Chapter 1: Cultural Relativism (see below)
Chapter 5: Cultural Complexes and Transformations (in preparation)
Chapter 6: The General Theory (in preparation)
Chapter 7: Conclusion (in preparation)
Cultural relativism emerged in the twentieth century as an alternative to absolutistic theories that dominated social scientific research at the time. It was believed that cultural relativism would be a superior approach to the study of the social world just as relativistic theory was for the physical world. But, not long after it was introduced, critics pointed to problems with this approach. Although a number of the criticisms were misplaced (see below), real problems with the theory existed and, as a result, a reaction arose in the social sciences against cultural relativism, in particular, and relativistic theory, in general. In spite of the successes of relativity theory in understanding the physical world, there was widespread doubt that it was appropriate for the understanding of the social world. There has been a longstanding bias against relativistic approaches to human behavior and this was fueled by the shortcomings of cultural relativism. Something was overlooked, however. It was taken for granted that cultural relativism is relativistic. However, it is not! There is an important difference between cultural relativism and a relativistic theory and this should be clearly understood before any relativistic theory of social behavior is discussed.
Cultural relativists critiqued the use of biological frameworks to analyze social behavior as a form of ethnocentrism. They pointed out that these frameworks were not absolute, based upon some existing essential feature of human beings but¸ instead, were European notions about human behavior projected upon the data. Western cultural suppositions about the “nature” of humans were being generalized as essential features of all humans and inappropriately used to analyze peoples of different cultures (see, for example, Schneider 1984, Strathern 1992). Cultural relativists also believed that in the social sciences, as in the physical sciences, absolute frameworks for analyzing data should be replaced by relativistic ones. The cultural relativists thus proposed to analyze behavior by reference to the specific culture of the social group under investigation. For example, food habits of the Kapauku of New Guinea were to be investigated and evaluated by reference to Kapauku culture and not by reference to the investigators’ alien cultural assumptions about the “nature” of human beings.
Because of its name, because it rejects the notion of absolute frameworks, and because it argues that each human group be analyzed in its own terms, cultural relativism appears, at first glance, to be relativistic. But it is not. Requiring human thought, objects, and behavior to be examined only in terms of the values found in the particular cultural setting in which they exist is a particularistic approach, not a relativistic one. This difference will be discussed in detail below. For now, it is important to keep in mind that, if one finds cultural relativism to be inadequate, improper, or defective in any way, it does NOT follow that relativistic theory is also. To the contrary, relativistic theory is essential to a successful scientific understanding of the social world.
Referring to the methodology of cultural relativism 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), a number of social scientists have pointed out that cultural relativism utilizes privileged frames of reference. As mentioned above, it requires human behavior to be examined, described, analyzed, or evaluated only from the perspective of the particular 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). With each culture having a privileged reference frame from which it is to be observed, measured, and analyzed, cultural relativism is a form of absolutism. It is best described as being “particularistic.”
A relativistic approach not only rejects the existence of absolute frames of reference, it also denies the existence of privileged reference frames. Each inertial reference frame in Special Relativity, for example, provides legitimate measurements of bodies in motion with no particular frame being considered privileged or the one, “true” one. (A detailed discussion of relativity is provided in the next chapter.) A particularistic approach, in contrast, utilizes a single framework for the analysis of a set of data (the “true” or “real” context for observation and measurement). For the cultural relativist, the one “true” framework is the one provided by the culture of the group under examination. The significant contrast between biological absolutism and cultural relativism, thus, is not that the former uses a privileged frame of reference while the latter does not. Both utilize privileged reference frames with the difference simply being which privileged framework is adopted for observation, description, and analysis. Biological absolutism utilizes precepts from western culture while cultural relativism uses precepts of the culture under investigation. Both are privileged reference frames. It is an error, therefore, to reject the possibility of a general theory of human social behavior that is relativistic because of the shortcomings of cultural relativism. Unfortunately, this has been the case in the past with those finding fault with cultural relativism believing that it is relativistic. The truth is that a relativistic scientific theory has not yet been developed in the social sciences. My contention, furthermore, is that relativistic theory will prove to be as productive for the social sciences as it has been for the physical sciences.
