Cultural Relativism Definition

Cite this article as:"Cultural Relativism Definition," in The Business Professor, updated March 19, 2019, last accessed August 9, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/lesson/cultural-relativism-definition/.

Back to: Management & Organizational Behavior

Cultural Relativism Definition

Cultural relativism is a concerns understanding and respecting foreign cultures. More specifically, is calls for a deeper understanding of people on the basis of their own cultural beliefs. Further, people should not be compared against or judged on the based upon the culture of others.

A Little More on What is Cultural Relativism

It was developed by Franz Boas during his anthropological survey during the beginning of the 20th century and sometimes later made popular and famous by his students. This idea was first described by Boaz in 1887 as “civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes”. Boaz, however, failed to coin this term.

The term was first put into use within the Oxford English Dictionary by social theorist and philosopher Alain Locke in 1924 to define Robert Lowie’s “extreme cultural relativism” as found in his 1917 book titled Culture and Ethnology. The phrase later became famous amongst the anthropologists after the demise of Boaz in 1942 as a manifestation of the trust they had in the ideas of Boaz. Boaze argued that the group of cultures is so diverse in different species that there can be no link between race and culture. Cultural relativism entails both specific methodological and epistemological claims. However, whether these claims encourage a particular ethical dimension is subject to further debate and brainstorming. Finally, it is important to note that there should be no mistaken identity between moral relativism and this principle.

In case human beings were to be given a chance to select between nations the kinds of beliefs that he/she deemed fit and best, they would without any reasonable doubt settle for those cultural beliefs found in their country of origin. People tend to believe that their old customs are the best and that the religion that brought them up is the best compared to others. They believe that it is an abnormal human being that can mock and run away from such established foundations. There is enough proof that this is the generally embraced feeling towards the old customs in those countries.

The epistemological declarations which encouraged the emergence of cultural relativism trace their origins and foundation from the enlightenment of Germany. The philosopher by the name Immanuel Kant advanced the narrative that human beings do not have the capability to be in contact with the world knowledge that lacks an individual who can intervene in between. The human mind is solely responsible for the mediation of knowledge which designs the notions depending on the principles of space and time.

On one hand, Kant believed these models of mediation were cutting across while his student by the name Johann Gottfried Herder narrated that creativity of human beings as illustrated by the large distinction in-country customs, showed that the experience of human was mediated upon by not only specific cultural models but also universal structures. The linguist and the philosopher by the name Wilhelm von Humboldt advocated for an anthropology that would harmonize Herder and Kant’s beliefs.

In spite of the fact that herder majored on the positive outcome of various cultures, the sociologist by the name William Graham summer spearheaded the narrative that the culture of people can put a limit to their perceptions. He termed this principle ethnocentrism which advocates that “one’s own group is the center of everything”, compared to how other groups are perceived.

Another assurance of anthropology that is less recognized compared to the first one, is concerned with acting as an avenue of cultural critique for the people. In the process of using other cultures to portray our ways, anthropology interferes with common sense which in return enables us to review the assumptions that we have taken lightly.

The key role of cultural relativism has been widely comprehended; The philosopher by the name John Cook established 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 judgment on other peoples, in fact, the self-evidence of these principles is a kind of illusion.” Even if Cook mistakenly believes that there is a link between moral relativism and cultural relativism, his notion is still applicable to the wider comprehension of that term. Relativism does not imply that the views of one are not true; again it does not imply that it is false to allege that the beliefs of one are self-explanatory.

The important role was one of the targets that Benedict had high hopes of her work fulfilling. The most common use of cultural relativism as a way of cultural critique is Margaret Mead’s research work in her dissertation of the sexuality of female adolescent in Samoa. Through the comparison of the freedom and ease amongst the teenagers in Samoa, Mead questioned the beliefs that the rebellious nature and stress attributed to adolescence was natural and unavoidable.

Fischer and Marcus claim that this role of relativism is only maintainable in the presence of ethnographic research in the United States of America in comparison to the research that was carried out in Samoa. As far as anthropologists carry out research in the United States after every ten years, the principles and beliefs of relativism have enabled many anthropologists to carry out surveys in foreign nations.

