Chapter 2: Relativistic Analysis



Albert Einstein’s “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (1905) provided a relativistic answer to a puzzling question about the velocity of light. Human experience over the past millennia had led to the assumption that the speed of an object was related to the speed of its source. It was taken for granted that an object thrown or fired from the front of a moving vehicle would travel faster than if it had emanated from the vehicle at a standstill. But the measurements of the speed of light contradicted this. No matter what the speed of the source, the velocity of light was constant. How could this be? Einstein provided the answer by rejecting the notion of privileged frames of reference.[1]

A privileged frame of reference is an assumption thought to be absolutely true about the nature of experience. Traditionally, religious, texts, myths, and rituals supported by beliefs in supernatural forces and spirits provided these assumptions. Others were provided by outstanding thinkers throughout history. One of these, the famous British mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), considered space and time in themselves to be absolute external frameworks from which objects in motion were to be analyzed. The famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), furthermore, located these frameworks in the human mind providing a fundament biological framework for understanding human experiences. Today, widespread belief in absolute frames of reference for understanding the physical, psychological, and social worlds of human experience remains in the common imagination.

The rejection of privileged frames of reference in modern Europe began with the comparative study of languages in the 16th century. At that time, traveling explorers, seamen, and merchants began to return with extensive linguistic information from cultures around the world. This data provided the basis for the philosopher and linguist, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), to introduce a relativistic approach to language later refined by the Swiss linguist and semiotician, Ferdinand Saussure (1857-1913). In contrast to earlier speculations about the nature of language,  de Saussure no absolute meanings to sounds. Traditionally, languages were thought to contain sounds absolutely connected to specific ideas. For example, an ‘m’ was thought to be universally attached to the idea, ‘female parent’. Ferdinand de Saussure challenged this idea and proposed that similar words in different languages were due to historical processes in Indo-European languages. The similarity in the words for a female parent, for example, (‘mother’, ‘mère’, ‘mutter’, mor, moeder, mitéra, madre, etc.) were due to the common ancestry of the people who spoke the languages; not to some innate connection between the letter ‘m’ and the idea of a female parent. Like a genealogical tree of a family, similar languages had a common root and the similar words found in the languages had been maintained over time as their speakers spread out into several distinct branches.

Other similarities between words in distinct languages could be explained by diffusion. That is, the same or similar words in different languages were the result of one having been borrowed from the other. The Swahili word, ‘safari’, commonly used in English today, is one example of this process. Diffusion continues today at a greater pace than ever before as communication and transportation technologies improve and expand their influence around the world. Outside of assuming an ability of individuals to be able to speak and understand a language, there is no absolute framework required to explain similarities and differences between languages.

The recognition of the processes of evolution and diffusion in the analysis of language helped remove the absolute frameworks for studying languages and led linguists to a relativistic analysis of language that was widely discussed in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be very surprising if Einstein had not known of these discussions. In fact, Albert Einstein’s Swiss landlord, Jost Winteler, had been trained in linguistic relativism and was familiar with “the relativity of relations” among sounds (Leavitt “Linguistic Relativities” in Jourdan, Language, Culture, and Society: Key Topics in Linguistic Anthropology, 2006). Einstein had long talks with his landlord prior to the appearance of his 1905 publication, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, and it has been suggested that these conversations played a role in Einstein’s formulation of the Special Theory of Relativity (Jakobson 1982). My point in mentioning this possibility is to let the reader know that my attempt to develop a relativistic analysis of human social behavior is not a transposition of Einstein’s work to Anthropology. Instead, it has roots in the earlier relativistic studies of human behavior and is an attempt to develop a modern social theory of human behavior that will be as productive as Einstein’s theories  have been in the physical sciences.  

While relativistic theories appeared prior to the 20th century, religious doctrines maintained great influence over ideas about human behavior and, in the physical sciences, Isaac Newton’s publication, Principia (1687) maintained an absolutistic basis for scientific research for well over two centuries. Newton’s fundamental axioms were: (1) “Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable” and (2) “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.” These notions of absolute space and time were also a central part of Immanuel Kant’s 18th century philosophical treatise, Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In this monumental work, space and time became absolute characteristics of the human mind. It was not until the middle of 19th century, when technological developments in electrodynamics and optics opened a new world, did it become apparent that the theories of classical physics could not explain all phenomena. In the 20th century, Einstein’s Special Theory and the successes it achieved ended the dominance of privileged reference frames in modern physical theory. 

