Cultural Relativism: Interpretations of a Concept
By Johnson, Thomas H
An undergraduate anthropology student came to me with an assigned reading in a philosophy course at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. The student was confused. What he was learning in his philosophy class challenged what he had learned about cultural relativism as a core concept in anthropology and he was surprised to find it examined negatively by a philosopher. The article in his Ethics textbook was “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism” by philosopher James Rachels (Rachels 1993). As we discussed the position James Rachels took in the article assigned to the ethics class, it became clear that Rachels’ understanding of cultural relativism differed from that of most anthropologists: that cultural relativism is the attitude of “objectivity” (left undefined) toward another culture, the opposite of ethnocentrism. Rachels rejects cultural relativism because, in his view, cultural relativism is identical to ethical relativism, and this equation leads to an inability to criticize any society’s beliefs and practices, including our own. The student had learned, however, that the anthropologist is a participant and an observer at the same time, and that our task is to faithfully portray a culture. Cultural relativism is part of our training as social scientists as well as humanists-we participate and learn to understand and appreciate brations they perform in spectacles that are highly scripted; contents of essays and themes for blackboards and coloring projects that line the halls of schools are not spaces for children to develop their individuality or learn how to work out the “meaning” of the nation. In this respect, areas where they “fail” are not sites of resistance to the norms of the nation, but instead are sign posts pointing to the wide range of practices that are possible as performances of the contemporary nation. In fact, asking the children directly about their patriotism leads to the same kind of incredulous eye-rolling I described at the beginning of the paper. “Of course we love the Motherland!” was the response I would invariably get to any question I was able to frame about their patriotism, a response usually accompanied by a snort of exasperation at the dumb questions foreigners ask. Or, as one child advised me: “You should come to the Children’s Day celebration at school. There you can see what we think.” Children’s mistakes in these performances-forgetting why entering the Pioneers is an honor, not performing for television cameras-does not challenge their fundamental patriotism, and does not express resistance on their part to the disciplines of the nation-state. I therefore argue against a solely cognitive approach to children’s nationalism. Textbooks are important, and reading and memorizing the content of state-sponsored textbooks is one of the many ways that the nation is repeatedly performed in daily life. But the state is reified in many ways in their lives; in China, children’s connection with the nationstate extends to the Party-sponsored Little Red Pioneers. Children wear red scarves while disco dancing, recycling batteries, and imitating Hong Kong kungfu movies.
And, since children perform the nation in different ways than adults, they provide privileged insight into the performativity of the nation. Apart from the military, most adults are not required to wear a token of their patriotism everyday-such as a red scarf-nor do adults celebrate national holidays today by writing and performing skits, poems and dances of love for the Motherland. Children, however, still do, and expand our theories of nationalism in the process.
dard of morality, yet to be determined, is the real goal. Thus, cultural and moral relativism stand in the way of discovering those universals.
But it is not just the misunderstanding of the objectives and the ignorance of the methods of anthropology that concern me about Rachels’ essay. Underlying his ideas is the suspicion that cultural and moral relativism are a threat, and that there is the danger of cultural relativism becoming so widespread that it destroys any sense of moral behavior-anything, goes, depending on the culture. Even though Rachels feels confortable with the contribution that cultural relativism allegedly makes to “tolerance,” for many, too much “tolerance” of certain practices in other cultures is not desirable. Amid this quandary, perhaps it is time that anthropologists explained themselves.
Let me first give an example of how a popular journal read by many educators can give a negative slant to cultural relativism. Not long after my encounter with the student, I happened to read a recent issue of the national journal, Liberal Education. An Iranian, Azar Nafisi, a visiting professor and director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of the much-acclaimed Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, had an article, “Liberal Education and the Republic of the Imagination” (Nafisi 2006:6-13). As Nafisi relates, no amount of political correctness can “make us empathize with a woman who is taken to a football stadium in Kabul, has a gun put to her head, and is executed because she does not look the way the state wants her to look” (Nafisi 2006:6). No amount of “cultural relativism” can make us tolerate that kind of treatment, she says (Nafisi 2006:8). Cultural relativism, Nafisi says, is “supposed to be a progressive idea and to make us celebrate and learn from cultures that are different from our own. ..(and) make us more tolerant (‘my emphasis) of those with whom we disagree” (2006:6). However, it “became politicized” because “we did not treat it as a focus for gaining knowledge” (2006:6). Instead, Nafisi writes, cultural relativism has come to mean nothing more than the idea of tolerance, which simply discourages active criticism of practices that would offend almost anyone, like the murder of the woman in the stadium (2006:6).
