Chapter 1: Cultural Relativism (see below)
Chapter 5: Cultural Complexes and Transformations (in preparation)
Chapter 6: Relativity and Social Science (in preparation)
Chapter 7: Conclusion (in preparation)
Since the introduction of modern relativistic theories in the early twentieth century, significant progress has taken place in the physical sciences. In the social sciences, cultural relativism (CR) appeared about the same time as a relativistic alternative to the absolutistic theories that dominated the study of human behavior. It has since proven to be an excellent pedagogical tool that allowed countless numbers of students to become aware of the influence of ethnocentrism and broadened their views on gender issues. But, it has not led to any major advance in the scientific understanding of social behavior. To the contrary, it has been a disappointment. The primary reason is a serious flaw. It is not capable of producing valid cross-cultural analyses. Numerous critics have pointed this out and, consequently, rejected it as a viable scientific theory. It’s shortcomings have even led many social scientists to disregard relativistic theory, in general, for investigating human behavior. I’ve been told numerous times by colleagues critical of CR that relativity is fine for Physics but its use is inappropriate for the social sciences. Thus, in spite of the successes of relativistic theory in the physical sciences, there is nothing comparable in the social sciences. The consequences of this neglect are analyses of human social behavior being undertaken with archaic scientific frameworks and ending up with poor results. The irony in this situation is that CR is not a relativistic theory.
The ultimate goal of the following chapters is to formulate a relativistic theory for the scientific study of social behavior. The theory will utilize two fundamental concepts: relativity and culture. These fundamental concepts are essential to a productive social theory and are detailed in the next two chapters. The remaining chapters provide the details of a relativistic science of human behavior with the conclusion illustrating its power to predict social events. But, before I discuss this modern approach to understanding human behavior, I think it is important to make clear the significant difference between CR and relativistic theory.
It is not surprising that CR has often been mistaken for a relativistic theory. It appears to be relativistic since, for one, proponents of CR criticize absolutistic frameworks being used in cross-cultural analyses. A well-known case is the use of biological attributes as “objective” factors for analyzing worldwide social behavior. This is criticized by cultural relativists for being ethnocentric; the supposed objective nature of the analysis is actually the imposition of western biases upon the data (Schneider 1984, Strathern 1992). As an alternative to using absolute frameworks for cross-cultural analysis, cultural relativists suggest that a group’s social behavior 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’ alien cultural assumptions about the “nature” of human beings. This seems to offer a relativistic alternative and has made sense to a number of scholars of human social behavior. Consequently, cultural relativism has become a standard feature in cultural anthropology textbooks and continues to be widely taught and discussed today.
Because of its name, its rejection of absolute frameworks, and its argument that each human group should be analyzed in its own terms, CR can easily be mistaken for a relativistic approach. But it is not relativistic. 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 immediately below. But right now I would like to point out that the failures of CR do not imply that relativistic theory in any way fails to provide a proper and productive approach to understanding social behavior. Relativistic theory, to the contrary, is essential to successful analyses of the social world.
Referring to the methodology of CR 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 CR 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, CR is a form of absolutism. It is best described as being “particularistic.”
A relativistic approach not only rejects the idea of 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. (Relativity is 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 CR 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 CR uses precepts of the culture under investigation. Neither biological absolutism nor CR is a relativistic approach. Clearly, it is an error to reject the prospect of a relativistic theory of human social behavior because of the shortcomings of CR. The truth is that there has been a bias against the use of relativistic theory in the social sciences and it has been seriously underdeveloped. My contention, furthermore, is that relativistic theory will do far more for understanding the human condition than any absolutistic theory.
A modern social theory must reject both biological absolutism and CR as analytical frameworks if it is to provide an understanding of humans and a guide for future social behavior. It must also take a step further and recognize the significance of culture in human life. A successful theory of human behavior requires a modern concept of culture as one of its basic tenets. In the past, development of a successful theory has been hampered not only by absolutistic frameworks but also by the 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 twentieth century movement in the physical sciences away from the Newtonian notions of absolute space and absolute 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. How this happened can be seen in 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 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 CR 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 CR 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 CR 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 CR by arguing that it is self-contradictory. The argument is simple: CR asserts that all beliefs are equally valid and, thus, the assertion that all beliefs are not equally valid must also hold. Thus, CR 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 CR is inherently untenable.
These philosophical critiques of CR 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. In modern Physics, the student becomes quickly aware of 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 hit the ground at different times” are contradictory, yet both can be true. The critiques against CR for it being self-contradictory are based upon the classic view which assumes an absolute, single frame of reference. The criticisms 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 problem with CR 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 CR; 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. Thus, the conclusion that relativistic theory is inappropriate for the study of human behavior is based upon a basic misunderstanding of cultural relativism. This has, unfortunately, delayed the development of a productive scientific approach to the study of human behavior. What is urgently required today is a modern scientific approach to human social behavior, viz., a relativistic theory.
A successful paradigm for the study of human social behavior, furthermore, will not only be relativistic but will also incorporate the concept of culture. 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) Is it possible to make valid scientific cross-cultural comparisons 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 CR 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 new technological developments and uncovering a better understanding of the physical world; from the human body to beyond the solar system. At the same time, resources are being depleted, social unrest is expanding, weapons of immense power are multiplying, and the possibility of an inhospitable planet in the near future is increasing. 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; one that utilizes two fundamental modern concepts: relativity and culture. These concepts are discussed in detail in the following two chapters.
Version: 19 December 2014
Dr. Martin Ottenheimer, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
Kansas State University
 Do not quote the following without written permission of the author. Editorial changes may be made at any time. Comments are welcome and should be addressed to email@example.com.