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)

That’s How You Go Full Tilt: Superstition and Counterfactual Thinking in Gambling

Picture Credit: Roulette Board

There are three types of people when it comes to gambling. The first group relies on mathematical statistics to inform their risk appetite, the second relies on superstition or causal reasoning to justify luckiness and last group abstains from gambling entirely. Make a trip to Crown Melbourne and you may be able to differentiate these groups rather easily. Individuals attempting to hedge bets across the roulette board, a collective of tourists “ganging up” on the dealer slapping large bets on the blackjack table and by-standers observing in fascination and disbelief.

While there are no shortages of tips on the internet to “beat the house”, see how “tilt” can derail even the hardy analytical gambler in Molly’s Game (2017).

Tilt is commonly defined as a temporary cognitive impairment that erases a gambler’s risk calculation strategies in favour of aggressive gambling methods. Tilt is resultant from losing a large bet in a public and humiliating fashion.

From an anthropological perspective, I briefly illustrate how we can “rethink” tilt as a combination of superstition and counterfactual thinking. 

Superstition is a non-empiricist belief resultant from a supernatural or false conception of causation (Chen & Young 2018, p.1098). Many cultural and situational factors influence the tendency to engage in superstition such as stress, feelings of precarity, peer pressures, or even anthropomorphic beliefs (applying human-like traits to nonhuman objects or concepts). For example, getting pooped by birds is often thought to symbolise good luck in many cultures. Informed by this cultural conception, it increases one’s optimism in future outcomes, especially towards ‘get rich quick’ circumstances.

Counterfactual thinking is the process where an individual imagines an alternate event that seeks to console the experience of losing in reality. The individual manipulates his or her emotions and behaviour in downplaying the effects of losing and up-playing the potential to recoup the gambling deficit (Kim, Kwon & Hyun 2015, p.237). In Molly’s Game, Harlan was already on tilt for two nights, but he insisted to Molly that he needed to borrow $500K to gamble back to even. In this case, Harlan is using counterfactual thinking to justify the false conception of causation as well, asserting that he will stop gambling the moment he gets back to even and expressing a belief that luck is now in his favour and affecting his life outcome. To regain control, Harlan harbours superstition as a coping strategy to garner good luck by specifying his goal of making it back to even. In this way, there is a positive relationship between luck, superstition and counterfactual thinking.

Going tilt is often not only a psychological phenomenon but also influenced through a complex of social and cultural factors. I find Paul Bohannan’s “rethinking of culture” as a symbiosis of biological and socially constructed systems to be helpful in drawing an analogy to think about tilt (1973, p.371). Bohannan suggests viewing culture as double coded information, one coded in the brain and another coded through language (1973, p.374). In the same way, we are simultaneously affected by fear from biological instincts that alerts us from dangers and cultural factors such as shame that can allude us to feel low.   

In sum, anthropology can benefit from greater interdisciplinary collaborations involving the body and cultural normativity. This can create a more richly textured ethnography to understand the self. So, the next time you see a friend going tilt in life, use anthropology to “save” him, for better or for worse.


Bohannan, P, Blacking, J, Bock, B, Colby, BN, DeRaedt, J, Epstein, DG, Fischer, JL, Gjessing, G, Hewes, GW, Hay, TH, Markarian, E, Panoff, M, Schneider, DM & Voight, WJ 1973, ‘Rethinking Culture: A Project for Current Anthropologists [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 357–372.

Chen, N & Young, MJ 2018, ‘The Relationship Between Belief in Stable Luck and a Propensity for Superstition: The Influence of Culturally Conferred Agency Beliefs’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 49, no. 7, pp. 1098–1113.

Kim, SR, Kwon, Y-S & Hyun, M-H 2015, ‘The Effects of Belief in Good Luck and Counterfactual Thinking on Gambling Behavior’, Journal of Behavioural Addictions, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 236–243.

See Also:

Maddie’s piece on What’s the Point of it All?

Dyan’s piece on cultural relativism

Lani’s piece on Magic

Imogen’s piece on Clubbing