Simply Psychology Logo


Cultural Relativism

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 07 2022

Summary

  • Cultural Relativism is the claim that ethical practices differ among cultures, and what is considered right in one culture may be considered wrong in another. The implication of cultural relativism is that no one society is superior to another, they are merely different.
  • This claim comes with several corollaries; namely, that different societies have different moral codes, there is no objective standard to judge how good or bad these moral codes are, and that the job of those who study cultures is not to compare these customs to their own, but to describe them.
  • Moral relativism claims that what is customary in a culture is absolutely right in that culture. Cultural relativism is not as strong, sometimes asserting that there is no real way to measure right or wrong.
  • Cultural relativism is contrary to ethnocentrism, which encourages people to look at the world from the perspective of their own culture.
  • While cultural relativism has been the subject of controversy — especially from philosophers — anthropological and sociological studies have led to a widespread consensus among social scientists that cultural relativism is true.

What is Cultural Relativism?

Cultural relativism is the principle of regarding the beliefs, values, and practices of a culture from the viewpoint of that culture itself.

It states that there are no universal beliefs, and each culture must be understood in its own terms, because cultures cannot be translated into terms which are accessible everywhere.

The principle is sometimes practiced to avoid cultural bias in research, as well as to avoid judging another culture by the standards of one's own culture. For this reason, cultural relativism has been considered an attempt to avoid ethnocentrism.

Cultural Relativism refers to the ability to understand a culture on their own terms, and consequently not making judgments based on the standards of one's own culture.

Implications

In the cultural relativist perspective, no one culture is superior to another when comparing their systems of morality, law, politics, and so on.

This is because cultural norms and values, according to cultural relativism, derive their meaning within a specific social context.

Cultural relativism is also based on the idea that there is no absolute standard of good or evil, and thus that every decision and judgment of what is right or wrong is individually decided in each society.

As a result, any opinion on ethics is subject to the perspective of each person within their particular culture.

In practice, cultural relativists try to promote the understanding of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to other cultures, such as eating insects and sacrificial killing. 

Types of Cultural Relativism

There are two different categories of cultural relativism: absolute and critical. Absolute cultural relativists believe that everything that happens within a culture must and should not be questioned by outsiders.

Meanwhile, critical cultural relativism questions cultural practices in terms of who is accepting them and why, as well as recognizing power relationships. 

Cultural relativism challenges beliefs about the objectivity and universality of moral truth.

In effect, cultural relativism says that there is no such thing as universal truth and ethics; there are only various cultural codes. Moreover, the code of one culture has no special status, but is merely one among many.

Assumptions

Cultural relativism has several different elements, and there is some disagreement as to what claims are true and pertinent to cultural relativism, and which are not. Some claims include that:

  1. Different societies have different moral codes;

  2. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code as better than another;

  3. The moral code of one's own society has no special status, but is merely one among many;

  4. There is no "universal truth" in ethics, meaning that there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times;

  5. The moral code of a society determines what is right and wrong within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, than that action is right, at least within that society, and;

  6. It is arrogant for people to attempt to judge the conduct of other people. Instead, researchers should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.

Illustrative Examples

Food Choices

Cultural relativism does not merely relate to morality and ethics. Cultural relativism, for example, explains why certain cultures eat different foods at different meals.

For example, traditionally, breakfast in the United States is markedly different from breakfast in Japan or Colombia. While one may consist of scrambled eggs and pancakes and the other rice and soup or white cheese on a corn arepa, cultural relativists seek to understand these differences not in terms of any perceived superiority or inferiority, but in description (Bian & Markman, 2020). 

Mental Illness

One of the biggest controversies in relation to classification and diagnosis is to do with and ICD (the manuals of mental disorders) are culturally biased because they are drawn up and used by white, middle class men. This means they tend to use definitions of abnormality that are not relevant to all cultures.

For example, Davison & Neale (1994) explain that in Asian cultures, a person experiencing some emotional turmoil is praised & rewarded if they show no expression of their emotions.

In certain Arabic cultures however, the outpouring of public emotion is understood and often encouraged. Without this knowledge, an individual displaying overt emotional behaviour may be regarded as abnormal, when it fact it is not.

Cross-cultural misunderstandings are common, and may contribute to unfair and discriminatory treatment of minorities by the majority, e.g. high diagnosis rate of schizophrenia amongst non-white British people.

Cochrane (1977) reported that the incidence of schizophrenia in the West Indies and the UK is 1 %, but that people of Afro-Caribbean origin are seven times more likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic when living in the UK.

Hygienic Rituals

Another phenomenon explained by cultural relativism is hygienic rituals. Different cultures may use different modes or methods of disposing of waste and cleaning up afterward.

Ritualized ablution, or washing, also differs across cultures. Catholics may dip their fingers into blessed water and anoint themselves at church and Jewish people may pour water over their hands in a specific way during Shabbat.

Although toilet and washing practices vary drastically across cultures, cultural relativists seek to describe these differences, noting that what is customary to a culture is not necessarily “right” or “wrong.”

Cultural vs. Moral Relativism

Cultural relativism is a claim that anthropologists can make when describing how ethical practices differ across cultures; as a result, the truth or falsity of cultural relativism can be determined by how anthropologists and anthropologists study the world.

Many sociologists and anthropologists have conducted such studies, leading to widespread consensus among social scientists that cultural relativism is an actual phenomenon (Bowie, 2015).

Moral relativism, meanwhile, is a claim that what is really right or wrong is what that culture says is right or wrong. While moral relativists believe that cultural relativism is true, they extend their claims much further.

Moral relativists believe that, if a culture sincerely and reflectively adopts some basic moral principle, then it is morally obligatory for members of that culture to act according to that principle (Bowie, 2015). 

