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Revisiting Cultural Relativism:
Old Prospects for a New Cultural
Robert C. Ulin
Western Michigan University
ultural relativism is among the most misunderstood yet socially
charged concepts associated with anthropology today. While most
American cultural anthropologists have utilized cultural relativism as a
pedagogical and sometimes political medium to challenge ethnocentric
western views and cultural practices and to promote an appreciation of
cultural diversity, ethicists, philosophers and the general public have all
too often embraced a view of cultural relativism that ostensibly allows
repugnant customs and social practices to go unchallenged. For example,
British philosopher turned social anthropologist, Ernest Gellner (1995:1822) maintains that cultural relativism, and by extension all interpretive
theories that emphasize the “local,” abandon the pursuit of truth and
thus betray the cannons of scientific inquiry. On the other hand, while
philosopher James Rachels (2003:28-31) acknowledges that there are merits to cultural relativism that include challenging assumptions about our
own rational standards, keeping an open mind, and avoiding potentially
dogmatic arguments, he invokes the rhetorically charged examples of
excision, infanticide and funerary rites as practiced in a range of societies
to dismiss cultural relativism as unsuitable for the rational grounding of
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
ethics. Rather, he argues “that there are some moral rules that all societies must have in common” (2003:26) and that therefore we should think
about social customs in terms of “whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it” (2003:28).
Not only does Rachels’ view beg the question of the standards by which
one identifies “welfare” but his perspective shares the instrumental shortcomings of utilitarianism more generally. That is, as Hannah Arendt
(1958:153-54) has noted with respect to utilitarian philosophy, ends, or in
this case practices, become the means for further ends or practices without raising the more profound social issues that inform civil society. In
more particular terms, Rachels does not consider the historical, political
and cultural configurations of power that inform the social construction
of “ welfare” in its multiplicity.
Less rhetorically charged but nonetheless compelling pleas for social
justice that include protecting the rights of women and children and the
free speech of oppositional political parties are advanced by human rights
activists who claim, likewise, that cultural relativism leaves subaltern
populations across cultures at risk because it has no universal standards
to challenge abuse and exploitation. I argue, to the contrary, that examples such as the above employed to refute cultural relativism and to support universal standards are largely based on a misconception of cultural
relativism. In some cases they present a caricature that both ignores cultural relativism’s historical and political origins and negates the longstanding reflexive potentials that are intrinsic to encountering and knowing about others. Moreover, much of the argument concerning cultural
relativism has also operated with untenable and static notions of culture.
Cultural relativism needs to be reformulated to account for populations
on the move, the refiguration of cultural assumptions across borders, and
cultural practices as well as the contesting of culture that plays out dialectically in defined social spaces with porous boundaries.
Salient Formulations
Alison Dundes Renteln (1988) maintains correctly that cultural relativism
is not an entirely new doctrine as the Greeks, most specifically Herodotus,
recognized the importance of understanding cultural differences between
societies in light of regnant assumptions that one’s own values are superior (1988: 57). Moreover, permutations of the cultural relativism debate
are also found more contemporaneously in the writings of Hume and
Montaigne, no doubt a reflection of the expansion of trade and empire,
as was the case with Herodotus. This is not to say, however, that Dundes
Renteln believes that cultural relativism is a historically continuous concept reproduced unchanged throughout history. She remarks that the
modern version of cultural relativism was central to Franz Boas’s, Melville
Herskovits’s and Ruth Benedict’s opposition to invidious nineteenth century models of cultural evolution that placed European societies at the
pinnacle of human development while relegating indigenous culture to
humanity’s dawn. Although acknowledging their historical, if not theoretical conflation, Dundes Renteln elects to ignore debates about epistemological and linguistic relativism in favor of discussing cultural and ethical
relativism because she believes that the latter more directly address universal human rights. In this regard, Renteln contends that Herskovits’s
belief that some—she emphasizes not all—evaluations are “relative to
the cultural background out of which they arise” (1988:59) is defensible.