Nafisi’s frustration with cultural relativism leapt off the page. As a western-educated Iranian, she recognized the value of not passing judgment on another culture, but she could not suppress passing judgment on practices condoned by some of her fellow Iranians. Her frustration is similar to the horror many might feel in our culture if they heard about mob violence that resulted in a lynching in their own city or town. Her response is the same as ours would be if we were to assume that because of “cultural relativism” enlightened people must “tolerate” any kind of crime against humanity, and cannot or should not speak out against injustice. Obviously, Nafisi does not agree with that interpretation of cultural relativism, and she makes a good point.
But Nafisi’s comments do raise an important question. Does “cultural relativism” prevent an educated person from taking a stand on a variety of moral issues, or is the unwillingness to take a stand a more complex issue? Does cultural relativism equate with moral relativism? Unfortunately, for some philosophers, it does. But it should not.
Let’s take a closer look at anthropology’s understanding of cultural relativism. Franz Boas provides an example of cultural relativism as first and foremost a method of investigation. Trained in natural science, his commitment to objective research is clear from the earliest part of his career, his work among the Eskimo of Baffin Island in 1883. Of the Eskimo, Boas says, “We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We highly educated people are much worse, relatively speaking (italics mine). The fear of traditions and old customs is deeply implanted in mankind, and in the same way as it regulates life here, it halts all progress for us” (quoted in Stocking:1983:33). In Boas’s own notes we see his ability to reflect on his (our) culture without passing judgment on the Eskimo. Boas would continue his commitment to accurate, unbiased reporting of the cultures he studied for the rest of his life, and encouraged his students to do the same, influencing several generations of anthropologists. Yet, Boas and many of his students were also passionate advocates of social justice. Boas’ lifelong personal commitment to those ideas that went against the racism and imperialism of Western culture is well known, and set a new level of ethical and moral standards for the profession (Lewis 2001). For Boas, it was possible to be a cultural relativist without becoming an ethical or moral relativist. If this seems contradictory, it shouldn’t, for Boas had the ability to cultivate an attitude of objectivity toward his research. Yet, he could also apply the knowledge he gained to practical, everyday affairs in his own culture.
Is it, then, possible to practice cultural relativism as a field- worker and anthropologist, and also at the same time maintain a commitment to larger issues of morality? Certainly. Cultural relativism does not equate with moral relativism in the negative sense that James Rachels assumes. While it might seem as though there is a contradiction between cultivating objectivity toward one culture but acting subjectively toward one’s own, that assumption does not take into account the knowledge the observer gains from studying another culture and how that knowledge inevitably affects the observer’s evaluation of his own culture. Commitment to social issues may also be affected by the anthropologist’s enculturation, but those positions are surely also affected by the knowledge s/he gains of the studying another culture. Perhaps this “knowledge” produces a more tolerant view of other cultures. It may also be true that this “knowledge” is in itself more important than the attitude of “tolerance” that may follow from it, as indicated by Azar Nafisi, above. As Nafisi indicates, simple “tolerance” may neutralize action, while better knowledge of the culture could galvanize action. I will argue in this essay that the attitude of objectivity (cultural relativism) toward other cultures leads not to something as bland or neutral as moral relativism, but instead to a much stronger notion of moral values, values that can and should be acted upon by the anthropologist. This happens because of the insights gained from field studies, which build upon the values that the anthropologist has learned from his own enculturation. One of Boas’ outstanding students, Melville Herskovitz, was a staunch defender of cultural relativism as a scientific method and as a practical means of obtaining a wider understanding of the variation in human cultures (Fernandez 1990:141). He saw cultural relativism as a “posture one should adopt regarding the facts of the world and our relation to those facts” (Fernandez 1990:142). Herskovits took issue with a philosopher at Northwestern University, Eliseo Vivas, who, like James Rachels, insisted on equating cultural relativism with moral relativism (Fernandez 1990:145). Like Boas, Herskovitz resisted “any philosophical universalizing of the idea of relativism in order to countenance injustices at home or abroad” (Fernandez 1990:142). Like Boas and other anthropologists, Herskovitz took issue with the ethnocentrism of his own society, believing that the expansionist thrust of Western societies created an attitude of cultural, economic and political superiority toward other cultures that discounted a shared humanity. Fascism was only one example of that attitude of cultural (and racial) superiority, but the colonial expansion of the West into every continent contained elements of it. By contrast, anthropologists often took the side of the dispossessed, and in their studies consciously pushed aside the ethnocentrism of their own culture. Philosophers like Vivas and Rachels who proclaimed that cultural relativism equated with