In This Article Cultural Relativism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Writing on Human Diversity
  • Foundational Texts
  • Nonrelativist Foundational Texts
  • Classics in Relativist Ethnography
  • Power and Anthropological Authority
  • Undermining Anthropological Authority
  • Concepts and Categories
  • New Iterations of the Nature–Culture Debate

Anthropology Cultural Relativism
by
Mayanthi Fernando
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0003

Introduction

In a 1580 essay called “On the Cannibals,” early Enlightenment thinker Michel de Montaigne posited that men are by nature ethnocentric and that they judge the customs and morals of other communities on the basis of their own particular customs and morals, which they take to be universally applicable. Montaigne’s essay foreshadowed the emergence in early 20th-century American anthropology of the principle of cultural relativism in a more robust and programmatic form, as a descriptive, methodological, epistemological, and prescriptive approach to human diversity. Franz Boas and his students, especially Melville J. Herskovits, were at the forefront of this new development, one that became foundational to modern anthropology. Against the biological and racial determinism of the time, they held that cultures develop according to the particular circumstances of history rather than in a linear progression from “primitive” to “savage” to “civilized,” that culture (rather than race or biology) most affects social life and human behavior, and that culture shapes the way members of a particular cultural group think, act, perceive, and evaluate. This new theorization of the culture concept led to a multifaceted approach to studying human diversity called cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is an umbrella term that covers different attitudes, though it relies on a basic notion of emic coherence: Each culture works in its own way, and beliefs and practices that appear strange from the outside make sense when contextualized within their particular cultural framework. More specifically, descriptive relativism holds that cultures differ substantially from place to place. Methodological relativism holds that the ethnographer must set aside his or her own cultural norms in order to understand another culture and explain its worldview. Epistemological relativism holds that because our own culture so mediates our perceptions, it is often impossible to fully grasp another culture in an unmediated way. Prescriptive or moral relativism holds that because we are all formed in culture, there is no Archimedean point from which to evaluate objectively, and so we must not judge other cultures using our own cultural norms. Recently, cultural relativism has become a straw man term, defined pejoratively as the strongest form of moral relativism; namely, that we cannot make any kind of moral judgments at all regarding foreign cultural practices. At the turn of the 20th century, cultural relativism was a progressive anthropological theory and methodological practice that sought to valorize marginalized communities in an inegalitarian world. Now cultural relativism is criticized as doing precisely the opposite: allowing repressive and inegalitarian societies to hide behind the cloak of cultural difference.

General Overviews

Stocking 1982 analyzes the emergence of American cultural anthropology, the rise of Franz Boas and his students, and their lasting influence. Kuper 1999 offers the most comprehensive overview of American cultural anthropology, though from a critical, social anthropological perspective dominant in Britain. The best overview of major French thinkers on the question of cultural diversity from Montaigne to Lévi-Strauss remains Todorov 1993, which provides a good companion piece to overviews of cultural relativism that largely focus on the United States. Shweder 1984 traces American cultural anthropology’s roots in German Romanticism. Hatch 1983 and Fernandez 1990 examine anthropology’s and especially Boasian anthropologists’ relationship to cultural relativism. Renteln 1988 provides a short but comprehensive overview of more general approaches to cultural relativism within and beyond anthropology.

  • Fernandez, James W. 1990. Tolerance in a repugnant world and other dilemmas in the cultural relativism of Melville J. Herskovits. Ethos 18.2: 140–164.

    DOI: 10.1525/eth.1990.18.2.02a00020E-mail Citation »

    A close reading of Herskovits’ work on cultural relativism by one of his last students. Argues that cultural relativism was not an abstract philosophical issue but a practical and political one and that Herskovits considered cultural relativism as both a scientific method and a tool to fight injustice. Also examines some of the specific impasses that arose for Herskovits between his commitment to objective science and to political and social justice. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hatch, Elvin. 1983. Culture and morality: The relativity of values in anthropology. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Gives a critical overview of Boasian cultural relativism, including some of its epistemological, methodological, and ethical impasses. In addition to a historical overview, also argues for a new iteration of cultural relativism that overcomes what Hatch considers its earlier problems.

  • Kuper, Adam. 1999. Culture: The anthropologists’ account. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Though often critical of cultural anthropology, and especially of cultural relativism, provides a comprehensive account of the development of the culture concept from its evolutionary civilizational sense to its contemporary, plural meaning. Examines the work of the Boasians, David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, and recent poststructural anthropology.

  • Renteln, Alison Dundes. 1988. Relativism and the search for human rights. American Anthropologist 90.1: 56–72.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1988.90.1.02a00040E-mail Citation »

    First half of the article is useful for outlining the various versions of cultural relativism in philosophy and anthropology. Provides a brief but comprehensive historical overview of the different approaches and ensuing debates. Latter half of the article takes up the question of contemporary human rights, arguing that cultural relativism is compatible with cross-cultural universals. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Shweder, Richard A. 1984. Anthropology’s romantic rebellion against the enlightenment, or there’s more to thinking than reason and evidence. In Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. Edited by Richard A. Schweder and Robert A. LeVine, 27–66. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Locates anthropology’s celebration of local context, its commitment to local rationalities, and its notion that primitive and modern are coequal within a longer genealogy that stretches back to the German Romantic movement.

  • Stocking, George W., Jr. 1982. Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A classic text by the leading historian of the discipline charting the emergence of American cultural anthropology. Gives a good sense of the theoretical and political stakes in the development of Boasian anthropology and its culture concept against the racial theories popular at the time.

  • Todorov, Tzvetan. 1993. On human diversity: Nationalism, racism, and exoticism in French thought. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent overview of French thought from the Enlightenment onwards on the unity and diversity of the human species and its values. Particularly useful for defining key terms, including ethnocentrism, humanism, scientism, cultural relativism, universalism, and exoticism. Shows how ethnocentrism underpins certain forms of both universalism and cultural relativism. The author also offers his own theory of a universalism without ethnocentrism.

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