Relativity in Anthropology [1]


                                                                        Chapter 1: Cultural Relativism (see below)

                                                                        Chapter 2: Relativity

                                                                        Chapter 3: Culture

                                                                        Chapter 4: Frames of Reference

                                                                        Chapter 5: Complexes and Transformations (in preparation)

                                                                        Chapter 6: Relativistic Social Science: A Theory (in preparation)

                                                                        Chapter 7: Conclusion (in preparation)


Chapter 1: Cultural Relativism


            Cultural relativism was introduced in the last century as an alternative to absolutistic theories of human social behavior. It proposed that a group’s behavior be analyzed in the terms of the group’s culture rather than that of the external analyst’s culture. Pointing out that using one’s own culture to analyze another is a form of ethnocentrism, it has proven to be an excellent pedagogical tool, leading to a greater awareness of the influence of culture upon perception and behavior. However, critics have pointed out that cultural relativism cannot lead to valid cross-cultural comparisons; a necessary step for any significant theory of human social behavior. Consequently, a number of social scientists have dismissed cultural relativism. Furthermore, though they recognize the significant role relativistic theory has played in the physical sciences, the critics of cultural relativity conclude that relativistic theory is inappropriate for social scientific research. The consequence of this unfortunate conclusion has been the continuing use of ancient, absolutistic frameworks in the study of human social behavior The great irony here is that cultural relativism is not a relativistic theory!

In this chapter, I explain the difference between cultural relativism and relativistic theory. In the following chapters, I discuss the two fundamental concepts necessary for a modern relativistic analysis of human social behavior: relativity and culture. The remaining chapters outline a relativistic social theory based upon these two concepts and conclude with an illustration of the power of relativistic theory to predict social events. It is essential, first, to explain why cultural relativism is not relativistic. I want readers to understand that the shortcomings of cultural relativism have no bearing upon the importance of relativistic theory for understanding human social behavior.

Cultural relativism can be easily mistaken for a relativistic approach. Its name, its rejection of absolute frameworks, and its argument that each human group should be analyzed in its own terms make it appear, at first glance, that it is a relativistic theory. Furthermore, the criticisms of absolutistic theories by cultural relativists have only lent to the appearance that cultural relativism is relativistic. In particular, criticism of the use of biological attributes as “objective” factors for analyzing cross-cultural behavior makes it appear that cultural relativism is not absolutistic. Cultural relativists have argued that the use of biological attributes in an analysis of human social behavior is, in reality, ethnocentric and not objective. The purported objective nature of the analysis, point out the cultural relativists, is actually an imposition of western biases upon the data (Schneider 1984, Strathern 1992). In opposition to using euroentric frameworks for cross-cultural analysis, cultural relativists propose that a group’s social behavior should be analyzed in terms of that 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 made sense to a number of scholars and cultural relativism appears to them as a reasonable alternative to the absolutistic frameworks that have dominated social science in the past. Consequently, cultural relativism has become a standard feature in cultural anthropology textbooks and continues to be widely taught and discussed today. There is an implicit assumption that it is relativistic but requiring human thought, objects, and behavior to be examined only in terms of the values found in the particular cultural setting being analyzed is not a relativistic one. 

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). When cultural relativists utilize a privileged reference frame from which each culture is to be observed, measured, and analyzed, cultural relativism is an absolute frame of reference. I prefer describing it as being a “particularistic” type of absolutism.

A relativistic approach rejects the use of absolute frames of reference, including 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. (The details of modern relativity are discussed in detail 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. Thus, both biological absolutism and cultural relativism use privileged frames of reference. The difference is in the particular privileged framework used for observation, description, and analysis. Biological absolutism utilizes precepts from western culture while cultural relativism uses precepts of the culture under investigation. Neither biological absolutism nor cutural relativism is a relativistic approach. It is, therefore, an erroneous conclusion to reject the prospect of a relativistic theory of human social behavior because of the shortcomings of cultural relativism. Furthermore, if understanding human behavior in the modern world is a goal of social science, a theory of social relativity needs to be given serious consideration. This requires overcoming a bias against using relativistic models of human behavior. Primarily based upon religious absolutistic frameworks, this bias has been around for centuries. It has obstructed scientific analyses in the past and delayed the development of useful frameworks for understanding contemporary social behavior.      

A modern social theory should reject absolutistic frameworks, whether they are biological or cultural. Absolutistic frameworks fail to provide satisfactory analyses of contemporary human behavior and do not offer productive guides for future behavior. In particular, development of a modern theory has been hampered by an overemphasis upon physical factors and a corresponding neglect of cultural factors in human behavior. Ehrlich (2002:5) 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”. This is not only true in the United States. It has been a widespread pattern throughout western social scientific research. Culture has been 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.

How cultural relativism sidetracked the movement in Anthropology towards the development of a successful relativistic theory can be illustrated by the work of a well-known cultural relativist, David Schneider (1984). His work demonstrates how, in spite of the recognition of the problems with biological absolutism and the appreciation of culture’s significance to understanding human behavior, anthropological social theory ended up in a dead end. Schneider criticized the use of “natural” biological processes of reproduction in traditional kinship analysis for being ethnocentric constructions. He recognized that biological frameworks, rather than providing facts from an objective frame of reference were simply projections of western cultural ideas. Those scientists using a biological framework for the analysis of family relationships, for example, saw sexual reproduction as the core of the kinship relationship and ignored the widespread distinction maintained outside of the western world between marriage and the production of offspring. Marriage always involves social relationships that are not simply concerned with biological continuity and these relationships often lie at the core of the concept of marriage in many societies around the world. Thus, Schneider criticized analyses based upon a biological framework for being merely representative of a cultural bias of western social scientists inappropriate for examining social life in other societies.

