CULTURAL RELATIVISM By Dr. Suresh Gurramkonda

Anthropology paper I

Syllabus Section: 2.1- The concept of culture and civilization/ Cultural Relativism

Culture is explains as the way of life of a group of people. These ways can include arts, beliefs, and institutions pass from one generation to another. Cultural relativism is an important principle or rule of anthropology (given by Franz Boas), which is define as “the ability to view the beliefs and customs of other people within the context of their culture rather than one’s own.”

It was first given by Franz boas as a reaction against the classical evolutionists who suffers from western ethnocentrism and viewed Victorian culture as most evolve and supreme. Cultural relativism helps an anthropologist in engaging for an impartial study of people and societies.

Cultural relativism means that the function and meaning of a trait are relative to its cultural setting. A trait is neither good nor bad in itself. It is good or bad only with reference to the culture in which it is to function.  Cultural relativism is helpful because it leads to the appreciation of other peoples’ way of life around the world.

For Example: Eating non vegetarian food is not accept in some communities while accept in some other communities. Fur clothing is good in the Arctic but not in the tropics. In some hunting societies which occasionally face long periods of hunger to be fat is good; it has real survival value and fat people are admire. In our society to be fat is not only unnecessary but is known to be unhealthful and fat people are not admire.

Types of Cultural Relativism

There are two types of cultural relativism.

  • Absolute cultural relativism indicates that whatever activities are practice within a culture, no matter how weird and dangerous they appear to be, should not be questions by other cultures.
  • Example: An example of absolute culture relativism is the tying of feet of Chinese women in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though this culture later became abolish, other cultures had no contribution to its practice. The practice appear torturous to women for the purpose of beauty. According to history, Chinese people found small feet in women as a symbol of beauty. Therefore, for women to get marry, they had to go through the process of feet beautification. The process involved tying a young lady’s feet to inhibit its growth. Women from rich families were mostly able to undergo this practice since it was difficult for a person with such tie feet to move around and make a living. Other cultures shunned this practice, but they had no influence over it.
  • Critical cultural relativism asks questions about cultural practices and why they are practice. It seeks answers about the cultural practices in line with who is accepting them and why they are doing so.
  • Example: An example of critical cultural relativism is when the residents of Spain practice El Colacho, which is a baby-jumping ritual practiced since 1620. It is said that jumping over the babies chases the devil and keeps them safe. This practice has been critique by people seeking answers as to its relevance in protecting the children.
Why the concept of cultural relativism is so dearest to anthropologists?

Cultural relativists uphold that cultures differ fundamentally from one another, and so do the moral frameworks that structure relations within different societies. Cultural relativists determine whether an action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by evaluating it according to the ethical standards of the society within which the action occurs. There is a debate in the field on whether value judgments can be made across cultures.

Three main questions that cultural relativism addresses are; How to avoid inevitable biases in our perceptions and reactions to the world? How to make sense of an unfamiliar culture? And How to avoid the colonial mindset propagation through anthropology? Cultural relativism provides answer to all these questions and works as one stop solution to remove all these fears and avoid ethnocentrism, thus making cultural relativism as a dear concept to anthropologists.