Dundes Renteln maintains that there are three theories of ethical relativism that “appear under various guises” (1988:60). She refers to the
first as the “theory of apparent ethical relativism” that contends that peoples “differ in their basic moral beliefs” (1988:60). Although Dundes
Renteln contends that “apparent cultural relativism” is often wrongly
challenged for having erroneous facts, she maintains, following scholars
such as Richard Brandt (1967) and William Frankena (1973), that this theory has the virtue of showing that empirical differences in cultural practices do not negate accepted moral universals. Following Paul Schmidt’s
(1955) ethical relativism as descriptive, Dundes Renteln identifies a second theory that she labels quite simply “ethical relativism.” This theory
contends that there can be no value judgments which are “objectively
true” apart from their local context, a position that Dundes Renteln
defends. The third theory identified by Dundes Renteln is “ethical relativism as prescriptive” (1988:61). According to Dundes Renteln, this theory supports the view that right action can only be determined by reference to the context of a particular culture, a view that she associates with
the “extreme” but nonetheless defensible relativism of Benedict and
Herskovits. While the emphasis on ethical relativism as descriptive is the
“ factual” association of values with particular cultures, ethical relativism
as prescriptive asserts that we cannot determine which values across cultures are superior because all values are relative to particular cultures.
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
Dundes Renteln’s strategy to resolve the avowed ethical problems of
cultural relativism is novel in that she seeks to separate cultural relativism from an implied sense of tolerance and hence to argue, contrary
to many ethicists and philosophers like the aforementioned Rachels, that
there is no inherent contradiction between cultural relativism and moral
criticism. This strategic move allows the cultural relativist to celebrate
cultural diversity while taking critical stands towards cultural practices
that are potentially objectionable. She concludes, however, in my view
regrettably,—and here her view is not contrary to Rachels—that cultural relativism is compatible with cultural universals which can be in her
view ascertained from empirical research and cross cultural comparison.
While Dundes Renteln never elaborates specifically what those cultural
universals are likely to be, her belief that the ethical dilemmas of cultural relativism can be resolved methodologically is consistent with the
utopian aspirations of Enlightenment reason and modernity more generally (see Gadamer 1975).
Dundes Renteln’s embracing of Enlightenment reason is by no means
unique as there are numerous scholars, perhaps even the vast majority,
who support her emphasis on universals and the utopian aspirations of
reason1. Jürgen Habermas (1984) argues, for example, that the emancipatory or utopian aspirations of modernity and critical reason remain unrealized. However, rather than searching for “empirical” universals crossculturally, as Renteln suggests, Habermas believes that the critical
standard to evaluate power constraints or domination can be taken from
the normative or reputedly universal conditions of ordinary language
communication. He argues that ordinary language is typified by mutual
comprehensibility, mutual recognition and the intention to communicate
truthfully. Thus, for Habermas, the normative conditions of ordinary language communication serve as a universal model of social interactions
free from constraints or domination. However, Habermas’s effort to link
universal conditions of normative communication to truth and power by
way of the progressive learning capacity of human societies through critical reason, ultimately draws from Lawrence Kohlberg’s cognitive or
developmental psychology. Kohlberg argues, in short, that a child’s capacity to reason increases with age and maturation. By analogy, Habermas
believes, and here we are reminded of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that as
societies mature they likewise increase their potential for critical reflexivity, the potential to learn from experience, and thus can establish social
relations and social action on more rational grounds that approximate
freedom. Habermas’s perspective reflects what post modernists have
called the seduction of reason by universalizing through a developmental
idiom what is historically and culturally particular (see Lyotard: 1984). To
his credit, though, Habermas does identify communicative reciprocity as
the foundation of potentially equal social relations. Unlike most scholars
who advocate for universal ethics, Habermas’s position provides a process
or structure for equitable communication and social relations without,
however, specifying content.
Contrary to Dundes Renteln’s emphasis on the universal and, in my
view, Habermas’s unfortunate application of Kohlberg’s model of development to rationality, Clifford Geertz maintains with his usual wit and humor,
in a distinguished lecture originally delivered to the American
Anthropological Association and later published in the American
Anthropologist (1984), that the problem with cultural relativism is not that
“anything goes”—an idea he argues supported by no one—but rather with
what he identifies as the “anti-relativist” response to cultural relativism.