The Special Theory of Relativity made it possible to understand how light could have a constant speed independent of the velocity of its source. Common sense maintained that an object thrown from a rapidly moving object at a target, like a spear thrown from a moving chariot at an enemy soldier, will move faster than a spear thrown from a standing position. But, contradicting this assumption was that experiments had clearly shown that light moved at the same speed whether its source was moving or stationary. To account for this phenomenon, Einstein recognized that the results of measurements were dependent upon the frames of reference of the observer and eliminated the reference to absolute space and absolute time. Thus, two observers could accurately conclude that events were simultaneous and not simultaneous. Their conclusions depended upon their frames of reference. Recognizing two contradictory statements about the same event being true requires a fundamental change from the logic that was the foundation of physical descriptions in the past. Thus, Special Relativity, while built upon the previous work of others, was a unique contribution and made a clear break from the classical approach in Physics. 

The Newtonian axioms of an absolute space and an absolute time as basic truisms in scientific research have been replaced by two very different axioms: (1) no privileged frame of reference for observation and measurement of physical events exists and (2) a frame of reference affects the results of observations and measurements.[2] These axioms have had a fundamental impact upon research. Essentially, the notion that scientific information can only be provided by “objective observers” has been supplanted by a very different role for observations. Today, physical scientists recognize that legitimate observations can be made from different frames of reference and, since there is no absolute frame of reference, there can be no unique “objective” observer (That is, observations and measurements are always influenced by a reference frame). The result has been a powerful conceptual tool that has proven to be extremely successful for understanding phenomena at all levels of complexity.[3]  It, furthermore, has been the key to understanding the physical world beyond the limits of ordinary experience. 

Today, the research physicist understands that light has a constant speed in a medium, space-time is a continuum, matter and energy are integrated, indeterminacy exists as a fundamental aspect of reality, and measurements involve an intimate relationship between the observer and the observed. Relativity is part of the everyday world of the modern physicist and it has proven so successful that it has “… dominated three-quarters of a century of modern science” Ghirardi (2005; xii).

Ordinary experience can convince us that the speed of an object is affected by the movement of its source. Anytime you throw a snowball at something standing in front of you while you’re in a moving vehicle, it will move faster towards the object than if it were thrown while you’re standing on the ground. If the vehicle is moving 20 miles an hour and you can throw the snowball at 40 miles per hour, for example, the snowball will fly towards your target at 60 miles per hour. The speed of the snowball is simply the sum of the two speeds. That the snowball will increase in speed due to the movement of the vehicle is, of course, commonsense. Furthermore, it can be easily verified by observers who can measure the distance the snowball traveled and divide by the time it took to reach the target. Whether the measurements are carried out by observers aboard the vehicle or on the ground doesn’t matter.

But, today, observations are often made of events that do not occur in ordinary experience. When a space vehicle traveling towards a celestial object such as the moon at a high rate of speed and shines a light beam towards a target on the moon, the speed of the light beam from the vehicle to the moon will be same as the speed of light between two stationary objects on Earth.[4] Furthermore, two scientific observers, one on the space vehicle and one on Earth, measuring the length of time for the light to reach the target will get different results. Yet, each result is correct. Commonsense does not help to understand this phenomenon. It may even get in the way.

Now is the time to remove the dominance of privileged reference frames in the Social Sciences. Relativistic theories are required to explain the developments in human social interactions being brought about by changes in technology; particularly in communication and transportation systems. The old privileged reference frames with their notions of an absolute “human nature” are no longer capable of predicting human social behavior.

