anthropologist, 2(1), 47-54.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Benedict, R. (2000). A defense of Ethical Relativism. Life and Death–A Reader in Moral Problems. London: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 37-42.
  6. Marcus, G.and Fischer, M. (1986). Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Mead, M. (1961). Coming of age in Samoa: A psychological study of primitive youth for western civilization. New York: Morrow.
  8. Feinberg, R. (2007). Dialectics of culture: Relativism in popular and anthropological discourse. Anthropological Quarterly, 80 (3), 777-790.