Unlike Dundes Renteln, Habermas and Rachels, Geertz will have nothing of
purported cultural universals and believes that far greater political and
social dangers reside in theories that advance what is particular as universal. This is a charge that not only applies to philosophers who have misunderstood or utterly disregarded the historical context that has given rise to
cultural relativism, such as we find in the Anglo-American rationality
debates about which I (2001) have written,2 but it is also a point of criticism directed to anthropologists like Robin Horton (1982), Dan Sperber
(1982), Robert Edgerton (1978) and Melford Spiro (1978) who embrace various versions of an ultimately reductive human mind or human nature.
Spiro is perhaps best known for research on kibbutz children. As Geertz
points out, Spiro argues that although the kibbutz emphasizes collective
over individual goals and seeks to inculcate in children a spirit of cooperation through collective child rearing, that kibbutz children nonetheless
exhibit “motivational dispositions that are culturally invariant.” For Spiro,
such motivational dispositions are a product of “pan-human biological
and cultural constraints” (1978:336). According to Geertz, we find much
of the same view expressed by Edgerton in a psychological anthropology
that although, like Spiro, indebted to Freud, ultimately, unlike Freud (see
Ricoeur 1970), rests on biological grounds. That is, for Edgerton, to grasp
the study of deviance cross-culturally, it is necessary to invoke a “context807
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
independent” notion of human nature—one in which genetically encoded potentials for behavior that we all share are seen to underlie [our universal] propensity for deviance” (Edgerton in Geertz 1984:271). Gone is
the “psychology” from psychological anthropology as Edgerton ultimately substitutes brain for mind.
Robin Horton believes, likewise, in a manner that broadly resonates
with neo-Kantian philosophy, not to mention Lévi-Strauss, that a contextindependent rationality ultimately underlies the diversity of cultures.
With Horton, we recognize a perspective that is highly sympathetic to the
reputed stability and tranquility of indigenous cultures, albeit a highly
romantic vision, while being critical of the pace of life and stress that typifies life in modernity. However, Horton maintains, like the philosopher
Karl Popper, that modern societies are open due to the potential of selfcriticism while indigenous cultures are closed due to the determinations—one should say “over-determinations”—of tradition. Although
romanticism may perhaps be excused as an inevitable liability of research
in the “bush,” Horton concludes that all human experience is based upon
invariable material object concepts that are inborn. It is these material
object concepts, the label theory of language reincarnated, that enable
peoples from different cultures to communicate at all3. That is, there is a
direct, ultimately biological writ cognitive connection between words and
the physical objects they represent. It is these irreducible words or concepts, according to Horton, that allow conversations across languages and
culture to proceed and that ultimately leads us to agree on sharing or
inhabiting a common physical world.
In Geertz’s view, Sperber, on the other hand, does not even believe
that relativism is defensible or even more acutely a position at all.
Sperber maintains that the idea that people from different cultures live
in “different worlds” is simply not supportable through facts. For
Sperber, relativist anthropologists simply provide “their philosophical
and lay audience with just what they want to hear” (Sperber in Geertz
1984:274). For Geertz—and his whole career testifies to this—morality
and knowledge are not beyond culture, they are embedded in the shifting grounds of culture. Thus what we take to be “facts” or “human
nature” are themselves culturally prefigured.
Geertz and Renteln’s essays serve rhetorically—and admittedly there
are others that would suffice—to highlight the theoretical and possibly the
political tensions between scholars who uphold ethical standpoints
through human universals and others—hopefully the majority of anthropologists—who are committed to the relativity of cultural beliefs and
social practices without abandoning social critique. The belief in human
universals is by no means new and surely is not restricted to anthropologists past and present. For example, Johannes Fabian (1983: 11) has
argued, that Renaissance and Enlightenment notions of reason were universalized and then later through Western expansion and colonization
transformed into the naturalization of time. While Enlightenment
philosophes like Jean Jacques Rousseau (1964) understood difference in
terms of culture—actually property to be more exact—nineteenth century theorists grasped differences in space as differences in time. Fabian
refers to the uses of space to define difference as “the denial of coevalness,” a process that he believes is continuous in anthropology today even
though most anthropologists have thoroughly critiqued nineteenth and
early twentieth century formulations of social evolution. The continuity
can be identified, claims Fabian, through concepts such as “traditional”
and “modern” or “rural” and “urban” that suggest a discontinuity in time.