The constant speed of light in a vacuum has become universally recognized and its value plays an integral part in scientific research today. By eliminating absolute reference frames for both space and time and recognizing that all measurements in space-time are affected by the frame of reference of the observer, Special Relativity accounted for this phenomenon. But a focus upon the invariant value of the speed of light in a vacuum has sometimes led to its relativistic underpinnings being ignored. An important characteristic of the speed of light is often overlooked. It should be noticed that the speed of light through a medium is not an absolute constant; it is dependent upon the density of the medium through which it travels. The denser the material, the more time it takes light to pass through it. When light passes through a diamond, for example, the time it takes to travel a specific distance is twice that for the same distance in space. Since speed equals distance divided by time, light travels at half the speed in a diamond than it does in a vacuum. Density of a medium, in essence, is a frame of reference for measurements and has an effect on results. This should be kept in mind so that the constant speed of light in space doesn’t mislead one to treating it is an absolute quantity and an exception to the fundamental principles of relativity.  

The invariants found in geometric figures may also mislead some to think that there are absolute values making exceptions to the fundamental tenets of relativity. In plane geometry, for example, invariants of two-dimensional figures were discovered centuries ago. Today, every student who has attended a primary school geometry class has learned that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is π (3.14159…), the sum of the angles in a triangle is equal to one hundred eighty degrees (180º), and that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides of a right triangle (Pythagorean Theorem). These well-known invariants of Euclidean geometry, like many other centuries old ideas, fortify the notion that absolutes exist. But these invariants are not absolutes. Rather than being unconditional characteristics of geometric figures, these invariants are relative to specific types of spatial reference frames.  

Circles and triangles reveal their well-known invariants when measured on flat, two-dimensional surfaces. The same values also appear when the geometric figures are measured on curved surfaces in three-dimensional space if the figures are so small that the impact upon measurements of the curvature of the surface is not noticeable. When somebody measures figures drawn on a notepad, for example, measurements and calculations will confirm there is a constant value for the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle (π), the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180°, and the sum of the squares of the lengths of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the length of the hypotenuse. But these results change when large circles and triangles are measured on the earth’s positively curved surface.[5] When triangles have sides the length of one-fourth the circumference of the earth and circles have circumferences as large as the Equator, for example, the sum of the angles of a triangle is greater than 180 degrees, the value of the ratio between circumference and diameter of a circle is less than 3.14139…, and the square of the hypotenuse is less than the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle.
            The paths of an airplane over the surface of the globe can illustrate how the invariants of plane geometry are not valid for a triangle on a positively curved surface. If an airplane flies from the Equator to the North Pole for one side of a triangle, then turns 90° and flies southward to the Equator for a second side, and then turns westward and flies along the equator to its starting point, the lines of its flight path form a triangle with three equal sides on a positively curved surface. This triangle has different values for the sum of its angles then a triangle on a surface of neutral curvature. The path of the airplane includes one 90° angle where it started, another at the equator where it turned westward to return to the place it began its flight as well as the 90° angle at the North Pole where it turned southward. Its path describes a triangle with three right angles whose sum (270°) is 50% larger than the sum of the angles of a triangle on a surface of neutral curvature (180º).

For a right triangle on a plane surface, the Pythagorean Theorem holds. That is, the sum of the square of the lengths of the two sides adjacent to the right angle is equal to the square of the length of the hypotenuse. But this is not true for the large triangle created by the airplane’s path over the surface of the earth. For this triangle, the sum of the squares of the lengths of two sides of the triangle is greater than the square of hypotenuse. The three sides of the triangle marked by the path of an airplane flying along the equator, then turning 90° to fly along a great circle to the North Pole and then turning 90° to fly to its starting point on the equator, are the same length.  The sum of the squares of the lengths of the two sides adjacent to any of the right angles will be now be twice the square of the third side ((side one)2 + (side two)2 = 2*(side three)2 ).

