Chapter 1: Cultural Relativism (see below)
Chapter 5: Cultural Complexes and Transformations (in preparation)
Chapter 6: The Social Theory of Relativity (in preparation)
Chapter 7: Conclusion (in preparation)
The scientific analysis of the physical world advanced significantly after the publication of the Theory of Special Relativity. The Special Theory led to technological innovations, improvements in the condition of life, and a greater understanding of the physical world. With this success, one would suppose that relativistic theory has also been utilized in the scientific analysis of the social world. But this is not the case. This failure is not due to relativity being inappropriate for, or incapable of, providing an understanding of social behavior. There are different reasons. Cultural relativism was introduced and became widely known as an alternative to the models of biological absolutism that dominated much of the social scientific research in the 20th century. Then, when critical analysis revealed it had serious shortcomings, many social scientists discounted relativistic theory. This was an unfortunate error. These scientists concluded that relativistic theory is inappropriate for understanding human social behavior because cultural relativism was inadequate. They did not realize that it was not a relativistic theory.
One of the key features of cultural relativism is the rejection of absolute frameworks. For one, cultural relativists criticized biological absolutism for simply being an ethnocentric (more specifically, “eurocentric”) framework based upon western suppositions about the nature of human behavior (see, for example, Schneider 1984, Strathern 1992). They saw biological absolutism to be a construction arising from western scientists’ culture. In general, culture relativists have criticized “absolute standards” in social research as being no less than notions from an investigator’s culture. They criticized them for being biased, cultural projections and not absolute frameworks. The alternative proposed by cultural relativists was to analyze behavior by reference to the culture of the social group under investigation. For example, food habits of the Kapauku of New Guinea would be investigated and evaluated by the cultural relativist by reference to their culture rather than reference to the investigator’s 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 may appear, 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 been an important contribution towards the development of an adequate theory of human social behavior. 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 wide acceptance 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 they proposed 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 does not use the precepts of modern science.
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 with unpleasant or unwanted behaviors. It’s a compassionate form of absolutism that misses the real problem with cultural relativism.
Some philosophers have dismissed cultural relativism by arguing that it is self-contradictory. The argument maintains that, since cultural relativism asserts that all beliefs are equally valid, the assertion that all beliefs are not valid must also hold. Thus, the conclusion is drawn that cultural relativism is inherently self-contradictory and, therefore, untenable. A different version of this argument takes the statement, “All truth is relative,” to be an absolute statement. The argument then posits that, if this statement is true and it is absolute, it negates the notion 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 are based upon assumptions that determine their conclusions. The arguments are based upon certain assumptions in classical logic. These assumptions are, first, that there are three possibilities in the truth-value of two contradictory statements A and B: (1) A is true and B is false, (2) B is true and A is false, and (3) both are false. Secondly, only one of these three possibilities can be true. But these assumptions are inappropriate in modern relativity. In a relativistic logic there are four possibilities for the truth-value of two contradictory statements. The three possibilities of classical logic still hold but there is also the fourth possibility; viz., both statements are true. Traditional logic is bound to a notion of a single, absolute framework and does not recognize this fourth possibility. In relativity, however, where there are no privileged frames of reference, it is clear that contradictory statements about reality can each be true when they are made from distinct frames of reference.
Thus, the philosophical arguments against cultural relativism are based upon the classical and restricted view of the truth value of statements, assume an absolute, single frame of reference, and are led to a mistaken conclusion about relativity. Critics of cultural relativism denounce it as self-contradictory and reject relativity without realizing that two contradictory statements can be true when made from distinct frames of reference. They lack a relativistic approach to reality (See Chapter 2 for examples).
The essential 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 actual problem with cultural relativism is its particularistic approach; it does not allow for valid scientific generalizations about human behavior. Furthermore, the failure of cultural relativism to provide an adequate theory has led to an unfortunate delay in the development of a truly relativistic theory of human behavior. In the following chapters, I will introduce a relativistic research paradigm that provides a modern scientific approach to human social behavior.
For a scientific approach to human social behavior to be productive, it must incorporate the concept of culture into the analytical paradigm. The reader may ask, “Is it possible to take into account the impact of culture and still make valid cross-cultural comparisons?” and “Is it possible to produce valid scientific conclusions about human behavior without the assumptions that an objective observer and an independent, physical reality are required?” The answer is “Yes!” to both of these questions! This answer is possible because the fundamental postulates concerning scientific research have changed over the last century. In modern scientific research, there is the recognition that the investigator’s frame of reference affects the results of measurements due to an intimate relationship between the observer and the observed. This insight has become an essential part of quantum physics, in particular, where relativistic theory underlies powerful, productive scientific conclusions. The physical scientist, today, successfully investigates the empirical world without the traditional assumptions about privileged frames of reference and objective observers separated from an external reality characterizing classical science. These assumptions are unnecessary and, instead, the modern physical scientist pursues research recognizing that results are affected by the framework used and there is a complex entanglement between the observer and the observed. Since culture affects human perceptions and descriptions of reality and all humans are enmeshed in cultures, it brings the basics of modern science to the social sciences.
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 data. 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, it is necessary to move beyond cultural relativism. It is necessary to recognize that modern science has no privileged reference frame.
The recent successes of modern science in the realms of the physical and biological world continue to grow. Developments today in physics, chemistry, and genetics promise a better understanding of the human body and the world around us plus a brighter future for many individuals. But, at the same time, we are witnessing the untimely death of millions of people, the increased depletion of resources, the growing danger of formidable weaponry, and the ultimate peril of an inhospitable planet. To meet these threats, more than technological progress is needed. The successful future of humanity depends upon an advanced understanding of social behavior with subsequent social systems that will protect the individual and secure the future of the planet. To achieve these goals, a relativistic theory of human behavior is essential.
In the next chapter, modern relativity is discussed in greater detail and a precise definition of ‘culture’ is discussed in the Chapter 3. The remaining chapters use these fundamental concepts to develop a modern theory of human behavior.
Version: 11 April 2014
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
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