Fabian’s work stands as a corrective to Dundes Renteln’s assertions
about cultural relativism, “tolerance,” and “cultural universals” because
he situates epistemological assumptions about culture in long historical,
intellectual and political trajectories that are not in fact abandoned in
cultural relativism and some contemporary renderings of the culture concept—a point that I will take up shortly. Likewise, while Geertz is right to
focus on anti-relativism as hostile to and damaging to culture as locally
constituted and situationally known, he shares with Dundes Renteln the
tendency to overlook the broader power constraints under which culture
is produced and reproduced, and perhaps little else.
The relation between culture, relative or otherwise, and power was not,
however, a relation that totally escaped Boas’s attention. This is not to say
that Boas, or Herskovits and Benedict for that matter, were theorists of
power or that they directly took on the history of colonialism and global
capitalism in a manner that would satisfy cultural anthropologists today.
Rather, as mentioned above, all three anthropologists associated with cultural relativism in its incipient form were reacting to the ethnocentric and
invidious assumptions of unilineal evolutionism. Boas was, however, nearly unique among his early colleagues and students in that the practice of
his anthropology was at times activist. As George Stocking (1968) has
shown, Boas was very much involved in challenging racist assumptions and
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
practices involved in the processing of immigrants at Ellis Island—perhaps
representing universalism in its worse sense—and also critically engaged
poverty in New York City by supporting quasi-socialist settlement houses.
To Boas’s credit, his activism situated his vision of anthropology apart from
a seemingly distant or disengaged tolerance that would become associated with cultural relativism. In my view, Boas’s commitment to understanding the “other” was authentic in its challenge to western arrogance concerning what it means to be human in its multiplicity.
As she suggested earlier, Dundes Renteln maintains that Herskovits
position on cultural relativism is “broad and quite radical” (1988:57). This
is the case because for Herskovits not only are cultural perceptions and
practices relative but so are the categories through which we judge others
and their culture. That is, “evaluations are relative to the cultural background out of which they arise,” a view as we shall see that anticipates
but does not encompass Geertz’s interpretive anthropology of the 1960s
and later. Dundes Renteln argues that Herskovits radical position leads to
the “specter of self-refutation.” Benedict, on the other hand, develops
her cultural relativism in relation to ideal typifications of societies such as
“Dionysian and Apollonian” borrowed from Nietzsche’s anti-rationalist
philosophy. In short, although ideal typifications generally belie the
intent of cultural relativism, there is with both Herskovits and Benedict a
critical edge that contributes to cultural relativism as reflexive.
Cultural relativism is germane to the reflexive and critical potentials of
anthropology even if our anthropological ancestors would have declined
such an association. Margaret Mead’s (1950) cross-cultural studies of adolescence and gender is just one of many anthropological examples that
were used by feminist scholars to challenge gender stereotypes and to
argue for gender as a social construct. Such arguments have, in turn, supported changes in public policies that have advanced gender equity in public life. In spite of Dundes Rentlen’s disclaimers, the reflexive moment of
cultural relativism does, in my view, suggest an attitude of “tolerance, ”
even if tolerance potentially implies a weak acceptance of difference or
perhaps even an intellectualized or emotional distance. That is, studying
other cultures makes us aware of the plurality of customs and beliefs that
exist worldwide and potentially leads to constructive engagement with and
questioning of our own assumptions. Under the best of circumstances, concrete knowledge of cultural differences may cultivate an acceptance of
broadly defined senses of what it means to be human.
