More than a century of ethnographic research profoundly supports the theory of cultural relativity, the theory that culture shapes beliefs, provides concepts, organizes value systems, and informs and orients human behavior. Anthropologists find it obvious that human behavior is culturally informed and culturally specific, and best approached as a series of “practices” with specific cultural orientations and entailments. Anthropologists are comfortable with cultural relativity as a matter of fact. While other disciplines have struggled to accommodate the realities of cultural relativity, in recent decades anthropologists have debated the social organization of cultural differences in complex societies under modern conditions. Cultural relativism, the paradoxical extension of the facts of cultural difference into an epistemology and moral philosophy doubtful of all absolutes, troubles other kinds of social scientists far more than it does anthropologists, who are, by and large, still confident of their capacity to critically understand matters of fact and questions of value under conditions of cultural variety and complexity. While other disciplines debate the perils of relativism, anthropologists debate the fate of cultural differences in a globalizing world.
Anthropologists are comfortable with facts of cultural difference because such differences are the very stuff of their research. Ongoing successes in the description and analysis of cultural differences are degrees of proof, after all, against strong forms of cultural relativism. Insofar as ethnographers—researchers into particular cultures—can successfully understand and explain unanticipated cultural differences, then regardless of the extremity of differences, cultures are not truly incommunicably and ungraspably variant. To this degree they are not “incommensurable,” to use a term from Romanticist philology made popular (by Thomas Kuhn) in twentieth century philosophy of science. However, in other social science disciplines, facts of cultural difference have often seemed to threaten the quality of data rather than integrating it. In some disciplines, acknowledging fundamental cultural differences has seemed tantamount to succumbing to a knowledge-defeating relativism. In psychology and in linguistics, cultural relativism is rendered into an extreme, fascinating, but partly dubious theory of perception; for economics, political science, and sociology it is a challenge to the generalizability of research findings; for philosophy it is a contemptible threat to the certainty and even adequacy of any and all concepts and conclusions. Ironically, thus, cultural relativism means different things in different contexts. What it means and the depth of its threat to knowledge varies significantly according to the premises, needs, and purposes of the various disciplines. The public, like academic disciplines, can also take different stances toward different cultural relativisms; the same person can be a fascinated cosmopolitan when trying new clothing or food, an appalled observer watching a news broadcast, an angry voter, and a generous neighbor. Cultural relativities and cultural relativism can be unevenly acknowledged within a single discipline or person.
Debates about cultural relativism and cultural relativity predate the beginnings of the modern social sciences, and play an important role in their foundation. At one key juncture in the history of ideas, the philosopher Immanuel Kant was challenged by his one-time student, Johannes Gottfried Herder, over the origin and nature of concepts. Herder inspired research in the disciplines of geography, ethnology, and above all philology—the study of the history of words—when he doubted his teacher’s theory of pure reason. In a dispute that was simultaneously theological, political, and scientific, Herder argued that human beings observably relied upon signs to gain their concepts, and that their ideas neither came from nor moved toward any ethereal realm but began with words handed down within human communities. Human communities each thereby had their own kinds of knowledge, understanding, and meaning, not passively imbibed but actively fashioned and changed, with each person and each society its own blooming, self-fashioned work of art. Kant’s vision was of humanity gaining enlightenment slowly, reaching closer to a single, ultimate, God-given potential, and progressing most when political control was wisest and most absolute. In Herder’s view, humans had to rely on signs that were “arbitrary,” and highly variant from place to place and time to time, as part of God’s divine plan: The unending need to critically assess and change their signs and concepts gave humanity creativity and free will.
As philological research led to nineteenth-century efforts to found a science of language in general, one of the pioneers of this transition, F. Max Müller, coined one of the most extreme expressions of a language-sign-based cultural relativity: “No reason without thought; no thought without language.” By this formulation, reason and truth would be entirely dependent on language. Müller debated with Charles Darwin over the origins of language and thought; Müller thought he had found a perfect synthesis of Kant, Herder, and all religion in a theory that posited humanity’s active corruption of originally perfect God-given signs and symbols. Darwin argued for a material origin in natural history for thoughts, concepts, and language, and was joined by William Dwight Whitney, another of the founders of linguistics, who reconfigured Herder’s conception of the arbitrary nature of signs into a theory of the material, natural origins of words and concepts. Whitney led linguistics to seek an evolutionary theory of language without recourse to divine reason or invention.
By the twentieth century, especially in U.S. anthropology under the leadership of Franz Boas and his students, the debates moved from language to culture, and scholars resorted to theological arguments much more rarely. Perhaps the most famous explorer of linguistic relativity and its significance was anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf proposed that Hopi habitual thought and behavior was organized by ontological premises also present in Hopi language grammar; he claimed especially that the Hopi thought about time differently than Europeans, and organized their way of life, including ritual, politics, and economics, around premises about repetition and duration that were readily understandable from study of their language grammar.
Whorf’s arguments have been misunderstood, largely because psychologists had great need for a different argument, suitable for laboratory testing. What became known in psychology as the Whorf hypothesis or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Edward Sapir being another leading Boasian linguist) was the idea that language shaped human perception of things. This argument could have and probably should have been attributed to Müller, who made it, rather than to Whorf, who did not. (Whorf argued that Hopi perceived space the same way Europeans did, the focusing system of their eyes generating the same figure-ground gestalt perception of something foregrounded in a larger visual field.) Regardless of the misnomer, much laboratory and field research attempted to operationalize this hypothesis into tests of the relationship of language categories and grammatical structures to perceptions. The results, ironically, were very close to what Whorf would have expected. Human perception is not infinitely plastic, not capable of being rendered wholly unseeing or unhearing of things without name or existence within the logic of language. However, systems of discrimination of types of things are highly sensitive to paradigms, norms, distinctions, and examples provided by language and culture. Training can overcome the difficulties a person has making fine distinctions between sounds or colors to which he or she has never before attended, up to limits provided by the actual range and acuity of sensory systems. But it is not easy to reorient extremely complex and highly developed systems for the perception of very specific things in the world.