If on a different flight the airplane flies south from the North Pole, turns westward before it reaches the Equator, flies parallel to the Equator to the line of longitude that intersects the start of the first leg at a right angle, and then turns northward to return to the Pole, its path also forms a right triangle. But it will have only one right angle; the one at the North Pole. The other two angles will each be less than 900. The sum of the angles of this triangle will be greater than 180º but less than 270º. The sum of the squares of the sides of the right triangle will also be larger than the square of the hypotenuse but less than 2*(side 3)2. The smaller this triangle becomes, the more the values of the measurements will approach those of a Euclidean triangle. Finally, when the longitudinal sides are so short and the triangle becomes so small that the effect of the curvature of space is no longer measurable, the measurements on the surface of the earth will be equivalent to those on a plane surface. The sum of the three angles will be equal to 180º and the Pythagorean Theorem will hold, i.e., the square of the hypotenuse will equal the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The Pythagorean Theorem represents the limiting condition for the relationships between the sides and hypotenuse of a right triangle on the earth’s surface as the dimensions of the triangle diminish to those of ordinary experience.

The ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle on a positively curved surface also changes with size. If an airplane flies south to the Equator from the North Pole and then circumnavigates the globe, its path along the Equator is a great circle whose diameter (D) measured over the surface of the earth will be one half of a great circle (C). The value of the ratio of the circumference of the circle to the diameter (C/D) is thus 2 in contrast to the value of π (3.1416…). Any great circle on the surface of the earth has a circumference twice the length of its diameter. The length of the diameter is the same as the distance of a longitudinal line between the Poles (ignoring the fact that the earth is not a perfect sphere). A great circle is the largest circle that can be drawn on the surface of a sphere and the value of 2 represents a lower limit while any other circles drawn on the surface of the globe will have a value between 2 and π. Once the circle becomes small enough, the measurements will be equivalent to those of a circle on a surface with no curvature. In other words, the influence of the curvature is no longer noticeable and the traditional value for π is simply the upper limit for circles on a positively curved surface.

Figures on the surface of the earth ordinarily do not reveal the impact of the curvature of the surface. Consequently, results of calculations based on their distances will be essentially identical to those made on a surface of neutral curvature.[6] Awareness of the effect of the curvature of space arises through comparison of the results of the measurements of the macroscopic figures on the earth’s surface with those from the mesoscopic figures of everyday experience. If one never leaves the reference frame of ordinary experience, the invariants of plane geometry appear to be absolute.  The same is true for the path of light through space. Light appears to travel in a straight line in ordinary experience and it was not until recently that the effect of the curvature of space upon its path was recognized. Light emitted from distant stars bends around dense cosmological objects.

Geometric figures take on different characteristics when their scales in comparison to the Earth are different. Imagine a microscopic creature with intelligence that constructs geometric figures on the earth’s surface. Imagine also that this creature makes these figures by using thread. To make a triangle, for example, it anchors one end of the thread, lays the thread along the ground a microscopic distance, anchors the thread again, turns greater than 90 degrees and less than 180 degrees, and repeats this action and moves the same distance. It then returns to its starting position and anchors the loose end of thread there. To make a circle, the creature anchors one end of its thread, stretches it out a microscopic distance along the surface and places a small peg in the ground. It repeats this action until the pegs complete a circle. It then places a thread around the pegs to make the circle of thread. The creature’s world from a three-dimensional perspective is a surface with hills and valleys. Under these conditions, the positive curvature of the earth’s surface would not be a factor in measurements. Instead, it is the local curvature of the surface that affects measurements. The geometry is again not equivalent to the figures on a plane surface with no curvature. Instead, it is a surface with all forms of curvature and the creature’s measurements of triangles and circles would lead to the conclusion that the sum of the angles of triangles and the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle are variable. They differ in different locations.

Measurements of the ratio between diameter and circumference of a circle vary relative to the hills and valleys the circle encompasses. The ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle would be different if the circle were drawn on the side of a large, gently sloping hill, or around a hill, or over several hills, etc. In the first case, you would get results equal or close to those calculated from measuring figures drawn on a plane. In the second case, your results would resemble those calculated for the figure drawn on a positively curved surface such as the path of airplane over the earth’s surface. Where the circle crosses several hills, the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle would be different from both of the previous situations.

An intelligent creature may also notice that the size of the circle matters. Unlike larger circles (Relative to the creature’s world!), very small circles would have an invariant value for π. Like small circles drawn by humans on the earth’s surface, the curvature of the surface in the creature’s world would not noticeably influence the measurements of these circles. The ratio of the circumference to the diameter would be identical to that found for figures on a surface with zero curvature. It is possible that the creature would also recognize that the different ratios in larger circles are due to the curvature of its space. It certainly would take for granted that measurements are relative to location and ordinary experience would be one where relativity constitutes commonsense.

