Relativity and Culture


Chapter 1: Cultural Relativism (see below)

Chapter 2: Relativistic Analysis

Chapter 3: Culture

Chapter 4: Frames of Reference

Chapter 1: Cultural Relativism and Relativistic Theory


            The difference between Cultural Relativism and a relativistic theory is the major theme of this chapter. It is essential to understand why Cultural Relativism is not relativistic so that one does not make the error of dismissing the possibility of a relativistic theory of human behavior because of the shortcomings of Cultural Relativism. 

At first glance, Cultural Relativism can be easily mistaken for a relativistic theory. Its name, its criticism of absolute frameworks, and its particularistic approach make it appear that it is relativistic. For example, cultural relativists have criticized the use of biological frameworks in analyses of human behavior (Schneider 1984, Strathern 1992). They point out that a biological framework is a projection of an absolute and Eurocentric view of humans. Instead, they argue that any group’s social behavior should be analyzed in terms of the group’s cultural values. Thus, food habits of the Kapauku of New Guinea¸ for example, are to be investigated and evaluated by reference to Kapauku culture and not by reference to the investigators’ cultural assumptions about the “nature” of human beings. This argument has appealed to numerous scholars as a reasonable alternative to the absolutistic frameworks dominant in the social sciences. Cultural Relativism has thus been widely accepted and discussed in cultural anthropology textbooks and classrooms. The discussions often include the notion that Cultural Relativism is relativistic, giving it the cachet of a modern approach. But requiring human thought, objects, and behavior to be examined only in terms of the values found in the cultural setting being analyzed is not relativistic. 

Critics of Cultural Relativism have referred to it as “absolute relativism”, “extreme relativism”, “epistemological relativism”, “particularism”, or “localcentrism” (Feinberg 2001, Latour 1993; Ottenheimer 2001, 2003; Sousa 2003; See also Leavitt, “Linguistic Relativities” in Jourdan and Tuite 2006) and have pointed out that Cultural Relativism utilizes a privileged frame of reference in the analysis of social behavior. That is, cultural relativists examine, describe, analyze, or evaluate social behavior only from the framework of the cultural setting in which it is found. No other is accepted. (see Bates 1996:8, Miller 1999:12, Harris and Johnson 2000:11, Ferraro 2001:12, Haviland 2002:51). Being committed to a particular frame of reference for each culture under examination, cultural relativists are actually using a type of absolutistic approach.

In the physical sciences, the Special Theory of Relativity recognizes legitimate measurements taken from different frameworks without one being considered privileged or the “true” one. (The details of modern relativity are discussed in detail in the next chapter.) In contrast, Cultural Relativism recognizes only one framework for the analysis of a set of data. For the cultural relativist, there is one “true” framework provided by the culture of the group under examination. Thus, the traditional social scientist using the concept of “human nature” as the basis for analysis of all cultures and the cultural using the local culture as the basis of observation and analysis are using privileged frames of reference. Neither one is relativistic.

Ehrlich (2002:5) has pointed out “There is an unhappy predilection, especially in the United States, not only to overrate the effect of genetic evolution on our current behavior but also to underrate that of cultural evolution”. There has been a widespread pattern throughout western social scientific research for culture to be treated as an epiphenomenon; a secondary factor of the human condition resting upon a biological foundation. Cultural relativists, to their credit, have consistently critiqued this bias in human social analysis and argued for the necessity to recognize the significance of culture. Their critique is an important contribution towards the development of an adequate theory of human social behavior. It is the beginning of a movement today away from a notion of a “human nature” defined in biological terms. This movement is analogous to the early twentieth century movement in the physical sciences away from Newtonian notions of absolute space and time. But this is only a preliminary step. A successful theory of human behavior must do more than simply recognize the importance of culture. It is time to modernize anthropological theory and move beyond privileged frames of reference to an approach that is truly relativistic.