If the social sciences are to have a successful paradigm for analyzing human behavior, they must reject both biological absolutism and cultural relativism. One important step towards this end is the recognition of the significance of culture in human life. Any successful scientific analysis of human behavior will require a theoretical model with culture as one of its central features. In the past, development of an adequate scientific model has been hampered by overemphasis upon physical factors in human behavior. Ehrlich (2002:5) has pointed out, for example, “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”. This has been a widespread pattern in western social scientific research. Culture was often treated merely 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 has made 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 analogous to the early 20th century movement away from a notion of absolute space-time defined in physical terms. Both are constructions of the human mind. But a successful theory of human behavior must do more than simply recognize the importance of culture.
How cultural relativism sidetracked this effort towards the development of a successful relativistic theory is illustrated by the work of a well-known cultural relativist, David Schneider (1984). It provides an excellent example of how modern anthropological theory, in spite of the recognition of the problems with biological absolutism and the appreciation of culture’s significance to understanding human behavior, ended up in a dead end. The use of “natural” biological processes of reproduction in traditional kinship analysis was criticized by Schneider for being ethnocentric constructions. He saw that biological frameworks, rather than providing facts from an objective frame of reference were simply projections of western cultural ideas. Those with a biological framework, for example, see sexual reproduction as the core of the relationship and ignore the widespread distinction outside of the western world between marriage and the production of offspring. Marriage always involves a social relationship with a different function than determining genetic continuity and this relationship often lies at the core of the concept of marriage in many societies around the world. Thus, Schneider criticized analyses based upon a biological framework as a cultural bias of western social scientists inappropriate for examining social life in other cultures. This was an important contribution to kinship studies.
Schneider’s critique of kinship had a significant impact upon the study of human social relationships and, in particular, gender studies. His attention to the importance of culture was widely acclaimed and many social scientists published research that emphasized the importance of culture in understanding human behavior. Unfortunately, Schneider’s failure to provide a relativistic alternative to western absolutistic notions was overlooked. Furthermore, the fact that the study of social behavior based upon the meanings, values, and standards from the culture under study sets up a privileged frame of reference was ignored. The result was the development of a theoretical framework that is as detrimental to the development of an adequate modern anthropological theory as much as the Eurocentric reductionism Schneider so strongly criticized.
Cultural relativism has been criticized for not allowing scientific generalizations, not allowing for the condemnation of immoral practices, and 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, criticized cultural relativism for this failure. However, the alternative proposed by these critics was the classic, pre-relativistic model of scientific laws being produced by objective observers supported by “real facts.” For them, the only way to make valid cross-cultural comparisons was by using 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. I will explain in detail in the next chapter how this is true. For the moment, one need only recognize that modern science has had remarkable results without the medieval assumptions that science is an objective enterprise with an independent observer measuring external facts of nature.
Cultural relativism has also been criticized for failing to respond adequately 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 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 only one of these three possibilities can be true. These statements appear to be self-evident 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 both be contradictory and true. It is possible, for example, the statements “X is greater than Y” and “X is not greater than Y” are both true (See below for a specific example). The critiques against cultural relativism for it appearing self-contradictory are based upon traditional views that assume an absolute, single frame of reference. Critics of cultural relativism attack it for being relativistic and denounce it as self-contradictory. They reject it without realizing that two contradictory statements can be true when made from distinct frames of reference. They assume a traditional, non-relativistic approach to reality.
The problem with cultural relativism is not that it lacks a basis built upon the biological “facts” of nature, nor that it lacks an objective standard for the condemnation of illicit or immoral behavior, nor that it is self-contradictory. The essential problem with cultural relativism is its particularistic approach; it does not allow for valid scientific generalizations about human behavior. Furthermore, cultural relativism has failed to provide an adequate theory of human behavior and has led scientists to believe that a relativistic approach is not appropriate for the study of human behavior. This has led to an unfortunate delay in the development of a modern scientific approach to the study of human behavior. Now is the time for a relativistic research paradigm that provides a modern scientific approach to human social behavior.