Apart from unilineal evolutionary or developmental models that recognize difference pejoratively, this does not mean that recognizing cultural
diversity negates universal claims. One merely has to consider the implications of Lévi-Strauss’s “pensée sauvage” or Horton’s “material-object
language,” both of which emphasize unity that underlies difference. In
the case of Lévi-Strauss, the structural anthropologist acknowledges, if
not celebrates, the vast diversity of myths that exist across cultures while
insisting that such diversity is ultimately reducible to a finite number of
universal themes. Horton on the other hand is well aware of cultural
diversity but insists that constancy in the physical world is based upon
finite and universal connections between inborn concepts and the world
to which they refer. However, in terms of the politics of culture, or even
more recently the “cultural wars,” cultural relativism has served critical
scholarship and progressive politics in general by challenging western
arrogance and self-certainty with respect to claims to rationality and the
appropriateness of diverse cultural practices as embodied in particular
representations of modernity. This is surely the intent of post-modern
critics who in advancing a version of cultural relativism as “cultural pastiche,” albeit with more porous and blended cultural boundaries, seek to
undermine the privilege and power of modernity along western lines.4
What though of Geertz’s laudable claim that morality and knowledge are
culturally constructed? A stronger sense of reflexivity involves not only
knowing the other as a challenge to western cultural hegemony—and here
again Fabian is exemplary without, however, overlooking earlier efforts
such as Dell Hymes’ (1969) edited Reinventing Anthropology, but it also
makes evident and critiques the practices of anthropology itself. Some may
find my application of cultural relativism to social critique and unveiling
the assumptions that inform the practice of anthropology as a liberal if not
far stretch for cultural relativism. However, I believe that cultural relativism
has stronger historical ties to such critique than it does to the contention
advanced by philosophers that cultural relativism is a highly flawed ethical
vision. If as Geertz suggests, and I have argued likewise (2001), we can link
knowledge claims to cultural, and I would add historical contexts, then we
are much better positioned to proceed with critical evaluations of science
and technology and to challenge within the vision of modernity itself what
Jürgen Habermas (1984) has referred to as the colonization of the “life
world” on the part of instrumental rationality. That is, recognizing the cultural figuration and refiguration of knowledge claims as suggested through
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
the critical applications of cultural relativism helps us to recognize the
assumptions that inform the practice of science and to challenge the application of technical knowledge writ natural to the surveillance and regulation of public life and our experience of living together.
Now that I have perhaps taken cultural relativism where it does not typically go, I think it is important to assess the limitations that are in my view
intrinsic to the concept itself. If you will, I will make use of cultural relativism to critique cultural relativism without, I hope, having the dog chase
its own tail—perhaps another metaphor for the hermeneutic circle.
Moreover as we shall see, the critique of cultural relativism also applies
to the Anglo-American rationality debates mentioned by Geertz and more
generally to the claims of universal ethics.
It should be obvious that cultural relativism makes use of the culture
concept in its various forms. Although much of American anthropology is
vested in the culture concept, this is less so outside of North America. For
example, in England and continental Europe social structure prevails
through the legacy of Durkheim, the linguistics of de Saussure, and more
recent applications such as Anthony Giddens (1979) bold efforts to integrate structure and human agency. The culture concept itself has nevertheless proved to be elusive and therefore does not lend itself to operationalization, as do many concepts in the social sciences ostensibly. While
operationalizing concepts is remote from my own interests and practice,
it is of course important to reputedly scientific models of social science.
Scientists believe strongly that they must agree on the meaning of terms
and concepts that they employ in their research if results are to be valid.
Given the wide views on what constitutes culture, all too many introductory texts rely on, perhaps resignation is a better term, Tylor’s classic definition of a “complex whole,” a definition that in its late nineteenth century context has been associated with civilization. That is, while Tylor did
emphasize culture as learned, his embracing of evolutionary theory promoted a formulation where culture is present by degree in different
developmental stages of humanity (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001:23). Later
formulations of culture whether in the form of Kroeber’s superorganic
idealism or White and Steward’s materialism likewise failed to establish a
consensus among anthropologists.
Contrary to these earlier reified and reductive formulations of culture
that are insufficiently attentive to human agency and intersubjectivity,
Clifford Geertz argued eloquently and persuasively for a culture concept of
shared meaning following, in part, the hermeneutic tradition of Paul
Ricoeur and Parsonian social theory. From hermeneutics, Geertz takes the
analogy between the interpretation of human action and the critical reading of a text whereby meaning is independent of an author or actors intentions and subject to the interpretive framework of the audience for which
it is intended. Meaning is, therefore, according to Geertz, public and subject to constant negotiations among its interlocutors. From Talcott
Parsons, Geertz borrows the distinction between the logic of integration
that informs society and social structure, the causal-functional, and the
logic of integration that informs culture, or social meaning as public.