moral relativism and believed that relativism stood in the way of arriving at universal ethical standards were basing their standard on their own cultural values. What they saw as “relative” could be seen as positive in another culture, or as a cultural adaptation by an anthropologist. For anthropologists like Herskovits, cultural relativism is a practical means or method of discovery, not an ethical disaster. It also could acknowledge that other cultures might not agree with cultural or moral standards imposed by the West or any other colonizing society, and that they had a right to be what they were. Put in this way, philosophy and anthropology seem to have diametrically opposite goals and objectives with regard to how they assess the value of cultural relativism. For anthropologists, philosophy’s understanding of ethics is ethnocentric. For philosophers, anthropology is too relativistic. But what the philosophers do not understand, and what anthropologists have been unable to articulate, is that “objective” study of another culture leads not to moral relativism, but to an even stronger realization of moral and social problems and issues, inciting many anthropologists to take actions that would never have occurred to them (or to philosophers) if they had not studied another culture. This point is, unfortunately, missed by Elvin Hatch in his book Culture and Morality (1983:144). Hatch takes cultural relativism and its offspring, moral relativism, to the same level as does James Rachels: both say they have contributed to increasing our level of tolerance of other cultures. But tolerance clearly has its limitations, and is subject to criticism, as we shall see. I maintain that cultural relativism creates a heightened, perhaps new and even different understanding of morality that could eventually lead to a clearer understanding of ethical universals than Western philosophy has been able to articulate.
The West has a long history of brutal wars that in the 20th century alone were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people, it is not surprising that anthropology would germinate as a counter-culture within that huge and powerful entity known as the West. The West, we should remember, is really a more recent manifestation of the Roman Empire. It has taken courage to present non-Western societies as worthy of interest, praise, and admiration. Anthropologists can take pride in the progress that seems to be have been made, but it is too soon to congratulate ourselves, as our recent adventures in the Middle East bear witness.
As we have already seen, Rachels, Nafisi, and Hatch suggest that tolerance is, after all a good thing. But it does not logically flow from cultural relativism. Despite James Rachel’s positive spin on the contribution of cultural relativism to greater tolerance, Fernandez points out a flaw in this kind of thinking, suggesting that “philosophers have been quick to point out. ..the contradiction implied in advocating tolerance as a world-relevant moral position while at the same time advocating relativism of morals to cultures (Fernandez 1990:145). Here Fernandez is referring to philosopher Frank Hartung, who talks about the “surreptitious morality” of cultural relativism” (Fernandez 1990:145). Cultural relativism may contribute to “tolerance” of other cultures, but it is not the same thing, nor is there any guarantee that cultural relativism necessarily contributes to tolerance. More importantly, there is no reason why cultural relativism “ought” to contribute to either moral relativism or tolerance. “Oughtness” implies a judgment, and while writings about another culture might inform, the result of that information cannot be predicted, and could just as easily lead to a condemnation of the practices of that culture as it would to an appreciation of them.
Herskovits, one of the most passionate students of African cultures, was certainly aware of how knowledge of another culture could promote understanding, and even tolerance of that culture. Like Boas, he was a very public advocate for anthropology, but at the same time distinguished between three aspects of cultural relativism: the methodological, the philosophical and the practical Fernandez 1990:146). Of course, bias could enter any of the areas of research done by anthropologists. But it seems that the main thrust of Herskovits’ defense of cultural relativism had to do with the kind of reflexivity that the researcher needed in order to avoid ethnocentric bias (Fernandez 1990:147). That is what made cultural relativism, for anthropologists, a practical activity of search and discovery. That brings us back to Boas early comments made while on his first research expedition in 1883. The practical collection of information leads to knowledge of a culture, which contributes to comparisons and reflexivity in the mind of the anthropologist, which may lead to practical applications of that knowledge in the form of actions and policies that contribute to the welfare of people like the Eskimo, who will be faced with many difficult choices as they confront the West.
This is not to say that even the most systematic field work is free from bias. Bias begins with the selection of the human beings to be observed, and continues into the writing up of a book or monograph. No two anthropologists who study the same tribe or village are likely to come up with a similar set of findings. Yet, cultural relativism and the reflexivity it involves remains the methodological ideal. As a physicist once put it, the laws of physics, too, begin with the impossible ideal of a frictionless universe. There must be a starting point; there is no total objectivity in ethnographic research, but to deny it leads only to greater subjectivity and compounds the possibility of error.