A modern approach to human social behavior must incorporate the concept of culture into the analytical paradigm. Since culture affects human perceptions and descriptions of reality and all humans are enmeshed in cultures, it raises two important issues. The reader may ask, “Is it possible to take into account the impact of culture and still make valid scientific cross-cultural comparisons?” and “Is it possible to produce valid scientific conclusions about human behavior without assuming that an objective observer and an independent, physical reality are required?” The answer is “Yes!” to both of these questions! It is possible today to achieve scientific results with the inclusion of culture in the research paradigm because the fundamental postulates of scientific research have changed. Since the middle of the last century, there has been the widespread acceptance of the notion that the scientific investigator’s frame of reference affects the results of measurements. Instead of scientific investigation being simply the examination of an external reality by an independent observer, an intimate relationship exists between the observer and the observed that is an integral part of the scientific quest. In quantum physics, in particular, relativistic theory underlies powerful, productive scientific research in which the physical scientist successfully investigates the empirical world with the full knowledge that no framework is privileged and there is an entanglement between the observer and the observed. The traditional assumptions about privileged frames of reference and objective observers separated from an external reality have been laid aside. They have been made unnecessary for productive scientific research by modern relativistic paradigms.
Relativity has been successfully employed in physics in the measurement and description of reality for centuries. Since the time of Galileo, it has been recognized that the results of measurements are relative to the frame of reference of an observer. How this occurs can be illustrated by a simple example. On a boat moving parallel to a shore, the captain fires a bullet from the rear of the vessel that hits a target at the bow of the boat. A seaman onboard the vessel then measures the distance the bullet traveled. He finds that it is equal to the length of the vessel. At the same time, a scientist on shore with carefully calibrated instruments measures the distance the bullet traveled and notes that it is greater than the length of the vessel. Comparing their measurements afterwards, the scientist and seaman discover that they do not agree. The two conclusions: 1. the distance the bullet traveled is the length of the ship and 2. the distance the bullet traveled is greater than the length of the ship, will appear from the point of view of “objective” science to be contradictory. From this traditional non-relativistic view, only one conclusion can be the “true” one and “objective” observers will then try to determine which one is right and which one is wrong.
It is not too difficult to realize that the two different measurements made by the scientist and the seaman can both be right and that their different conclusions 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 combined distance of the length of the ship plus the distance the ship traveled during the time the bullet passed from the stern to the bow. Consequently, the total distance measured by the scientist is greater than the length of the vessel. Both statements that the bullet only traveled the distance of the ship and that the bullet traveled a greater distance are true. This is possible when you consider the major principles of relativity and recognize that relative to the ship, the bullet traveled the length of the vessel while, relative to the shore, the bullet traveled a greater distance. Does it serve any useful purpose to insist that there can only be one objective truth and only one of these measurements represent the “real” distance? Should events occurring on board the vessel be measured only by one observer and that it should be someone on the ship? Isn’t this analogous to the cultural relativist’s position that a person’s beliefs and behavior must be judged only in terms of the values of the person’s culture?
In the modern era, Albert Einstein did away with the notion that time was an absolute or privileged frame of reference and generalized Galilean relativity of spatial measurements to any space-time frame of reference. This fundamental change in relativity introduced the modern age in the physical sciences. Today, modern relativity is the central paradigm for the scientific understanding of physical events. It should be one as well in the social sciences for the understanding of social behavior.
The absence of a privileged reference frame and the ability to derive different, legitimate conclusions from multiple perspectives are the essential characteristics of a relativistic approach. It is these features that distinguish relativistic theory from both bio-absolutism and cultural relativism. Clearly not relativistic, bio-absolutism uses a reference frame based upon a concept of human “nature”. Cultural relativism, not as obviously non-relativistic, still utilizes a privileged reference frame—one for each culture. But cultural relativism does differ from bio-absolutism in a very important aspect. It recognizes that culture plays a crucial role in any attempt to analyze the social world. Recognizing that culture plays an essential part in the investigation of phenomena, especially in the regard to the nature of observation, is an important step towards the development of a modern, productive social science. But to attain this goal more than the recognition of the role of culture in social behavior is required. It is necessary to recognize that the successes of modern science are based upon theory that has no privileged reference frame.
The successes in the realms of the physical and biological sciences continue to grow. Developments today in physics, chemistry, and genetics are providing a better understanding of the human body and the world around us. But, at the same time, we are witnessing the depletion of resources, the production of ultimate weapons, and the possibility of an inhospitable planet. To meet these threats, more than progress in the physical and biological sciences is needed. To ensure a reasonable future for humans, progress is required in the social sciences. A relativistic theory of social behavior is necessary for this progress to be achieved.
Relativity is discussed in greater detail in the next chapter and culture is examined in Chapter 3. The remaining chapters use these fundamental ideas to develop a relativistic theory based upon a modern concept of the social world.
Version: 28 July 2014
Dr. Martin Ottenheimer, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
Kansas State University
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