Although it is not likely one will find a creature described above, the figures illustrate that measurements are relative to their scale and space-time locations. The ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle, for one, will depend upon the size of the figure and whether it is measured on a surface with or without curvature. For humans, the influence of space-time curvature is not normally noticeable and awareness of it requires comparison of measurements from other frames of reference. Then, what appear to be absolute values at the mesoscopic level prove to be relative when different levels of reality are examined. This, of course, is not surprising. When looking at pond water, for example, what one observes is very different depending upon the level of observation. It varies depending upon whether one is sitting on the shore watching waves and fish, sitting in a laboratory examining the microscopic organisms from the pond, or using high powered instruments to observe the molecular structure of the water. A conclusion about the nature of the water will reflect the frame of reference of the observer. This simple comparison of data from the different levels of reality should help bring the relativistic nature of measurement into focus. It may also bring to mind that a unified view of reality is attainable if attention is paid to the frames of reference for observation and measurement.

The above discussion points out that absolute values measured from an observer’s framework may not be absolute when measured from different frameworks. Modern technology has provided humans with considerably different frameworks for viewing the physical world making the significance of a relativistic theory more evident. Modern technology has provided new frameworks for viewing the social world and a relativistic theory for understanding human behavior has also become more evident.   

Modern relativistic theory recognizes no privileged frame of reference and that an observer’s reference frame affects the results of measurements. A modern relativistic theory also involves two additional factors: uncertainty and complementarity. With the development of quantum physics it became evident that the classical objectives of scientific observation would have to be abandoned. Werner Heisenberg, after examining the results of experiments at the quantum level, realized that it is not possible to simultaneously know both the position and the momentum of a particle. Generalized to other features of elementary particles, it has become widely known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The principle states that when measuring certain pairs of attributes of elementary particles, increasing the precision in the measurement of one attribute increases the indeterminacy of the other. In the case of position and momentum, measurement of the position of an object entails a degree of uncertainty in the measurement of the velocity and, hence, momentum (the product of mass and velocity). Likewise, measuring the velocity means having a degree of indeterminacy about the position of a particle.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has been treated from two distinct points of view: (1) as an inherent, indeterminate character of quantum processes and (2) as the result of measurements introducing uncertainty into observations or descriptions of a quantum event. The latter situation is sometimes referred to as the “observer effect” and distinguished from the former which is designated as the principle of uncertainty. In the observer effect, a person attempting to know the position of a particle, for example, may use photons of light to precisely locate it. In the act of measurement, energy is imparted to the particle and its velocity is changed. This change introduces a degree of uncertainty about the precise momentum of the particle and challenges the notion of objective momentum. Similarly, in trying to determine a particle’s momentum, measurement introduces a degree of uncertainty about its position.

There is a similar effect well known in the social sciences. When an anthropologist, for example, becomes immersed in a society to describe its members’ behavior, the investigator influences responses and actions of the members of the society. Thus, the information gathered by the anthropologist always contains a degree of uncertainty about the “true” nature of social behavior. There is no objectivity in the sense that the data is unaffected by the observer’s actions. This will be discussed in detail in the following chapters.  

Recognition of the uncertainty inherent in observations at the microscopic level of reality has brought with it a different way of describing elementary particles and their interactions. Because of the indeterminacy of quantum phenomena, formal attributes are described in terms of probabilistic statements rather than deterministic descriptions characteristic of classical physics. Objects are represented by distributions of probable locations rather than precise coordinates and the interactions of objects are described in terms of probable outcomes rather than strict causal relationships.    