The implication of moral relativism is that it is absolutely necessary for someone to act according to the norms of the culture they are located in.

For example, when asking whether or not it is ethical to bribe government bureaucrats, a moral relativist would look for the answer in the norms of how people within their country deal with bureaucracy.

If people bribe government officials, then the moral relativist would consider bribery not to be wrong in that country.

However, if people do not normally bribe bureaucrats, then offering a bribe to them would be considered morally wrong.

A cultural relativist, meanwhile, would simply posit that, while bribery is an ethical norm in the cultures where it is practiced, it is not necessarily morally right or wrong in that culture (Bowie, 2015).

Cultural Relativism vs Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world largely from the perspective of one's own culture. This may be motivated, for example, by the belief that one's own race, ethnic, or cultural group is the most important or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups.

Ethnocentrism can often lead to incorrect assumptions about others' behavior based on one's own norms, values, and beliefs (Worthy, Lavigne, & Romero; 2021a). 

Cultural relativism, meanwhile, is principled on regarding and valuing the practices of a culture from the point of view of that culture, and to avoid making judgments stemming from one's own assumptions.

Cultural relativism attempts to counter ethnocentrism by promoting the understanding of cultural practices unfamiliar to other cultures. For example, it is a common practice for friends of the same-sex in India to hold hands while walking in public.

In the United Kingdom, holding hands is largely limited to couples who are romantically involved, and often suggests a sexual relationship.

Someone holding an extreme ethnocentrist view may see their own understanding of hand-holding as superior and consider the foreign practice to be immoral (Worthy, Lavigne, & Romero; 2021a). 

Controversy and Why Cultural Relativism Matters

Cultural Relativism has been criticized for numerous reasons, both theoretical and practical.

According to Karanack (2013), cultural relativism attempts to integrate knowledge between one's own, culture-bound, reality. The premise that cultural relativism is based on, that all cultures are valid in their customs, is, in Karanack's view, vague. 

Karanack also criticizes cultural relativism from a theoretical perspective for having contradictory logic, asserting that cultural relativism often asserts that social facts are true and untrue, depending on the culture that one is situated in. 

Nonetheless, cultural relativism also has several advantages. Firstly, it is a system that promotes cooperation. Each individual has a different perspective that is based on their upbringing, experiences, and personal thoughts; and, by embracing the many differences that people have, cooperation creates the potential for a stronger society

. Each individual definition of success allows people to pursue stronger bonds with one another and potentially achieve more because there are no limitations on a group level about what can or cannot be accomplished (Karanack, 2013).

Secondly, cultural relativism envisions a society where equality across cultures is possible. Cultural relativism does so by allowing individuals to define their moral code without defining that of others. As each person can set their own standards of success and behavior, cultural relativism creates equality (Karanack, 2013).

Additionally, Cultural relativism can preserve cultures and allow people to create personal moral codes based on societal standards without precisely consulting what is "right" or "wrong."

However, it can do so while also excluding moral relativism. This means that the moral code of a culture can be defined and an expectation implemented that people follow it, even as people devise goals and values that are particularly relevant to them. 

Lastly, cultural relativism has been praised for stopping cultural conditions — the adoption for people to adapt their attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs to the people they are with on a regular basis (Karanack, 2013). 

Despite these advantages, cultural relativism has been criticized for creating a system fuelled by personal bias. As people tend to prefer to be with others who have similar thoughts, feelings, and ideas, they tend to separate themselves into neighborhoods, communities, and social groups that share specific perspectives.

When people are given the power to define their own moral code, they do so based on personal bias, causing some people to follow their own code at the expense of others (Karanack, 2013).

Nonetheless, cultural relativism promotes understanding of cultures outside of one’s own, enabling people to build relationships with other cultures that acknowledge and respect each others’ diverse lives.

With cultural relativism comes an ability to understand a culture on its own terms without making judgments based on one’s own cultural standards. In this way, sociologists and anthropologists can draw more accurate conclusions about outside cultures (Worthy, Lavigne, & Romero, 2020).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 07). Cultural Relativism. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/cultural-relativism.html

References

Bian, L., & Markman, E. M. (2020). Why do we eat cereal but not lamb chops at breakfast? Investigating Americans’ beliefs about breakfast foods. Appetite, 144, 104458.

Bowie, N.E. (2015). Relativism, Cultural and Moral. In Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (eds C.L. Cooper and ). Culture and Psychology. (2021). Glendale Community College.

Brown, M. F. (2008). Cultural Relativism 2.0Current Anthropology, 49(3), 363-383.

Cochrane, R. A. Y. M. O. N. D. (1977). Mental illness in immigrants to England and Wales: an analysis of mental hospital admissions, 1971. Social psychiatry, 12(1), 25-35.

Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (1994). Abnormal Psychology. New York: John Willey and Sons.

Kanarek, Jaret (2013) "Critiquing Cultural Relativism," The Intellectual Standard: Vol. 2 : Iss. 2 , Article 1.

Spiro, M. E. (1992). Cultural relativism and the future of anthropologyRereading cultural anthropology, 124, 51.

Tilley, J. J. (2000). Cultural relativismHum. Rts. Q., 22, 501.

Worthy, L. D., Lavigne, T., & Romero, F. (2020). Self and Culture. Culture and Psychology.

Zechenter, E. M. (1997). In the name of culture: Cultural relativism and the abuse of the individualJournal of Anthropological Research, 53(3), 319-347.

Home | About Us | Privacy Policy | Advertise | Contact Us

Simply Psychology's content is for informational and educational purposes only. Our website is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

© Simply Scholar Ltd - All rights reserved