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 study of social behavior based upon the meanings, values, and standards from the culture under study uses a privileged frame of reference; not a Eurocentric one to be sure but a privileged one nevertheless. 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 lacking scientific generalizations, not allowing 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, criticized cultural relativism for this failure but the alternative proposed by these critics was the classic, pre-relativistic model of constructing scientific laws by objective observers supported by “real facts.” For them, 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. I will explain in detail in the next chapter how this is true. One should 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 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.

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 critiques miss the essential problem with cultural relativism; viz., its particularistic approach. This approach does not allow for valid scientific generalizations about human behavior, fails to provide an adequate theory of human behavior, and it is not relativistic. Cultural relativism does not provide any real reason to conclude that relativistic theory is inappropriate for the study of human behavior. Nevertheless, it has delayed the development of a relativistic scientific analysis of human societies. This is something that is urgently needed today.

A successful paradigm for the study of human social behavior will incorporate the concept of culture as well as being relativistic. Culture is an essential factor in human life that affects perceptions and descriptions of reality. It raises some important issues in regard to the scientific analysis of data:  (1) Are valid scientific cross-cultural comparisons possible or is the scientist limited by culture? (2) Is it possible to produce valid scientific conclusions without an objective observer and an absolute, external reality? The answer is “Yes!” to both of these questions! It is possible to achieve valid scientific results with the inclusion of culture in the research paradigm. Or, in other terms, it is possible to make valid generalizations when the results of observations are affected by the frame of reference of the observer. In modern science, this is clearly recognized in the field of quantum physics. 

Since the middle of the last century, classic assumptions about the nature of the scientific enterprise have been supplanted by modern relativistic theories. For one, the notion of an objective observer measuring an absolute external reality has been replaced. It has become clear at the microscopic level of research that the scientific investigator’s frame of reference is intimately involved with the results of measurements. Currently, scientific investigations often recognize the interplay between the observer and the observed as an integral part of the scientific quest. In particular, relativistic theory in quantum physics has resulted in powerful, meaningful scientific research without the presumption of an independent reality being measured by an objective observer.

Physicists have successfully employed a form of relativity in the measurement and description of events for centuries. As early as Galileo, scientists have recognized results of measurements are relative to the frame of reference of an observer. To illustrate this, imagine a boat moving parallel to a shore when 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 observes that it is greater than the length of the vessel. They publish their results and then it is discovered that their statements are contradictory. They have two different 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. People then ask, “Is it true that the bullet traveled further than the length of the ship? Or, is it true that the bullet did not travel further than the length of the ship?” Since there are two contradictory statements involved, can only one be the “true” one and should “objective” observers then be sought to determine which one is the true one?

It should not be difficult to realize that the two different measurements made by the scientist and the seaman 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 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. One can conclude that both statements; that the bullet only traveled the distance of the ship and that the bullet traveled a greater distance, are true. This conclusion is possible when you consider the 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?  Furthermore, should events occurring on board the vessel only be measured by an observer aboard the ship and the conclusions of the observer on shore not accepted? Isn’t this 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?

Albert Einstein generalized Galilean relativity by adding temporal measurements to the relativity of spatial measurements. This fundamental addition transformed Physics. It moved it forward beyond Newtonian notions of absolute space and time intimately connected to an external world. Today, modern physicists recognize the absence of privileged space-time frameworks and work with the knowledge that there is 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 today. The same paradigm will prove profitable in the social sciences.

The absence of privileged reference frames and the inclusion of the recognition that different, legitimate contradictory conclusions from multiple perspectives are possible can lead to a fresh approach to understanding social behavior. It is these features that distinguish relativistic theory from earlier paradigms for examining social behavior; especially the two that have dominated anthropological theory in recent decades, viz., bio-absolutism and cultural relativism. Clearly not relativistic, bio-absolutism uses a reference frame based upon a concept of a general human “nature”. Cultural relativism, not as obviously non-relativistic, also utilizes a privileged reference frame—one for each culture. Cultural relativism, it should be noted, does differ from bio-absolutism in a very important aspect. It recognizes the crucial role culture plays in any attempt to analyze the social world. Recognizing culture’s role in the investigation of social phenomena is an important step towards the development of a modern, productive social science. But to attain the goal more is required than simply recognizing that culture plays a fundamental role in human behavior. It is necessary to move beyond cultural relativism and recognize that a successful theory does not require a privileged reference frame.

The number of successes in the physical and biological sciences continues to grow. Almost daily discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology, and genetics are providing important technological developments and improved models of the physical world; from the human body to beyond the solar system. At the same time, natural resources are being depleted, social unrest is increasing, weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, and the possibility of an inhospitable planet in the near future is growing at an exponential rate. To meet these threats, more than progress in the physical and biological sciences is needed. Ensuring a bright future for humans requires progress in the social sciences. In particular, effective solutions to the problems emerging in our changing world require a fresh theory of social behavior. I suggest this requires a modern theory based on two fundamental concepts: relativity and culture. These are discussed in detail in the following two chapters.    

Version: 7 September 2016

Dr. Martin Ottenheimer, PhD

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology

Kansas State University


Continue to Chapter 2

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[1] Do not quote the following without written permission of the author. Editorial changes may be made at any time. Address comments to