References for Cultural Relativism

Academic Research on Cultural Relativism

  • Cultural relativism; perspectives in cultural pluralism, Herskovits, M. J. (1972). This article is concerned with cultural relativism in situations where cultural pluralism exists and how the two can be harmonized so that they co-exist in such a society.
  • Cultural relativism and universal human rights, Donnelly, J. (1984). Hum. Rts. Q., 6, 400. The paper talks about the link between universal human rights and cultural relativism. The author recognizes the fact different human beings have various cultures and should be given space to practice their cultures because it lies within their rights.
  • Cultural relativism and the future of anthropology, Spiro, M. E. (1986). Cultural Anthropology, 1(3), 259-286. In this article, the writer is determined to establish how cultural relativism is linked to the future study of human customs in societies and their development.
  • Man and his works; the science of cultural anthropology., Herskovits, M. J. (1949). This article is concerned with understanding the man in totality in terms of his works and cultural anthropology which cuts across various aspects of human cultures. The author in this work refers to different cultural features such as arts, language, religion, education, political systems, and education. The author comes up with different facts aimed at supporting the philosophy of cultural relativism. The survey involves using a list of theories of cultures that were derived from the past anthropological presentation of the societies.
  • Cultural relativism and the visual turn, Jay, M. (2002). Journal of visual culture, 1(3), 267-278. This article is concerned with the general assumption that some cultural behaviors are relative to the customs from which they emanate. The paper is concerned with this premise by increasing pressure on the concepts of cultures as opposed to making a reference to the naturalists. From the theories of David McDougall, Regis Debray and Bruno Lantour, it claims visual experience brings problems to the notion that ‘culture all the way down’. The paper concludes that dwelling much in the aspect of visuality and basing them on incommensurability of traditions does not convince at all.
  • Universalism and cultural relativism in social work ethics, Healy, L. M. (2007). International Social Work, 50(1), 11-26. As a result of an increase in a number of cultures and globalization, social workers have been facing difficulties of obeying those customs and at the same observing professional ethical standards. The author here investigates how the notions of cultural relativism and universalism are applicable when making some decisions during social work. Universalism takes precedence because it considers and respects all human rights and diversity.
  • Defining the intolerable: Child work, global standards and cultural relativism, White, B. (1999). Childhood, 6(1), 133-144. The paper is concerned with intolerable pressures that have existed amongst ‘relativistic’ and ‘universalistic’ aspects in setting up requirements and plans meant for protecting the rights of children in the child work. Global requirements on children rights advocate for the universal perception of childhood while on the other hand cultural relativism claims that the perceptions of childhood have been as a result of social construction thus are specific to place, culture, nation and time. The article is determined to do away with child labour around the world.
  • Cultural relativism,’good’governance and sustainable human development, Blunt, P. (1995). Public Administration and Development, 15(1), 1-9. The fall of colonial empires has resulted in the emergence of various cultures and imperialism of ideas attributed mostly with the western nations. The modern imperialism has been shown in activities like proper governance and sustainable human development (SHD) which are mostly targeted to third world countries by the rich nations. The author concludes that there is no best standard of implementing proper governance or sustainable human development and that universalism should always be given a chance in such situations.
  • Cultural relativism and cultural imperialism in human rights law, Binder, G. (1999). Buff. Hum. Rts. L. Rev., 5, 211. This idea of “Universalism-Cultural Relativism” goes ahead to assume that international laws regarding human rights call for pointing out of basic principles of justice which cuts across politics, society, and culture. It claims that insisting on cultural relativity when dealing with justice puts doubt on the legitimate nature of international human rights laws. The imperialist criticism of laws on international human rights may be based on the belief that self-governance may not be tenable in third world countries. Thus, international governance of these communities seems inevitable whether people recognize it or not. The author concludes by considering how these laws on human rights can be utilized to make societies better and result in future self-governance.
  • The challenge of cultural relativism, Rachels, J. (2007). Bioethics: an Introduction to the History, Methods, and Practice. The author in this article is concerned with the problems that arise as a result of cultural relativism. He claims that such challenges come about by virtue of people practicing various cultures in a different environment.
  • Some criticisms of cultural relativism, Schmidt, P. F. (1955). The Journal of Philosophy, 52(25), 780-791. This article focuses on putting criticisms of cultural relativism. The author dwells into some negative impacts of cultural relativism the society at large.

Was this article helpful?