Although hermeneutics may be the stronger influence on Geertz, (1973:44)
his analogy between culture and “plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what
computer engineers call “programs”)” betrays in part his indebtedness to
Parson’s formalism. However, for Geertz hermeneutics prevails and thus
he avoids the positivistic implications of a “science of culture” while also
reminding us that culture is not located in our heads but rather it is shared
intersubjectively. By articulating a vision of culture as shared meaning,
Geertz establishes an alternative methodological task for anthropologists
in what he calls, following, this time, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, “thick
description.” Thick description, in short, involves recovering the “said” of
any social action. In phenomenological terms, it is the elaboration of lived
experience, the meanings that inform their public actions. Consequently,
for Geertz, anthropology is not a natural science in search of law but an
interpretive, hermeneutic effort in search of meaning.
There is very little in common between Geertz’s rendering of culture
and that presented by anthropologists committed to science, inclusive of
those scholars who are resolute about laws and human universals.
However, I believe that both scientific views and Geertz’s theory assume
a homogeneous notion of culture. That is, while Geertz’s view of culture
surely is theoretically distinct from positivist social science, the scientific
justification of science, 5 his emphasis on public meaning still implies that
cultural meanings are widely shared. It is not clear whether widely shared
also implies uniformly shared, especially if we are attentive to the meaning of lived experience. Whether widely or uniformly shared, this is,
nonetheless, a view of culture that is not especially attuned to discordant
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
cultural practices or for that matter contested meanings. In order to focus
on the discordant culture and contested meanings, anthropologists must
pay attention to concrete human subjects who may be situated differentially in alternative fields of power and action. By regarding culture in
terms of “plans” recipes” and “blue prints” Geertz does not demonstrate
how public meanings, abstract and formal, are related to concrete actors
that are differentiated in terms of fields of social action. This is precisely
the criticism that William Roseberry (1989) directed to Geertz’s (1973) celebrated essay on the Balinese cockfight. To get to the heart of the matter,
Roseberry argues that Geertz does not address the colonial legacy that
foregrounds Balinese cockfighting and positions its participants differentially. Rather, Geertz assumes that the meanings of public symbols
involved in the cockfight are widely shared.
In spite of an emphasis on shared meaning that potentially, I believe,
should be open to contested meanings, Geertz is by no means unique in
his homogeneous view of culture. In fact, until relatively recently, the
model of bounded culture—which seems to be an analog of homogeneous culture—has predominated with few exceptions in much of anthropology. While there is a long history to conceptualizing “bounded culture” that transcends what I can possibly convey here, I believe that there
are historically at least two interrelated factors that have contributed to
viewing culture as circumscribed. First, there is a tradition in anthropology of conducting field research in a well-defined, circumscribed areas.
Anthropologists have, therefore, typically defined, their field sites as the
village, neighborhood, or community. With few exceptions, and Ernestine
Friedl (1962) comes to mind,6 anthropologists would regard their field
sites as if they had only an inside and tended to disregard external, even
regional influences and exchanges. One could perhaps understand such a
rendering of the field site as a legacy of research in cultural anthropology being conducted by the lone anthropologist, the assumption being that
circumscription was a practical necessity. The boundaries of the field site
were thus often regarded as the boundaries of a shared culture.
Second, the identification of a circumscribed field site can also be
understood as a reflection of anthropology’s close identity with smallscale indigenous cultures. The identification with small-scale indigenous
societies is, as Talal Asad (1973) and numerous others have argued, an
outgrowth of anthropology’s early associations with colonialism.
Epistemologically speaking, the assumption that informs this identifica814
tion—and here again I can invoke Fabian’s (1983) notion of the “denial of
coevalness”—is that small-scale indigenous societies are seamless, reproducing cultural practices over time with little or no change. Such a view
not only promotes homogeneity of culture but it also supports a view of
timeless, unchanging “tradition” that is generally compared to our uses of
the “modern” as dynamic. Viewing tradition as unchanging also supports
the once widely held view that indigenous people are without history. I
maintain that cultural relativism unintentionally reproduces the assumptions of culture as homogeneous, localized. That is, the “other” has a set
of identifiable, clearly distinct customs, beliefs and cultural practices that
can be compared to our clearly identifiable and distinct customs. The
dilemma then seems to be, albeit in my view wrong headed, what counts
as appropriate or ethical conduct when culture is so relative. Even the
aforementioned Anglo-American rationality debates that raise some very
interesting questions about multiple rationalities, epistemology and
hermeneutics more generally, assume a relation between subject and
object—better stated as co-subjects (see Ulin 2001) that takes widely
shared, distinct cultures as a given.
