✎✎✎ Value Of Cultural Relativism
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Wade Davis on cultural relativism and the importance of anthropology in the modern age
Herodotus Histories 3. If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one's country. 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 tribes' practices. The works of the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus detail ancient Greek arguments for cultural relativism as part of the tenth of the Ten Modes of Aenesidemus. According to George E. Marcus and Michael M.
Fischer : . The one has been the salvaging of distinct cultural forms of life from a process of apparent global Westernization. With both its romantic appeal and its scientific intentions, anthropology has stood for the refusal to accept this conventional perception of homogenization toward a dominant Western model. Cultural relativism was, in part, a response to Western ethnocentrism. 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. Boas 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 view 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 II , cultural relativism was the central tool for American anthropologists in this rejection 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's 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 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 did not exist in English.
He then argued the case that 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's students drew not only on his engagement with German philosophy. 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 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:. It is only since the development of the evolutional theory that it became clear that the object of study is the individual, not abstractions from the individual under observation.
We have to study each ethnological specimen individually in its history and in its medium By regarding a single implement outside of its surroundings, outside of other inventions of the people to whom it belongs, and outside of other phenomena affecting that people and its productions, we cannot understand its meanings Our objection Boas argued that although similar causes produce similar effects, different causes may also produce similar effects.
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:. It is my opinion that the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes. Boas's student Alfred Kroeber described the rise of the relativist perspective thus: .
Now while some of the interest in so called solial culture science anthropology in its earlier stages was in the exotic and the out-of-the-way, yet even this antiquarian motivation ultimately contributed to a broader result. Anthropologists became aware of the diversity of culture. They began to see the tremendous range of its variations. From that, they commenced to envisage it as a totality, as no historian of one period or of a single people was likely to do, nor any analyst of his own type of civilization alone. They became aware of culture as a "universe", or vast field in which we of today and our own civilization occupy only one place of many. The result was a widening of a fundamental point of view, a departure from unconscious ethnocentricity toward relativity.
This shift from naive self-centeredness in one's own time and spot to a broader view based on objective comparison is somewhat like the change from the original geocentric assumption of astronomy to the Copernican interpretation of the solar system and the subsequent still greater widening to a universe of galaxies. 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's 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:. The study of custom can be profitable only after certain preliminary propositions have been violently opposed. In the first place any scientific study requires that there be no preferential weighting of one or another items in the series it selects for its consideration. In all the less controversial fields like the study of cacti or termites or the nature of nebulae, the necessary method of study is to group the relevant material and to take note of all possible variant forms and conditions.
In this way we have learned all that we know of the laws of astronomy, or of the habits of the social insects, let us say. It is only in the study of man himself that the major social sciences have substituted the study of one local variation, that of Western civilization. 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 other promise of anthropology, one less fully distinguished and attended to than the first, has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves. In using portraits of other cultural patterns to reflect self-critically on our own ways, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions. 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.
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 research 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. Thus, they argue that 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 Clyde Kluckhohn who studied at Harvard, but who admired and worked with Boas and his students attempted to address this issue:. The concept of culture, like any other piece of knowledge, can be abused and misinterpreted. Some fear that the principle of cultural relativity will weaken morality. It's all relative anyway. The principle of cultural relativity does not mean that because the members of some savage tribe are allowed to behave in a certain way that this fact gives intellectual warrant for such behavior in all groups.
Cultural relativity means, on the contrary, that the appropriateness of any positive or negative custom must be evaluated with regard to how this habit fits with other group habits. Having several wives makes economic sense among herders, not among hunters. While breeding a healthy scepticism as to the eternity of any value prized by a particular people, anthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes.
Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behavior of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable. Although Kluckhohn was using language that was popular at the time e. 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. It was James Lawrence Wray-Miller who provided an additional clarification tool, or caveat, of the theoretical underpinnings of cultural relativism by dividing it into two binary, analytical continuums: vertical and horizontal cultural relativism.
Ultimately, these two analytical continuums share the same basic conclusion: that human morality and ethics are not static but fluid and vary across cultures depending on the time period and current condition of any particular culture. Vertical relativism describes that cultures, throughout history vertical —i. Therefore, any moral or ethical judgments, made during the present, regarding past cultures' belief systems or societal practices must be firmly grounded and informed by these norms and conditions to be intellectually useful. Vertical relativism also accounts for the possibility that cultural values and norms will necessarily change as influencing norms and conditions change in the future.