There is a degree of uncertainty inherent in the description of objects or events due to the interactions with an observer even when no interference is caused by instruments. The observer’s impact may be very subtle but there is always some impact of the observer due to descriptions being influenced by the cultural assumptions held by an observer. Niels Bohr, recognized the uncertainty involved in descriptions of the fundamental particles and processes in physics introduced by the interaction between the observer and the observed. He spoke about the scientist actually dealing with what can be said about the world rather than directly about an external world of objects and forces. Einstein could never accept this position and argued for the possibility of a theory “…which describes exhaustively physical reality” and did not weaken the concept of reality by including the interaction between the observer and what is observed. (Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, 1920:158) Including the interaction between the observer and the observed, of course, does not imply that there is no reality. It simply implies that it cannot be described without being influenced by observation.

To describe the relationship between different characteristics of an object that emerge due to the interaction between the observer and the observed, Niels Bohr also introduced the notion of “complementarity”. For example, light demonstrates two contradictory characteristics, waves and particles, each one emerging depending upon the particular experimental conditions. Bohr surmised that light, rather than composed of a single, fundamental nature, was composed of both characteristics. Experimentation, he thought, could not determine one or the other to be the fundamental nature of light and concluded both represented the nature of light. The apparently contradictory characteristics of light displayed by different experiments thus represented a fundamental complementarity in nature. Each would be a true description of the nature of light emerging under distinct frames of reference. Bohr, furthermore, recognized that:

Just as the general concept of relativity expresses the essential dependence of any phenomenon on the frame of reference used for its coordination in space and time, the notion of complementarity serves to symbolize the fundamental limitation, met with in atomic physics, of the objective existence of phenomena independent of the means of their observation.[7]


In classical physics, if a class of experiments indicated that light is composed of particles but others indicated that light is composed of waves, it was assumed that only one of these represented the fundamental nature of light. Furthermore, it was assumed that further experimentation would eventually reveal which of these would be the true nature of light. Bohr’s revolutionary approach allowed scientists to consider light having a dual nature with the description of the “real” character of light depending upon the frame of reference (the experiment) of the observer. Complementarity expressed the fundamental relativistic logic that two contradictory descriptions of an event can both be true when based upon observations from independent frames of reference. This challenged conventional wisdom as well as classical logic.

Since the seventeenth century, there has been a scientific debate about whether light is transmitted fundamentally by waves or particles. It has been shown time after time that monochromatic light from a single source projected through two pinholes onto a screen will produce an interference pattern on the screen. A series of light and dark areas is produced that is well understood as a wave pattern. The light areas result from the intersecting waves from each pinhole when in phase enhance the light while the dark areas result when intersecting waves from the two pin-holes are out of phase, cancel each other, and diminish the light. This is precisely the pattern of interference one sees when sound or water waves pass through two narrow openings and interfere with each other. It is thus easy to conclude that light is transmitted as an electromagnetic wave.

But, in contrast to the evidence that light is fundamentally an electromagnetic wave, there are experiments that indicate conclusively that light is fundamentally made up of particles. Experiments in the early 20th century showed that atomic particles, later to be named electrons, were emitted from matter when bombarded by light. This photoelectric effect was explained by Albert Einstein by treating light as though it were composed of photons; particles of light, rather than waves. Since then, experiments have demonstrated that photons provide a better explanation for a number of phenomena.

The fundamental nature of light is still being debated today. But Heisenberg’s wave-particle duality has become accepted by many. They recognize that it is possible for light to have two fundamental characteristics. Furthermore, they understand that the one appearing in an event depends upon the frame of reference of the observer. The principle of complementarity expresses this phenomenon as a fundamental characteristic of descriptions of reality. It maintains the basic relativistic notions that observations are enmeshed with physical objects, no particular experimental interaction with reality is privileged, and observations from multiple frames of reference permit a more complete picture of the physical world than can be provided by any single viewpoint. Thus understood, complementarity is the fourth principle of a relativistic paradigm for the analysis of human social behavior. 