David Schneider (1984) criticized the use of “natural” biological processes of reproduction in traditional kinship analysis for being ethnocentric constructions. He recognized that a biological framework was a projection of western cultural assumptions upon the data and was not an “objective” frame of reference. For example, he pointed out that scientists using biological frameworks for the analysis of family relationships looked upon sexual reproduction as the core of kinship relationships. This led them to ignore the widespread distinction maintained outside of the western world between social relationships such as marriage and the production of offspring. Marriage always involves relationships that are not simply concerned sexual or concerned with biological continuity and these other relationships often lie at the core of the concept of marriage in many societies around the world. Thus, Schneider pointed out that a biological framework was merely representative of a cultural bias of western social scientists and unable of providing a realistic analysis of social life in other societies. This critique had a significant impact upon the study of human social relationships especially in gender studies. Furthermore, his attention to the importance of culture was widely acclaimed and many social scientists began to publish research emphasizing the importance of culture in understanding human behavior. This important step overlooked the failure to provide a relativistic alternative to western absolutistic notions. Ignored was that Schneider’s analyses of social behavior used privileged frames of reference. None was Eurocentric, to be sure, but were privileged nevertheless. The result has been a wide acceptance of a theoretical framework in social anthropology which is as inadequate as the Eurocentric reductionism Schneider so strongly condemned.

Cultural relativists have been criticized for lacking the ability to make scientific generalizations, not allowing for the condemnation of immoral practices, and for not being logically consistent. Since Cultural Relativism utilizes the subject’s cultural frame of reference and restricts analysis to the subject’s community, it does obstruct the establishment of scientific generalizations (see Ottenheimer 2001). Fox, Gellner, Goodenough, Holy, and Scheffler, among others, also criticized Cultural Relativism for this failure but the alternative proposed by these critics was the classic, pre-relativistic model of the construction of scientific laws by objective observers supported by “real facts.” They believed that  to make valid cross-cultural comparisons required the use of an absolute reference frame provided by the “biological facts of nature”. But modern science has made it very clear there is an alternative to this theoretical model. An absolute frame of reference is not the only way to produce valid, scientific generalizations. One should keep in mind that modern science has achieved significant results without the medieval assumptions about science being an objective enterprise with an independent observer measuring external facts of nature.    

Cultural relativists have also been criticized for a failure to be able to respond responsibly to serious ethical issues. “What if people practice slavery, torture, or genocide?” asked Ember and Ember (2002:19). Must the anthropologist simply accept these practices and not judge them as vile or try to eliminate them? Answering, “No!” to this question, the Embers’ propose a “weaker form” of Cultural Relativism. In this weaker form, the anthropologist is to strive for objectivity and, at the same time, be tolerant. In other words, one denies that a positive value exists for a disturbing cultural trait on the basis of some “objective” standard but still tries not to object to it. This “weaker” kind of Cultural Relativism is nothing but an absolutistic approach based upon naïve realism with a hedge to avoid placing negative value judgments upon people deemed to have unpleasant, undesirable, or immoral behaviors. It’s a compassionate form of absolutism and misses the real problem with Cultural Relativism.

Others have dismissed Cultural Relativism by arguing that it is self-contradictory. The argument is simple: Cultural Relativism asserts that all beliefs are equally valid and, thus, the assertion that all beliefs are not equally valid must also hold. Thus, Cultural Relativism inherently contradicts itself and is untenable. A different version of this argument takes the statement, “All truth is relative,” to be an absolute one. If it is absolute and true, therefore, it negates the cultural relativists’ proposition that all truths are relative. Again, the conclusion is that Cultural Relativism is inherently untenable.

These philosophical critiques of Cultural Relativism are basically tautological; they use two medieval assumptions that predetermine the conclusions in the argument. These traditional assumptions are well known to students of logic. The first assumption is that for two contradictory statements, A and B, there are three possibilities: (1) A is true and B is false, (2) B is true and A is false, and (3) both are false. The second assumption is that of these three possibilities only one can be a true statement about two contradictory statements. These assumptions appear as self-evident truths to those in an absolutistic world. But in a relativistic world there is a fourth possibility for two contradictory statements, viz., (4) both A and B are true. When there are no privileged frames of reference, two statements describing reality made from distinct frames of reference can be contradictory and, yet, both can be true. In modern Physics, the student is aware of Einstein’s discussion of simultaneity and the fact that two statements such as: “The two bolts of lightning hit the ground at the same time” and “the two bolts of lightning did not hit the ground at the same time” are contradictory, yet both can be true. The critiques against Cultural Relativism for being self-contradictory are based upon the classic view with its assumption of an absolute, single frame of reference. The critics are unaware of the fact that two contradictory statements in a relativistic framework can both be true when based upon distinct frames of reference.

