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 of social behavior dominating social scientific research. It was proposed as a superior theory for understanding the social world just as modern relativity proved to be for understanding the contemporary physical world. But, not long after it was introduced, cultural relativism was criticized for having numerous shortcomings. Although many of the criticisms were misplaced (see below), real problems with the theory existed leading to a reaction in the social sciences against cultural relativism, in particular, and relativistic theory, in general. Consequently, in spite of its remarkable successes in the physical sciences, relativity came to be largely ignored in the social sciences. The irony in this result is that cultural relativism is not a relativistic theory. To better understand this unfortunate sequence of events, the following paragraphs discuss the fundamental difference between relativity and cultural relativism.
The use of biological frameworks for analyzing social behavior of people in different societies around the world was denounced by cultural relativists for being a form of ethnocentrism. They reacted to the notion that a biological nature for humans could serve as an absolute framework for analyzing cross-cultural behavior by pointing out that this “nature” is basically an expression of European culture projected upon the worldwide data. Cultural presumptions about human “nature” arising out of the conceptual framework of a particular society were seen as inappropriate and unproductive for analyzing social behavior in different cultures (see, for example, Schneider 1984, Strathern 1992). Cultural relativists, furthermore, proposed that the social scientist should replace the attempt to use an absolute framework for analyzing human social behavior with a relativistic approach. To do this, they introduced the idea that social analysis of any group should be undertaken by reference to the specific culture of the 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. This made sense to numbers of students of human social behavior. Consequently, cultural relativism has become a standard feature in cultural anthropology textbooks and continues to be widely taught and discussed.
The name, “cultural relativism”, the rejection of absolute frameworks, and the argument that each human group should be analyzed in its own terms have led many to believe that this analytical approach to social behavior is 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. At the moment, it is important to note that, if cultural relativism appears inadequate, improper, or defective in any way, it does not follow that relativistic theory is also. Relativistic theory, to the contrary, is essential to understanding 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 absolute frames of reference, it also denies the use 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 happened too commonly in the past. The truth is that relativistic theory is underdeveloped in the social sciences. My contention, furthermore, is that relativistic theories will prove to be highly productive for understanding and guiding human behavior.
A successful understanding of human behavior 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. A modern theory of human behavior requires the concept of culture as one of its central features. In the past, development of a productive theory 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 has been 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 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 20th century movement away from a notion of absolute space-time. But this is only a preliminary step. A successful theory of human behavior must do more than simply recognize the importance of culture.
Cultural relativism sidetracked the movement in Anthropology towards the development of a successful relativistic theory. This is illustrated by the work of a well-known cultural relativist, David Schneider (1984). His work illustrates 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 with a biological framework, 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 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 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. However, 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 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 be contradictory and, yet, both can be 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 classic views that assume an absolute, single frame of reference. They are made in ignorance of the fact that two contradictory statements can both be true in a relativistic framework when made from distinct frames of reference.
The principal 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 logical structure. These critiques ignore the essential problem with cultural relativism; viz., its particularistic approach. It does not allow for valid scientific generalizations about human behavior and fails to provide an adequate theory of human behavior. The result has been the mistaken view that relativistic theory is inappropriate for the study of human behavior and an unfortunate delay in the development of a productive scientific approach to the study of human behavior. What is urgently required is a modern scientific approach to human social behavior provided by a relativistic theory.
A successful paradigm for the study of human social behavior must not only be relativistic but it must also incorporate the concept of culture. Culture is a universal factor of human life affecting perceptions and descriptions of reality. It raises two important issues in regard to the scientific analysis of data: (1) Is it possible to consider culture and still make valid scientific cross-cultural comparisons? and (2) Is it possible to produce valid scientific conclusions without the point of view of an objective observer and the existence of an absolute, external reality? The answer is “Yes!” to both of these questions! It is possible to achieve scientific results with the inclusion of culture in the research paradigm.
The fundamental postulates of scientific research have been changed from the classic notions of an objective observer measuring an absolute reality. Since the middle of the last century, there has been the realization that, especially at the microscopic level of research, the scientific investigator’s frame of reference is intimately involved with the results of measurements. Currently, scientific investigation recognizes the interplay between the observer and the observed as an integral part of the scientific quest. In quantum physics, in particular, relativistic theory in which the scientist does not presume an independent reality being measured by an objective observer underlies powerful, productive scientific research. Classic science assumptions have been surpassed by relativistic theories in the world of modern scientific research.
A form of relativistic theory has been successfully employed in physics for 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 an absolute point of view to be contradictory. From this 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. 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 be 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 of spatial measurements by including the relativity of temporal measurements. This fundamental change in relativity transformed physics. Today, modern physics recognizes the absence of privileged space-time frameworks and an intimate relationship between the observer and the observed. These keystone characteristics of relativity have become a key paradigm for the modern understanding of physical events. 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 recognizes that culture plays a role in a modern theory of social relativity. It is necessary to move beyond cultural relativism and recognize that a successful theory will have no privileged reference frame.
The number of successes in the physical and biological sciences continues to grow. Almost daily discoveries in physics, chemistry, and genetics are providing new technological developments and a better understanding of human physiology, the world around humans, and the interaction between them. At the same time, we should recognize that we are depleting resources, increasing weapons of enormous power, and increasing the possibility of an inhospitable planet. To meet these threats, more than progress in the physical and biological sciences is needed. Ensuring a reasonable future for humans requires progress in the social sciences. In particular, a modern theory must be developed to better understand human social behavior and to lead to solutions of the problems concerning our future.
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 of social behavior.
Version: 25 August 2014
Dr. Martin Ottenheimer, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
Kansas State University
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