In spite of the tenacity and enduring views of culture as “distinct” and
“homogeneous,” it very well may be that Andre Gunder Frank’s (1969) theory of the “development of underdevelopment,” followed by Immanuel
Wallerstein’s (1974) world systems theory, did much to bring to the attention of anthropologists the importance of long-term regional and transnational processes that have rendered suspect visions of circumscribed
and homogeneous culture. Gunder Frank, for example, illustrated that it
was not the “shackles of tradition” or environment that held back development in the third world as often argued by development theorists and
international organizations such as the World Bank. To the contrary,
Gunder Frank argued that it was the systemic and unequal economic
exchange between western capitalist nations and the third world that led
to what he coined as “the development of underdevelopment.” GunderFrank’s vision of the historical and economic factors that shape underdevelopment was important both for its emphasis on a global perspective
and because it refused to blame the victims of exploitation and poverty.
Immanuel Wallerstein had a somewhat different objective than Gunder
Frank but with theoretical insights and conclusions that were essentially
similar. Wallerstein’s objective was to account for the development of the
international capitalist economy by emphasizing the role of mercantile
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
capitalism more generally in what would amount in the long run to commodity production and wage labor as dominant. Wallerstein’s division of
the world capitalist economic system into core, semi-periphery and
periphery is by now well known. Wallerstein’s theory would latter be critiqued and modified by Eric Wolf (1982), Sidney Mintz (1985) and others
for implying that local peoples and cultures were overdetermined by their
subaltern relation to western capitalist cores. This implied that local peoples had no agency of their own, thereby negating possible challenges
that local people make to hegemonic political and economic systems.
Moreover, core and periphery also reinforced the idea that local cultures
were homogeneous for without a sense of agency it is hard to imagine
how culture can be contested. To his credit though, Wallerstein, like
Gunder Frank, made it increasingly difficult to think about culture as
homogeneous and isolated from transnational processes.
Tradition itself, as John Cole (1977) argued years ago in speaking not
about indigenous societies but Europe, is not a “timeless given” but rather
is a product of the very political and economic forces that we associate with
mercantile and industrial capitalism and now globalization. Recognizing
the political, economic and social processes that operate on both regional
and now global terrains, and the consequent mobility of peoples and cultures—and I emphasize that this is not recent—forces us ethnographically
speaking, to think of cultures (unless reification is our intention) as differentiated and porous entities where the identities of subjects are made and
remade across boundaries and where power shapes the actual and the possible across different fields of social interaction. I suspect this makes the
usual concerns of cultural relativism a bit more complicated.
Although I have emphasized the reflexive and critical potentials of cultural relativism with respect to how knowledge of the “other” has been used
historically to challenge universal assumptions that reputedly underlie
the human condition in its plurality, it is also important to recognize, as I
suggested earlier, how representations of a differentiated “other” potentially advances modernist hegemony or what some scholars refer to more
comprehensively as the project of modernity (Gupta 1998). Michael
Taussig (1993) argues, for example, that the “indigenous” other fulfills the
“desire” of modernity in that modernity, at least its western version, has
since the Enlightenment defined itself in terms of alterity. According to
Taussig, alterity serves to define the special conditions of Enlightenment
rationality in its dismissal of tradition and is likewise reproduced in the
numerous dichotomies—the aforementioned rural and urban—that are
central to the identity of contemporary anthropology. This is a point that
is made as well by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1991) in tracing what he calls
the savage slot to the Renaissance which, like Taussig, he believes is
embraced by academic anthropology. Trouillot (1991: 28) argues: “It has
often been said that the savage or primitive was the alter ego of the West
constructed for itself. What has not been emphasized enough is that this
Other was a Janus, of whom the savage was only the second Face.” Using
the “other” to simply fulfill the destiny of modernity, utopian or otherwise, risks reinforcing rather than challenging Western hegemony. I
believe, though, that this is merely a caution to be applied to cultural relativism rather than a dismissive necessity or limitation.
