Cultural relativism

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					Cultural relativism is the anthropological principle
stating that a person’s beliefs and activities must be
understood in the local context of that person’s own
culture. In 1887, Franz Boas first articulated this
principle as: “. . . civilization is not something absolute,
but . . . is relative, and . . . our ideas and conceptions
are true only so far as our civilization goes”, whereby,
he established an axiom of anthropological research.
Philospohically, cultural relativism
originated in the German Enlightenment,
when Immanuel Kant postulated that
human beings are incapable of direct,
unmediated knowledge of the world — that
all experience of it is mediated by the mind,
which universally structures experience
according to the person’s perception of time
and space.
As a methodological and heuristic method
 Cultural relativism was partly a response to Western ethnocentrism, i.e.
  the conscious belief that Western arts are the most beautiful, its values
  the most virtuous, and its beliefs the most truthful. Originally trained
  as a physicist and as a geographer, and intellectually much influenced
  by Kant, Herder, and von Humboldt, Franz Boas argued that one’s
  culture might mediate — and thus limit — objective perception of
  other cultures. His understanding of “culture” as comprehending given
  tastes in food, art, music, and religious belief, presumed a wider
  definition of culture as:
  the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities
  that characterize the behavior of the individuals composing a
  social group collectively and individually in relation to their
  natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group
  itself, and of each individual to himself.
               As methodological analysis
 Between the First and Second world wars, cultural relativism was
  the principal analytic method for U.S. anthropologists confronting
  the refusal of non-Western peoples to accept the West’s claim for
  the universality of its culture, and in salvaging non-Western
  cultures. That refusal transformed Boas’s epistemology into
  methodological lessons.
 Language is the most obvious case; although commonly perceived
  as a means of communication, Boas understood language as also a
  means of categorizing experience of the world, therefore, the
  existence of different languages indicates that people categorize and
  experience language differently, (a perspective that the Sapir-Whorf
  hypothesis develops more fully). Although people perceive light as
  the visible spectrum (color continuum), their different languages
  name its colors with different words. To wit, some languages have
  no native word corresponding to the English word “green”, hence,
  when non-English speakers see a green-color chip, they might
  identify it with their word for “blue”, and others with their word for
          As methodological analysis
 Melville Herskovits, a Boas alumnus, summarised cultural
  relativism thus: “Judgements are based on experience, and
  experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his
  own enculturation.”
 To objectively study and understand other cultures, Boas
  and alumnæ understood they would need to employ
  research methods allowing their escape from ethnocentric
  limitation. One such method is ethnography: living with
  the people of the culture being studied for an extended
  period, and learning their language to become partly
  enculturated. In that context, cultural relativism is an
  intellectual attitude of fundamental methodologic
  importance, because it underscores the importance of local
  context to comprehending the meaning of particular
  cultural beliefs and activities.
                   As a heuristic method
 Another method is ethnology: the systematic, even-handed comparison
  and contrasting of as wide as possible a range of cultures. In the late
  nineteenth century, such study was primarily effected via cultural artefact
  diplays. Typically, museum curators assumed that like causes produce like
  effects; therefore, to understand the causes of human activities, they
  grouped like artefacts together — regardless of provenance — into
  families, genera, and species, as in biology; thus organized, museums
  displayed the forms of civilisational evolution from the crude to the
  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 . . . is, that classification is not explanation.
As a critical method
 Marcus and Fischer’s underscoring anthropology’s denying the claim to
  universality of Western culture implies that cultural relativism is an
  analytical method useful for cultural understanding and for cultural
  critique. It indicates anthropology’s second aspect of 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. [9]
  About the critical function of cultural relativism, the philosopher John
  Cook said, “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”. [10]
  Despite misconstruing cultural relativism as identical to moral
  relativism, Cook’s observation applies to the broader definition of the
  term — meaning not that one’s cultural principles are false, but that
  claiming them as “self-evident” is false.
                 The Statement on Human Rights
 In 1947, cultural relativism metamorphosed into moral relativism during the composition of the
  Universal Declaration of Human Rightsby the U.N.’sCommission of Human Rightsrelativism
 The problem is thus to formulate a statement of human rights that will do more than phrase respect
  for the individual as individual. It must also take into full account the individual as a member of a
  social group of which he is part, whose sanctioned modes of life shape his behavior, and with whose
  fate his own is thus inextricably bound. The gist is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  was primarily prepared by Western societies, and expresses Western values that are not universal:
   Today the problem is complicated by the fact that the Declaration must be of world-wide
  applicability. It must embrace and recognize the validity of many different ways of life. It will not be
  convincing to the Indonesian, the African, the Chinese, if it lies on the same plane as like documents
  of an earlier period. The rights of Man in the Twentieth Century cannot be circumscribed by the
  standards of any single culture, or be dictated by the aspirations of any single people. Such a
  document will lead to frustration, not realization of the personalities of vast numbers of human
  beings. Despite possible interpretation as making a mere procedural point — that the Commission of
  Human Rights must include non-Western peoples — especially from the cultures that had been or
  that remained imperially subjugated by Europe, the Statement on Human Rights concludes with two,
  substantive claims:
  Even where political systems exist that deny citizens the right of participation in their government, or
  seek to conquer weaker peoples, underlying cultural values may be called on to bring the peoples of
  such states to a realization of the consequences of the acts of their governments, and thus enforce a
  brake upon discrimination and conquest.
  World-wide standards of freedom and justice, based on the principle that man is free only when he
  lives as his society defines freedom, that his rights are those he recognizes as a member of his society,
  must be basic.