Horizontal relativism describes that cultures in the present horizontal in time—i. Therefore, moral or ethical judgments, made during the present, regarding a current culture's belief system or societal practices must account for these unique differences to be intellectually useful. 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 At the same time Kluckhohn was looking for cultural universals, he was also something of a relativist.
He said many different values in human cultures are not so much ethical as they are matters of taste. The fact that the taste of other peoples does not coincide with our own does not make them stupid, ignorant, or evil. That, I think, is a key relativist tenet. Kluckhohn even went so far as to say, "In a world society, each group can and must learn from other cultures, can and must familiarize itself with divergent value systems even when it prefers, in the last analysis, to hold in the main to its own traditional norms. So although Kluckhohn held a brief for universals and argued against ethical relativism, he also had a fairly strong need for relativity. Kluckhohn was writing in the s. What is happening to relativism in anthropology today? This committed anthropology has disrupted the relativist notions inherited from the s and '30s for two broad reasons.
First, the idea of separate but equal cultures no longer seems accurate. Cultures are not separate; they are not confined to their own individual museum cases. They exist side by side in the same space. Take, for example, settler colonialism, the system we had in America. Relationships formed in the colonial period and after created inequalities, which a committed anthropologist would have to critique. Second, in contrast with Kluckhohn, we see ethical relativism not as a special case of cultural relativism but as a different notion. I, for one, would regard myself as a cultural relativist; I would not regard myself as an ethical relativist.
To explain this distinction, we have to begin by returning cultural relativism to a rather modest doctrine. Here, Clifford Geertz's recent work is instructive. Geertz calls a human being an "unfinished animal," by which he means that humans are not genetically programmed to do what we do. He assumes that bees are genetically programmed to make honey and birds are genetically programmed to make nests, but humans are genetically programmed only to acquire language and culture. In this view, we are not fully human at birth. We haven't got all the stuff we need to cope in the world, to be social, to be moral, to be thinking, to be creative.
The crux of Geertz's argument is that human nature is realized only in culture. Human nature is the capacity to become Javanese, for example. In Java, Geertz tells us, they have a saying: "The person is not yet human. The virtue of Geertz's position is its lack of parochialism. Relativism in this sense argues for engagement, for dialogue between cultures. I'm not the center of the universe. This argues against ethnocentrism, against what could be called cultural imperialism, imposing a set of norms on people who might not want to inhabit those norms , against projection laying something you see inside yourself on somebody else.
The effort in relativism is to determine what that other person is actually thinking. We can look at other cultures and ask, Do they have a notion of falling in love? Our own imagination is limited by the culture we have grown up in, but if we actually go elsewhere and look at what other people do, we can expand our world and challenge our own notions. The caveat in all this is: To understand is not to forgive. Just because you come to terms with how something works in another culture doesn't mean you have to agree with it; it means you have to engage it. That's the sense in which I'd separate cultural and ethical relativism. I don't think that in order for me to hold a position as ethical, it needs to be universal.
In this way, the relativist position becomes emancipating. It means I'm free to think what I think because I'm not going to wait for a consensus of the whole world, of every form of life, every language, every culture. To illustrate, in the late s, I lived with a Filipino hill tribe called the Ilongots, who were headhunters. Do I think headhunting is a good idea because I worked for years trying to understand it? Am I horrified by it? I used to be; it gave me lots of bad dreams, but then something happened. One day, I went to Manila to get my mail, and I found I'd been called for the draft. I opposed the war in Vietnam, so of course I was not thrilled by this news. When I went back to the Ilongots' household where I was living, I told my hosts what had happened, partly because I needed somebody to talk to about it.
But I also had an ignoble motive. I imagined that maybe this situation would make the Ilongots think better of me; maybe they would think, This guy has an opportunity to kill people, and that's great. I could not have been further from the truth. I mentioned the draft notice, and they said, "This is terrible. Don't worry. We'll take care of you. They'll never find you here. The tribe lost a third of its population during that time. At first, I jumped to the conclusion that, having seen the carnage, they didn't approve of war. But when I talked more with them, I came to realize that they were as horrified of modern warfare as most of us would be of cannibalism or headhunting.For example, Why Is Prison Better In Prison a person believes that abortion is morally wrong, then it IS wrong — for her. Difference between Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism is Value Of Cultural Relativism fascinating consideration. The culture or society becomes the highest authority about what is right Value Of Cultural Relativism each individual within that society. Value Of Cultural Relativism Aesthetics Formalism Value Of Cultural Relativism Aesthetic response. What Value Of Cultural Relativism the Value Of Cultural Relativism Willy Wonka Book Comparison of relativism? Our genetic makeup would be the same, but we would speak a different language and adhere to a different culture.