Niels Bohr believed complementarity was a potentially productive concept for understanding a wide range of phenomena. He suggested that complementarity be applied in the social sciences (See Bohr 1939) and more recently Freeman Dyson has reiterated and expanded upon this theme. He wrote, “Complementarity is a principle that has wide applications extending beyond physics into biology and anthropology and ethics, wherever problems exist that can be understood in depth only by going outside the limits of a single viewpoint or a single culture” (Dyson 2004:78; Also see Danziger 2001, Ottenheimer 1986). But the challenge to apply this potentially fruitful concept in the social sciences has yet to be met. At the very least, applying complementarity to the relationship between genetics and culture would lead to a better understanding of human behavior. It certainly would move social science beyond the current unproductive debate about which is the fundamental cause of human behavior. One of the major contributions of relativistic theory was to remove the notion of an absolute space-time as a frame of reference for the analysis of physical objects. If progress is to be made in the analysis of the human condition, it is time to remove the absolute notion of “human nature” as an absolute frame of reference for the analysis of social behavior.

Bohr also recognized that different societies have distinct frames of reference and these influenced members’ perceptions of the world. He also noted that uncertainty, in the technical sense, was a basic characteristic of human experience and clearly understood that a theory of relativity was essential for understanding the human condition (Bohr 1939). Social scientists, however, have yet to follow this insight. Absolute frameworks continue to dominate the analysis of human social behavior. Unfortunately, they do not to provide productive solutions to the problems that evolving social and technological developments pose today and will increase in frequency and impact over time. These problems require rethinking our fundamental assumptions about human behavior. I believe a relativistic theory offers the opportunity to analyze human behavior from a new perspective and to offer solutions to our present and future social problems.

In the following chapters, I will build upon Bohr’s insight and introduce a theory of human behavior with a relativistic foundation. The reader should understand this is not an attempt to extend Special or General Relativity to social phenomena. It is an attempt to develop a distinct social theory using the basic relativistic principles that met with great success in physics but were set aside in the social sciences.  Specifically, it integrates the two concepts of relativity and culture and develops a modern analysis of the social world in which no absolute framework is necessary.    


Version: 9/21/2017


Martin Ottenheimer, PhD

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology

K-State University

Please do not quote without permission.


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[1] The phrases, “reference frame or “frame of reference”, have several meanings. One is the coordinate system on which the position, size, orientation, motion, etc. of objects and actions are located.  Other meanings include the state of motion of the observer, the level of complexity (microscopic, macroscopic, etc.) used for observations, and the characteristic of the medium (solid, liquid, vacuum, etc.) in which observations are taken. The context makes it clear which specific meaning is intended. 


[2] In what follows in this chapter, the “observer’s frame of reference” or “reference frame of the observer” will be understood to include the instruments used for observation and measurement.


[3] Levels of complexity are broadly organized here into three categories: macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic. The microscopic level contains phenomena occurring below the level of ordinary human perceptions. This would include molecular, atomic, and subatomic objects and activity. The macroscopic level includes all phenomena above the level of ordinary human perceptions. This would include cosmological objects and events whose dimensions are far greater than those of everyday human events. The mesoscopic level bridges the gap between microscopic and macroscopic levels of complexity. It encompasses experience in the dimensions of ordinary human life.


[4] Light travels at 299,792,459 meters per second in a vacuum whether it emanates from a rapidly moving vehicle or not. Thus, an observer on the vehicle will get that result when measuring its speed and so will an observer on earth. The speed of the vehicle has no impact on the speed of the light through the vacuum of space. However, light travels at different velocities through other mediums. When light travels through a diamond, for example, it takes approximately twice the time to cover the same distance it takes in a vacuum. Light has slowed down even more in Bose-Einstein condensates. It has been argued that the light passing through these mediums still travels at the constant speed it has in a vacuum but is delayed by contact with molecules of matter. Another possibility is that space is distorted at the microscopic level by molecules and light travels a greater distance when passing through the space of a denser material.


[5] The earth in the following discussions is treated as a perfect sphere even though it is flattened at the poles. The argument is straightforward and essentially unaffected by the physical distortion of the planet.  


[6] The effect of distance is also evident in four-dimensional cosmological physics. The interval is a constant for special relativity when small distances in space-time are involved.


[7] First given as “Light and Life,” an address at the opening meeting of the International Congress on Light Therapy in Copenhagen, August 1932. Printed in Nature, 131, 421 (1933). Reprinted in The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, Volume II:7. Woodbridge, Connecticut: Ox Bow Press. 1987.