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)

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Personhood

What is a person?

Here’s a question you’ve probably never been asked. Surely, I hear you say – as I once did – a person is just a person, a human being, someone who has consciousness and rights, cogito ergo sum, y’know. A person.

Well, you’re not wrong. Personhood, defined succinctly, accurately, yet not completely, is the status of being a person (Lyons 2012).

The slightly less succinct and, I’d argue, more complete definition by Conklin and Morgan (1996, p. 662) sees personhood as a “social status granted – in varying degrees – to those who meet (or perform) socially sanctioned criteria for membership.”

What this means is that personhood is a social construction; what counts as a person, where that threshold is located and what that criteria comprises, differs between and even within societies, as seen in divisive reproductive ethics debates. It’s an intensely contested and indefinable domain further complicated by its varied implications in legal, medical, social and political sectors (Heriot 1996, p. 176).

But what about after birth? Surely there’s no question as to whether a newborn, child, or adult constitutes a person, or even a human? It’s likely you haven’t given this a second thought – perhaps because in the predominant Western tradition, personhood is inseparable from humanhood and bestowed permanently at the time of birth, if not before. In some societies, however, humanhood isn’t guaranteed until the newborn reaches a certain age or performs certain rituals.

For example, Fortes (1987, p. 260) writes that the Tallensi people of North Ghana treat plural births, such as twins or triplets, with suspicion, because they signify the possible embodiment of malicious bush-sprites or Kolkpaarəs. If a twin dies before it reaches the age of four, it is evidence that it was never really a human child. So, humanhood can sometimes be more than a biological, intrinsic birthright, instead a condition that must be proved or earned after birth. Still, being a human may not be enough to be a person: as Fortes notes, only a Tallensi adult with a sibling, who has raised a family, gained autonomy with their father’s passing, and had a “proper” death will be buried in a manner that expresses full-fledged personhood. It must be remembered that conceptions of personhood can change over time and are not homogenous, even within cultures, and that Fortes belongs to a long imperialist tradition of white male anthropologists who tended to present prescriptive, stagnant judgements.

In other cases, greater emphasis is placed on the relation between personhood and the sociality of the body. Personhood for the Wari’, according to Conklin and Morgan (1996, p. 658), is “fluid and contingent”, and may even “be lost or attenuated…with changes in social interactions or bodily composition.” Whilst many Western societies see the body as an individual entity that belongs solely and permanently to one person from birth, others require social interaction with the community to reify an individual’s attainment of personhood. These might include commensality (eating together), being identified with one’s kin, and “sharing and pursuing collective ends” (Callegaro 2012, p. 460).

The question of what constitutes personhood is open-ended: it can be fluid, impermanent, contingent on sociality or humanhood, acquired gradually or all at once. The varied cross-cultural conceptions of personhood after birth are well-suited to a culturally relative perspective and illuminate the importance of recognising one’s own ethnocentric assumptions.


Callegaro, F 2012, ‘The ideal of the person: Recovering the novelty of Durkheim’s sociology. Part 1: The idea of society and its relation to the individual’, Journal of Classical Sociology, vol. 12, no. 3-4, pp. 449-478.

Conklin, BA and Morgan LM 1996, ‘Babies, Bodies, and the Production of Personhood in North America and a Native Amazonian Society’, Ethos, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 657-694

Fortes, M 1987, Religion, Morality and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion, J Goody (ed.), Cambridge University Press.

Heriot, MJ 1996, ‘Fetal rights versus the female body: contested domains’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 176-194.

Lyons, J 2012, How Do We Judge Nonhuman Beings’ Personhood?, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, viewed 14 May 2019, <>