In my research on cultural relativism and its several interpretations, I discovered at least one philosopher who has taken cultural relativism farther than James Rachels. There must be others, too. Kai Nielsen argues that agreement in the universality of moral belief does not establish the soundness of the belief (Nielsen 1966:538). Nielsen builds a defense of cultural relativism that penetrates more deeply into whether or not cultural relativism implies an absence of ethical standards. For Nielsen, a lack of consensus of what is rational ethical behavior becomes a matter for serious debate. He explains that “the soundness of a moral belief does not depend simply on the number of people who believe it but on whether adequate justifying reasons can be given for holding it” (Nielsen 1966:539). This simple statement makes sense. Anthropologists may not always have had the luxury of determining the attitudes, values or customs that have the approval and support of everyone in a society. Obviously, they may not. That does not mean that a more rational, or as we might say, a more successful adaptation of the practice in the culture might not some day emerge. Nielsen says the same thing with different words. He adds, “if reasonable people assent to it, we have some reason for assenting to it, but whether a person is either a reasonable or a rational moral agent is not dependent on whether or not his beliefs, attitudes and actions are in accordance with majority rule of some consensus gentium” (Nielsen 1966:538). The relativist, Nielsen says, can still claim that the moral belief or attitude does not rest on rational grounds but “on a contingent and fortuitous similarity or uniformity in what is approved”(1966:539). What is rational (or adaptive) may be hidden, disguised by social factors, power relations, and fear. Since the power wielded by authority, be it political, religious or kin-based, may determine the outcome of what is deemed ethical or “approved,” the weight of authority and power relations must be factored into any “objective” understanding of the culture. How many people have been forced into behavioral patterns out of fear? In no way does this negate the concept of cultural relativism as a more truly objective understanding of a cultural system. Human behavior may be held in place by factors that could easily change as the social or cultural environment holding them in place changes. A charismatic liberator, a revolution, or even climatic change, could result in the emergence of totally different standards and lead to very different practices. While enculturation assures a strong degree of cultural continuity, innovations take place regularly in many cultures. The causes of those changes are also part of the task of an active social science. But pure knowledge has not always been used to take a stand. We might add that knowledge can only be applied rationally if conditions allow for its emergence, and if fear does not lessen its impact.
The existential philosophers could not have agreed more. Taking no action when the occasion demands action and when conscience knows better is to live inauthentically, a theme repeated by Sartre at a time when the irrationality of fascism threatened civilization (Sartre 1956). As anthropologists, we have a responsibility to faithfully report and reproduce what people in the culture we study tell us. This is true even if we personally disagree with them. But there are also occasions when what we know and see must not only be faithfully told but also faithfully acted on. At those times we penetrate beyond conventional cultural relativism and our goal of evaluating ethical behavior merges with the best goals of existential philosophy.
Alison Dundes Renteln, in a 1988 essay carries this discussion a step farther. She holds that the “theory of ethical relativism as descriptive hypothesis is not a value theory but rather a theory about value judgments” (Renteln 1988:62). Cultural relativism is a general attitude of faithful adherence to the canons of objectivity in studying another culture. How it is practiced depends on the individual and that individual’s enculturation (my italics). This is close to the heart of the decisions researchers make regarding field work, the presentation of data, and what is published. All decisions and any interest in learning about another culture are based on our own cultural background, our enculturation, our “significant others,” our curiosity about the “other.” For most anthropologists, it was other people, cultures and societies that excited interest. But it was our own people, perhaps our own sub-culture that moved us in that direction. Field work then moved us to learn more about another culture, heightening our own sense of morality. If our enculturation had taught us to merely tolerate, describe, then walk away and write a book about the exotic other, that is part of who we were and are and how we understand our work. If it led us to taking politically risky and even dangerous stands, that, too, was part of our enculturation and part of who we were or became. Beyond that, we are individuals not totally determined by fate. A personal experience that changed our life-often experiences we had during field-work-moved us to act, or confronted us with difficult choices that would move us in a more controversial or risk-taking direction.
Philosopher Kai Nielsen comes very close to stating the conflict between the individual and society, a concern prominent among several of Boas’ students in the 1930′s and 1940′s. Whole cultures, Nielsen tells us, “could be in radical disagreement about what they ought to do, and yet ethical relativism would not be established. But if it were shown that a considerable number of contradictory moral claims were equally sound and that whole moral codes were in logical conflict but were still equally well justified, then conventionalism or ethical relativism would be established” (Nielsen 1966:539). But, says Nielsen, “the rather common assumption that if men share moral beliefs then conventionalism and ethical relativism is false is itself false” (Nielsen 1966:539).