Psychologists have been most interested, for obvious reasons, in the significance of variations in language and culture for apparatuses of cognitive function, and in particular the relations of systems of perception and cognition. They find increasingly precise and complex means to identify what is variant and invariant in the structure and organization of human perception and cognition. The situation is different for other social sciences (and for some branches of psychology as well, including social psychology and abnormal psychology, and the emerging field of biosociality). When research focuses not on processes happening within mind and body, but rather on larger social fields of interaction between people, then the issues connected to cultural relativity challenge scholarship differently.
The Boasians also opened up the questions in this area. Ruth Benedict, a student of Franz Boas, wrote extensively in the 1930s and 1940s about social and political implications of cultural relativity. Some credit her with coining the concept. In Patterns of Culture (1934) and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) she wrote directly to the U.S. reading public, on a mission to demonstrate the reality and significance of cultural differences. On a “shrinking planet,” she argued, with societies increasingly interconnected and interdependent, the hard work of mutual understanding was increasingly vital to achieving peace, health, and prosperity. Americans still strongly tended to imagine that their most cherished values came straight from God, and while few social scientists took that route many still hoped to directly observe behaviors generated by an unmediated human nature, and were disappointed to discover that culture mediated even passions and pleasures, and expectations of risk and reward. At the end of World War II, Benedict was greatly concerned about an American society that mistook for human nature the fundamental tenets of its own political culture, such as the individual’s right to the pursuit of happiness, which Americans gave a near sacred status. Benedict argued for culture-consciousness in mature political debate. She exemplified the fact that consciousness of cultural relativity need not lead to relativism in morality and politics. She allied herself with skepticism, not relativism, in philosophy, and had no trouble aligning her science with specific politics, as in her anti-Nazi, pro-civil rights treatise against prejudice in the assessment of race differences, Race: Science, and Politics (1940), which disputed allegations of difference in racial capacities, and traced the connection of such allegations to other forms of prejudice.
In the division of labor in the social sciences, anthropologists continue as students of cultural difference and skeptics of claims about human universals, while other disciplines accommodate facts of cultural difference while pursuing more general truths. The tensions here are productive. Anthropologists have also, for decades now, studied the creative conflicts that result when people, societies, and cultures productively and destructively interact. While some political commentators at the end of the twentieth century were convinced that globalization and democratization had brought on “the end of history,” few anthropologists agreed. Reflections on the extremities of twentieth-century political violence make moral relativism unsustainable—not only for what it would allow, but also for what it would license us to forget or ignore. But in between moral relativism and universalistic insistence on one best final outcome for all political, social, and cultural questions there are, still, the positions pioneered by the Boasians—scientific skepticism with recognition of cultural relativity, and perhaps room even for a version of the philosophical plenitism pioneered by Herder. If scientists are, by method, skeptical of final claims, it does not make them relativist. The science of culture, even in the most cosmopolitan zones and most self-conscious reflections on selves and others, still produces a plenitude of evaluations—the point is not that “anything goes,” but that many things continue and new things come along, and that all things might be improvable with reflective recognition of cultural specificities and differences.
Culture is the condition of possibility of meaning, and in both small scale and large, it thrives and grows with human success in making the world meaningful. It is an irreducible part of the environment, a built environment, an environment that makes human intelligence useable and increasingly useful. Some seek to move beyond cultural relativity, and try to think beyond culture, and seek truths independent of culture or constant across all cultures. Ironically, recurrent and persistent renewal of this quest is a hallmark of the culture of the European enlightenment, especially in the dreams of freedom and independence that it shares with its own countercurrent, Romanticism. Neither this Enlightenment tradition, nor many other value systems, are likely to submerge easily into a homogenous and unitary global culture, no matter how much our global civil society intertwines.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Benedict, Ruth; Boas, Franz; Cultural Studies; Darwin, Charles; Enlightenment; Linguistic Turn; Mead, Margaret; Morality; Paradigm; Prejudice; Racism; Relativism; Science
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argues that our sense of reality is a social construction, based upon the prevailing discourse of a society. Thus, cultural relativists reject the rationalist and universal premisses of grand theories such as functionalism, Marxism, or Freudian psychoanalysis.
Cultural relativism draws upon the tradition of linguistic philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Willard Quine, Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir. These writers have contended that if language constructs the world, then reality is not independently existing, but is shaped by cultural and linguistic categories. Two cultures can thus be incommensurable since their world-views are based on quite different languages and premisses. Paul Feyerabend (in Against Method, 1975) says that there are cultures so different from the West that they are incomprehensible to outsiders, who therefore cannot translate them into their own terms.
This has major implications for the study of non-Western societies. If importing a Western rationalist approach is ethnocentric, then we must understand cultural patterns in their own terms, adopting an insider's view of the culture. Ethnography thus becomes a process of uncovering the meanings by which people construct reality and translating this knowledge into the discourse of the field-worker's own society. See also INTERPRETATION; SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS.