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Cultural Relativism

The challenges anthropologists face when adopting a stance of cultural relativism in their research were anticipated nicely in my classes this week. The discussions that followed were vigourous, with students weighing in on the impossibility of avoiding ethnocentrism altogether and the untenable position of being absolutely culturally relative. Nice work!

For those interested in more on this topic, see the American Anthropological Association’s Committee to Review the Association’s Statements on Ethics. The portion relevant to this discussion is as follows:

The Commission considered what implications views about cultural relativism and moral relativism might have on development of a AAA code of ethics. What moral authority does the AAA have to create a code of ethics if espousal of cultural relativism leads to the position that the moral codes of different cultures are morally equal? The Commission took the view that cultural relativism is an important intellectual stance enabling a researcher to study how and why people act as they do. To prejudge the morality of people, to be concerned with how people ought to act before finding out how they do act, would skew the research.

However, acceptance of “cultural relativism” as a research and/or teaching stance does not mean that a researcher or a teacher automatically agrees with any or all of the practices of the people being studied or taught about, any more than any person is required to accept each practice of his or her own culture as morally acceptable. Segregation in the US was an accepted practice even though many US residents found it morally corrupt, and the institution of slavery is worthy of study even if the practice is considered immoral.

Please join in the conversation if you feel so inclined.

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3 Comments

  1. Administrator wrote:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Jamie. I appreciate your ideas on how cultural relativism is in play or affects other careers, academic studies, and indeed, the beliefs and values by which we each live.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2005 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Will wrote:

    Interesting topic. I was taught to accept relativism (both cultural and moral) as a useful tool in anthropology. Sometimes I get caught up in the politics of relativism and forget that, but the social sciences would be completely useless if we did not use relativism. Many criticize it on a political, superficial level and I think that is the basis of many problems, at least in the United States. I could easily see such a relativistic view being the catalyst for change in countless problems in other parts of the world that we as Americans have the ability to at least mitigate, if not eliminate.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2005 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  3. Administrator wrote:

    Thanks for your observations and additions to the discussion, Will. There’s lots of criticism of relativism to go around … and my students identify many of the problems when thinking about it for the first time. Whose relativism, or relativism for whom, seems to come up often in those discussions and seems to have a place in your comments too.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2005 at 9:55 am | Permalink

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  1. BeChurch on Tuesday, May 17, 2005 at 2:47 pm

    Cultural Relativism

    Tad, an anthropology professor who I studied with this year, wrote a thought provoking post on his blog about the challenges that anthropologists face in reconciling their commitment to cultural relativism with the fact that consistent and absolute cul…