What does this mean? My interpretation is that Nielsen seems to be saying that one lone radical in a society or culture can be morally or ethically right because his claims may be more rational (Nielsen 1966:540). While human beings may not always act rationally, rational decisions and judgments are possible. Given enough time and attention, rational choices may emerge from the discourse. The breakdown of rational discourse is war, genocide or ecocide.
The decisions that are most rational under the circumstances, given the interplay of many factors, may uphold a custom or practice that seems indefensible at first glance. Or they may not. Cultural relativism equates with in-depth study of as many dimensions of a culture as can be discovered by the researcher-conflict, aggression, even stoning. It tries to maintain objectivity because ethnocentrism negates the value of the activity itself. But anthropologists also need to remember that factionalism and mob violence is part of our heritage as human animals. We are often not very rational at all, and customs and practices remain in place long after their usefulness is exhausted. We call it “cultural lag.”
Nielsen’s arguments dispose of Rachels’ contention that cultural relativism cannot be supported because it has no room for cultural universals. At its core, cultural relativism is the attitude of objectivity toward another culture. It is an approach to understanding culture that took root in the spirit of science and came into its own with the romanticism that followed the Enlightenment. That objectivity must have room for rational discourse and criticism. If objectivity – or relativism, if you wish – is abandoned, ethnocentrism results. Any meaningful attempt to understand and interpret another culture is abolished. It is unfortunate that cultural relativism has been panned as morally relativistic, contributing if anything at all only to a greater “tolerance” of other cultures. This misunderstanding must be corrected, as I said above. Objective research – however we define it – is still the core of the anthropological enterprise, and it may certainly lead to a much greater understanding of morality than the “moral relativism” that philosophers and some anthropologists complain about, and try to convince us is the main result of this research method.
Success in the anthropological enterprise really comes down to the individual and the decisions s/he makes. The heart of that enterprise is fieldwork, always an existential challenge involving psychological risk-taking, hard decisions, and courageous action. It may involve admission of having been wrong or having taken the wrong course of action. But with it, we gain valuable understanding and insight into another culture. We are reflexive, in a dialog with ourselves. As with all risk-taking endeavors, field-work also involves moral and ethical choices about how to present information, what to do with that information, and how it will affect others. As we translate another culture, the accuracy and sensitivity of what we do is a reflection of ourselves and how we choose to present ourselves to others. Inevitably, I argue, it leads to a much stronger sense of “morality” and should contribute to a broader understanding of universal standards of human conduct. Ultimately, cultural relativism depends on the training and actions of the anthropologist. What we do with cultural relativism as praxis depends on the kind of field-work we do, how we deal with the many challenges posed by field work, and the quality of that work. All this depends on our training, but also leads us inevitably to a new or heightened sense of morality. Our characterization of another culture can be shallow and incomplete or it can be rich, nuanced and so accurate that people in the culture will tell us that it is the “way we are.” Because our work has allowed us to make a contribution to knowledge and enabled us to grow intellectually and morally, the net result could never be “moral relativism.” My impression is that there is a dialectical process of growth that could never be characterized as flat or static. Anthropologists need to take advantage of what we have learned and how it has enabled us to grow as ethical beings. That’s the best result of cultural relativism.
Fernandez, James W. 1990. “Tolerance in a Repugnant World and Other Dilemmas in the Cultural Relativism of Melville J. Herskovits.” Ethos 18:2, June 1990, pp. 140-164.
Hatch, Elvin. 1983. Culture and Morality. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lewis, Herbert S. 2001. “The Passion of Franz Boas.” American Anthropologist, 103:2, June 2001, pp. 447-467.
Nafisi, Azar. 2006. “Liberal Education and the Republic of the Imagination.” Liberal Education 92:3, Summer pp.6-13.
Nielsen, Kai. 1966. “Ethical Relativism and the Facts of Cultural Relativism.” Social Research 33, pp. 531-551.
Rachels, James. 1993. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism” in James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, pp. 22-36. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Renteln, Alison Dundas. 1988. “Relativism and the Search for Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 90:56-72.
Sartre, Jean Paul. 1956. Being and Nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library.
Stocking, G. W. 1983. Observers Observed: Essays on Anthropological Fieldwork. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Thomas H. Johnson
University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
Copyright Institute for Ethnographic Research Summer 2007
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