The greatest intellectual contributions of the discipline of anthropology to contemporary American society and thought are the concept of culture and the associated notion of cultural relativism. Both have a long history within the discipline, but as with any concepts originating in a particular academic discipline and then escaping into the larger culture, they have moved beyond the control of anthropologists. That said, anthropologists (such as myself) are as free as anyone to attempt to influence the development and understanding of such concepts within that broader culture.
In its original conception, cultural relativism was developed by Franz Boas and his students in the early 20th century. Cultural relativism involves first the recognition of and respect for the importance of alternative cultural constructions of the world and the acknowledgment that there is no universal way to be a human being. Secondly, it involves a provisional suspension of ethical or moral judgment about the practices of other cultures and an impetus to understand cultural practices within their own terms or logic.
I would argue that there was both a pragmatic and an ethical motivation for the development of cultural relativism. Pragmatically, cultural relativism allows for better anthropological research. A non-judgmental attitude in research allows for an easier establishment of the rapport necessary to conduct high quality ethnographic work. The attempt to understand cultures within the terms of their own logic leads to a more refined understanding of cultural variability and possibility. As Janice Boddy has written concerning female genital modification (or female genital mutilation if you prefer that terminology) in Sudan, no matter what your moral or ethical position on the topic, the starting point should be cultural relativism. If you are interested in the topic neutrally as simply a subject of anthropological curiosity, then you need to approach it non-judgmentally and attempt to understand the practice on its own terms and within the logical of the cultural context. If you find the practice abhorrent or repellent and wish to alter the practice, you still need first to understand the practice on its own terms in order to have any hope of understanding the practical possibilities for change.
Boas was not out to change cultures (at least not in general – though his writings on race were attempts to intellectually engage racism, expose its absurdity, and contribute to changing it). Still, there was an ethical component to cultural relativism. Much earlier American anthropological work had been notoriously racist and ethnocentric in its approach (and obviously anthropological work in parts of Europe, like Nazi Germany, remained racist for quite some time into the 20th century), and the emphasis on not judging other cultures was an important counter to this. That said, this does not mean that he thought that cultural practices should be held beyond reproach or criticism simply because they were traditional practices of one or another culture. Boas stood for the importance of clarity and logic, whether applied to western culture and the exposure of racism as illogical and counter-factual, or to any other culture. Boas emphasized the equal capacity for logic and illogic cross-culturally.
As Marshall Sahlins has recently noted in Waiting for Foucault, Still:
“Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive anthropological – that is to say, methodological – procedure. It is not the moral argument that any culture or custom is as good as any other, if not better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and ideals must be placed in their own historical context, understood as positional values in the field of their own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by categorical and moral judgments of our making. Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy.”
The most important contribution of the idea of cultural relativism has no doubt been the notion that all cultures are worthy of respect. Contrary to what Boas intended, cultural relativism is often invoked to support the notion that because something is a traditional practice of another culture one can’t criticize or critique it. This is analogous to suggesting that no one outside the U.S. Southeast could criticize the racist practices of the Jim Crow era South (an argument at the time made mainly by Southern white racists).
There are a number of problems with this conception of cultural relativism. First, it’s based on a faulty notion of clear and distinct cultures. This is a notion that has been long outmoded in anthropology. Even when anthropologists did model cultures as if they were discrete and bounded entities, it’s clear from close readings of most early 20th century anthropological texts that these anthropologists were well aware that they were treating culture as a model, as a useful fiction that contributed to greater understanding of cultural processes. But that model has long since outlived its usefulness.
The model of clear and distinct cultures has outlived its usefulness on the grounds of both theoretical utility and empirical reality. At a time when the discipline of anthropology was still establishing a cross-cultural ethnological baseline and developing its fundamental concepts, this model was useful in helping to simplify matters so that these two goals could be accomplished. Once the basic data sets and concepts of the discipline were established, however, this simplifying model of discrete cultures was no longer necessary, and models which dealt with cultural processes in a more complex way became more interesting and meaningful.
Further, throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, it was the case that many cultures were relatively bounded and discrete entities. The social life of Australian aborigines was largely Australian aboriginal; though the Kwakiutl potlatch was modified in some details of practice by both the introduction of new trade goods and the demographic consequences of European disease in the 19th century, it remained an overwhelmingly Kwakiutl sort of thing; many tropical South American societies led ways of life largely untouched by European or Euro-American influence (even though metal tools, sugar cane, and rice might have been introduced). Even though cultures were never clear and separate entities, up through the early 20th century, imagining them to be so simply simplified matters. But today, with an expanding global economy, global media, and global flows of people, it is impossible to clearly delineate one culture from another culture, and such a model doesn’t just simplify but distorts matters.
There is no clear cut “other culture,” no “them” that has not been profoundly influenced by western culture (and for that matter a variety of other cultural traditions as well – as Arjun Appadurai has discussed, while western liberals may fret [perhaps with good reason] about global westernization, the Papuan residents of Irian Jaya are more likely to be concerned about Javanization). Further, there is no clear “us”. For example, if I speak of “we” anthropologists, who am I talking about? North American and Western European scholars’ voices have been most clearly represented (and as is common to add, it has been mainly white, male, heterosexual, middle and upper class voices at that), but in my own thinking about cultural relativism and global cultural processes, I have been profoundly influenced by scholars such as the Argentine-Mexican Néstor García Canclini (like myself a Euro-American, but not North or Anglo American) or scholars from South Asia or of South Asian ancestry like Appadurai, and increasingly anthropological discourse has been the product not just of western voices, but Indian and Japanese and “indigenous” voices. Like it or not, we’re involved in global social interactions, and while we can and should refrain from rushing to judgment of other people’s practices, we can’t refrain from interacting with other people and affecting (or being affected by) them. As the notion of cultural boundaries between a “them” and an “us” becomes more and more farcical, it becomes equally farcical to think that “we” for some reason can’t or shouldn’t critically engage “them.”
Second, the refusal to critique the practices of other cultures is not without effect. To refrain from active engagement is to passively accept the status quo, and the status quo in any cultural context is the product of interactions in social settings laden with power relations. Refraining from active engagement is not to be neutral but to privilege the powerful over the weaker.
Finally, cultural relativism, when taken to imply a taboo on cross cultural critique, implies pessimism about the possibility of cross-cultural communication. It is in any case a taboo on cross cultural critical dialogue. Cultural relativism is a crucial means to avoid rushing to judgment of different practices and to foster respect for diversity and autonomy, but we are enmeshed in a global system in which we are always interacting with others. We need to foster critical dialogue cross-culturally, which depends on both respect and the willingness to critique (both ourselves and others) and be critiqued.