My discussion has largely focused, in summary, on both the history and
multiple applications of cultural relativism as a medium for appreciating
cultural diversity and for thinking critically about social practices and
views that are taken for granted or regarded to be universally true.
However, cultural relativism by no means exhausts the realm of ethics as
applied to anthropological practice. There are, for example, whole ranges
of ethical issues that are not generally addressed in discussions of cultural
relativism. These can include the American Anthropological Association’s
code of ethics, which are concerned with numerous issues that govern
fieldwork and how anthropologists deal with their informants and the larger communities in which they conduct research. Some of these concerns,
such as “signed consent” or “informed consent,” have precipitated lively
interchanges with Human Subjects Institutional Review Boards that are
largely unfamiliar with ethnographic research and which too often operate
with a model heavily invested in clinical research. Likewise, there are
many serious ethical concerns that are raised through the representation
of “others” as addressed by scholars who have both reflected on writing
culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) as well as writing against culture
(AbuLughod 1991). In my view, these concerns are not only ethical but
political as well. Peter Pels (1999) has covered very well much of this
ground (see also Pels and Salemink 2000) as has Castãneda (2006) in a far
reaching recent essay that distinguishes morals from ethics in anthropology. However, while these scholars do raise crucial issues that are germane
Revisiting Cultural Relativism: Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
to the practice of anthropology, none of them specifically engages the historical trajectory of cultural relativism and so consequently I do not take
up in this essay the larger politics of ethnographic representation.
My critical comments on cultural relativism are not meant to be a dismissal of cultural relativism, especially since I have argued for the critical
possibilities of reflexive anthropology that follow from studying others as
part of a process of critically understanding ourselves. However, I very
much agree with Geertz that the problem is less with what is relative and
more with arguments advanced in support of absolutes and universals.
The challenge posed by reputed universals is more than academic but
reaches to the very heart of policy formation and law at the levels of the
nation state and beyond. We simply need to recall the debates in France
over the chador or here in America the ethnically charged discussions of
policing borders or for that matter the renewal of the 2001 U.S.A. Patriot
Act. Cultural relativism can and should speak critically to these social and
political issues. The real concern for me is less the imagined ethical lapses of cultural relativism as misapplied by ethicists and philosophers and
more the dangers of universals that conceal historical and social inequalities and the abuses of power. With that said, I believe cultural relativism
is well worth our continued support.
With respect to contemporary social theory, the embracing of Enlightenment reason
is the principal divide between scholars who remain committed to the project of
modernity and postmodern scholars who challenge the hegemonic implications of
modernity, especially meta-theories that marginalize indigenous and “third-world” discourses and narratives.
The Anglo-American rationality debates depart from Peter Winch’s (1958) critique of
Evans-Pritchard’s claim that although Zande witchcraft beliefs are rational witches do
not exist. Winch supported a context dependent notion of rationality against numerous philosophers and social scientists who claim that there are universal standards of
The label theory of language assumes that there is a direct relation between words
and objects in the world. This theory was critiqued through the ordinary language philosophy of the later Wittgenstein (1953; 1965), which emphasized that the meaning of
words is dependent upon their use in various language games.
Postmodern theory is also critical of meta-theory that poses grand schemas of the
human condition. Such a meta-theory would be Marx’s notion that the human species
makes itself through social labor or Habermas’s idea that communication can serve as
the basis of evaluating social interaction free from constraint. The classic formulation
of postmodernism is Lyotard’s (1984) The Postmodern Condition. In anthropology, the
postmodern condition has been advanced by Stephen Tyler (1984) and several of the
contributors to Clifford and Marcus’s edited volume Writing Culture: The Poetics and
Politics of Ethnography (1986).
There are numerous renderings of positivism that range from perspectives that
emphasize human society as continuous with nature and therefore lawful to the view
I have expressed here that emphasizes the autonomy of science from historical and cultural prefiguration.
Ernestine Friedl’s Vasilika was one of the earliest ethnographies, certainly among
Europeanists, to recognize that the nature of what one finds inside the Greek village
that she studied is related socially, culturally and in terms of political economy to outside processes of the region and nation state.
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