It should also be pointed out that, if two statements are contradictory, it does not necessarily follow that both are true. This error has become commonly heard these days often as, "I believe it, therefore it is true!" or “My belief is an alternate truth!” A statement may not be "true", even if it expresses the honest belief of the speaker. There is still the responsibility of the speaker to verify the truth of their statement. This requires examination of the relationship of the framework of the statement with the empirical data related to it. Otherwise, it is meaningless.

The problem with Cultural Relativism is not its lack of a focus upon the biological “facts” of nature, nor its lack of an objective standard for the condemnation of illicit or immoral behavior, nor its lack of consistency. These criticisms miss the essential problem with Cultural Relativism; viz., its particularistic approach. This approach does not allow for valid scientific generalizations about human behavior nor does it provide an adequate theory of human behavior. Most importantly, for our immediate purposes here, it is not relativistic. Cultural Relativism does not provide any reason for concluding that relativistic theory is inappropriate for the study of human behavior. Nevertheless, it has delayed the development of relativistic analyses of human societies. 

To understand computing, one must consider both hardware and software. Similarly, a successful study of human social behavior must incorporate both physical and cultural aspects of life. Both are essential features of human behavior. But, culture affects perceptions and descriptions of reality. Does that imply that it is impossible to incorporate culture in a scientific paradigm? Are valid scientific cross-cultural comparisons not possible when culture is considered? Is it possible to produce valid scientific conclusions without an objective observer and an absolute, external reality? The answer to these questions is that it is possible to achieve valid scientific results with the inclusion of culture in the research paradigm. It is possible to make valid scientific generalizations when the results of observations are affected by the frame of reference of the observer. In modern science, this is clearly recognized in quantum physics. 

Since the middle of the last century, classic assumptions about the nature of the scientific enterprise have been supplanted in modern relativistic theories. For one, the notion of an objective observer measuring an absolute external reality has been replaced by the recognition that there is an intimate relationship between observed and what is observed.  It has become clear, especially at the microcosmic level of research, that the scientific investigator’s frame of reference is intimately involved with the results of measurements. Currently, scientific investigations of quantum effects recognize the interplay between the observer and the observed as an integral part of the scientific quest.

A form of relativity has successfully been employed in the measurement and description of events by physicists for centuries. As early as Galileo, scientists recognized the results of measurements were relative to the frame of reference of an observer. To illustrate this phenomenon, think of a ship moving parallel to a shore and the captain standing at the rear of the vessel firing an arrow that hits a target near the bow of the boat. A seaman onboard the vessel then measures the distance the arrow traveled and finds that it is less than the length of the deck of the vessel. At the same time, a scientist on shore with carefully calibrated instruments measures the distance the arrow traveled and finds that it is the length of the deck of the vessel. When each publishes the results it is discovered that their statements contradict. They have two different conclusions: one states the arrow traveled the length of the deck and the other states that the arrow did not travel the length of the deck.  Since these two statements contradict each other, must only one be true?

It is not too difficult to realize that the two different measurements can both be correct and their contradictory statements can both be true. For the seaman, measurements are made relative to the ship while the scientist’s measurements are relative to the shore. The scientist’s result was the distance between the captain and the target plus the distance the ship traveled during the time the arrow passed from the stern to the bow. Consequently, the total distance measured by the scientist is greater than the distance from the captain to the target. Both statements; that the arrow only traveled the distance between the captain and the target and that the arrow traveled a greater distance, are true. This is, of course, the proper conclusion when you consider the relativity involved and recognize that relative to the ship, the arrow traveled a lesser distance than the distance measured relative to the shore. Or do you conclude that there can only be one objective truth and only one of these measurements represent the “true” distance?  If so, do you conclude that events occurring on board the vessel only be measured by an observer aboard the ship? Do you also conclude that the measurements of the observer on shore are to be ignored as biased? Aren’t these conclusions analogous to the cultural relativist’s insistence that a person’s beliefs and behavior must be judged only in terms of the values of the person’s culture and not by an outsider’s culture?

Galilean relativity was modernized by adding temporal measurements to the relativity of spatial measurements. This fundamental addition transformed the physical sciences. Today, modern physicists have moved beyond Newtonian physics to recognize no privileged space-time frameworks and work with an intimate relationship between the observer and the observed. These keystone characteristics of relativity have become a successful paradigm for the comprehension of physical events. This paradigm will prove to be highly productive in the social sciences as well.

Version: 5 August 2017

Dr. Martin Ottenheimer, PhD

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology

Kansas State University



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