Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: (Cultural) Relativism

Relativism or, more specifically, cultural relativism, is the notion that concepts and ideas are relative to the cultural context in which they are produced and understood. Like the image above suggests, the notion of oppression, or male-dominance, might very well differ depending on the culture in which a woman belongs. The idea behind cultural relativism is that ‘panhuman generalizations’ (Spiro 1986, 262) about “culture” and “humanity” are likely to ‘be either false or vacuous’ (ibid.), since (it is argued), no two cultures are the same, or maintain the same understanding(s) of any given concept or idea. Rather, ideologies – such as, for example, “morality”, or “knowledge” – are determined by the ‘historical and social conditions that gave rise to [those concepts]’ (Miller et al. 2019, 295).

Okay, you might be thinking. That sounds straight-forward enough. Different cultures interpret things differently. Got it. Well… not so fast. Just as the cartoon above could be considered reductive – reducing the agency of the women in determining what they wear and why; reducing the relative perceived “seriousness” of male-domination in both cultures; and not to mention the fact that depicting a woman in a full burqa does not necessarily specify her “culture”, merely her religion – so too has cultural relativism received criticism in the academic sphere for being reductive. These days, ‘the label of relativism is more likely to be levelled as an accusation that adopted as a positive description’ (Paleček & Risjord 2012, 10).

The debate has been going on for decades. Claiming that all cultures are inherently, intrinsically, fundamentally, different, implies that ‘there are no available transcultural standards by which different cultures might be judged’ (Spiro 1986, 260). Not judged in an aesthetic or superficial sense, but in a moralistic sense. For example, surely the age-old maxim of “murder is bad” should be held universally, no matter the culture? And yet we know it’s not that simple. More than that, though, claiming that cultures are “unique” and distinct from each other is ‘implicitly comparative, in that to be unique means something must be compared and judged different to others’ (Miller et al. 2019, 284). In this way, then, cultural relativism has completed an Ouroboros revolution; a snake eating its own tail. Anthropology especially, it is argued, is the most ‘formally aligned with the very idea of the comparative’ of all the social sciences, since comparing cultures is almost ‘definitional of the discipline’ (ibid.). Certainly, cultural relativism is a concept you’re bound to come across many times in your Anthropology studies, in both its positively and negatively associated forms

At this point, I wouldn’t blame you for heaving a great sigh of exasperation and thinking, Well, that doesn’t clear anything up! And you’re not wrong. But, I say, take comfort in its subjectivity: for just as cultural relativism dictates that concepts are relative to the culture in which they are understood, so too is the very concept of cultural relativism relative to the anthropologist in whose work it is being referenced.

Image Source: Malcolm Evans (Artist)


Miller, D., Costa, E., Haapio-Kirk, L., Haynes, N., Sinanan, J., McDonaldn, T., Nicolescu, R., Spyer, J., Venkatraman, S., and Wang, X. 2019, ‘Contemporary Comparative Anthropology – The Why We Post Project’, Ethnos, Vol. 84, No. 2, pp.283-300

Paleček, M. and Risjord, M. 2012, ‘Relativism and the Ontological Turn within Anthropology’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp.3-23

Spiro, M.E. 1986, ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp.259-286

See Also:

Cultural Appropriation and Cake?? A Bittersweet Analogy

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

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