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Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 80, Number 3, Summer 2007, pp.

777-790 (Article)

DOI: 10.1353/anq.2007.0040

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Dialectics of Culture: Relativism

in Popular and Anthropological
Richard Feinberg
Kent State University

F or well over a century, cultural relativism has been among anthropolo-

gys most cherished tenets.1 In recent decades, however, it has come
under increasing attack from multiple quarters. Critics on the religious right
blame moral relativism for the alleged breakdown of marriage and family
values, challenges to the Ten Commandments, and tolerance of sin. Critics
on the left complain that cultural relativism gives anthropologists an excuse
to avoid taking stands on colonial oppression and issues of human libera-
tion (e.g., Harris 1968; Hann et al. 1983; Leal 1991), or that it serves as a
mechanism for distancing ourselves from our informants (e.g., Mascia Lees
et al. 1989). Many feminists working to promote an international ban on so-
called female circumcision, dismiss relativism as a pretext to justify inhu-
mane, misogynist, and often physically dangerous behavior, while oppo-
nents of presumably-fanatical religious sects denounce relativism as an
underpinning for some of our planets most pernicious ideologies.2
What are relativisms implications? Is it compatible with universal
human rights? Can a relativist be critical of any culture? Can a relativist, for
that matter, take a position on anything? Can relativists engage in efforts
to redress injustice in their own societiesor elsewhere? Indeed, can a rel-

Dialectics of Culture: Relativism in Popular and Anthropological Discourse

ativist even make claims about an objective reality external to ones own
or any otherculture? These themes are visible in work of activists,
philosophers, and, not least, anthropologists.
In the midst of all this criticism, it makes sense to ask if relativism has,
perhaps, outlived its usefulness. Has it, like race, become a fetter on
intellectual progress? Is it time to relegate the concept to the moldy store-
rooms of our venerable museums? The three articles that follow address
this question from a number of perspectives, exploring the notion of rel-
ativism in light of critiques by philosophers (e.g., Rachels 2000 [1993]),
political scientists (e.g., Dundes Renteln 1988), activists (e.g., Trask 1991),
and anthropological colleagues (e.g., Hatch 1983; Turner 1997). They all
agree that cultural relativism is fraught with limitations, but they also all
contend that it is worth preserving in some form.

What is Cultural Relativism?

I begin with the observation that cultural relativism does not exist. Not
that we have nothing in mind when we use the expression; on the contrary,
we have too many things in mind. Anthropologists have used the phrase to
denote a variety of ideas, not all of which sit comfortably together. To
argue over what cultural relativism really is or what it should refer to
is not only a waste of energy; it is a futile exercise in reification. The ques-
tion, to paraphrase Raymond Firth (1936) from quite a different context, is
not what cultural relativism is, but what we choose to mean by rela-
tivism.3 When discussing the idea we should identify the version we are
using, something anthropologists have neglected too often.
In my introductory courses in cultural anthropology, I use a fairly broad
conception of relativism, but one most anthropologists are likely to accept.
I explain it as an appreciation of the fact that human beings in different
places have found diverse ways to lead full, satisfying lives. I suggest that
most cultural and social arrangements have both costs and benefits; that
there are few if any absolutes in life. I propose that there are many ways
to view a problem, and alternative solutions may be equally viable. Each
culture works in its own way, and most beliefs and practices, however
strange they may appear at first, are eminently sensible when viewed with-
in their cultural frameworks. Rational, intelligent, well-meaning people
can have different ways of looking at the world, and there is positive value
in trying to understand how the universe appears through someone elses


eyes.4 My working definition, however, hides within it many variations.

Elsewhere (Feinberg 2001) I identified three common variants as what I
termed contextual, ethical, and epistemological relativism.5
Contextual relativism holds that traits, beliefs, and practices are defined
and distinguished by members of a particular community through the
manipulation of symbols and meanings, and that they must be understood
in their cultural contexts. What appear superficially to be instances of the
same trait or practice may have different meanings in different cultural
settings, and they should be treated as discrete phenomena. This point was
articulated at least as far back as Boas (1996) in his essay on the limitations
of the comparative method. He noted, for example, that masks in differ-
ent communities may look similar. Yet, even in adjacent culture areas,
close examination shows that they can vary greatly in significance and use
(Boas 1896:904-905). The idea that cultural elements should be under-
stood in terms of their relationships to one another is not particularly con-
troversial and can be seen as early as Tylors identification of culture as a
complex whole (Tylor 1871:1). Nonetheless, it has methodological impli-
cations, some of which are explored in this set of essays.
If contextual relativism is largely uncontroversial, ethical relativism is
quite the opposite. This is the proposition that there are no good or bad
cultures, values, ideas, or practices; that differences do not imply degrees
of moral rectitude; that each culture works in its own way and should be
understood in its own terms; and that we should not be making value
judgments. Ethical relativism, in turn, has several sub-species.
One version postulates that anthropology is a science, and that values
are philosophicalnot scientificquestions. Therefore, in our role as
anthropologists we should not be making value judgments. However, we
are also human beings, each with his or her own cultural baggage. We
have our own preferences, values, and predilections growing out of our
respective cultural backgrounds, and we cannot be expected to discard
our values when acting in our capacity as private citizens. Thus, Boas,
despite his commitment to cultural relativism as a professional anthropol-
ogist, spoke out against eugenics, racism, and fascism; Benedict (1967
[1946]) studied Japan on behalf of the U. S. Office of War Information in
an attempt to assist the allied military effort during World War II; and
Mead (1963 [1935], 1949), made little effort to disguise her aversion to the
hostile, competitive, aggressive, and internally fragmented Mundugumor
of what is now Papua New Guinea. This doctrine, explicitly advocated by

Dialectics of Culture: Relativism in Popular and Anthropological Discourse

Lowie (1937), is close to what Dundes Renteln (1988) calls ethical rela-
tivism as descriptive.
A second version holds that different cultures have different moral stan-
dards and different justifications for their standards. In case of fundamen-
tal differences, there is no objective basis for deciding among alternative
values. One can point to inconsistencies in a moral code, or to someones
failure to act in accordance with his or her own ethical system. However,
differing value systems come down to subjective preference, and there are
no rational grounds for condemning another community whose moral
sense differs from ones own. This perspective takes the previous point an
additional step by denying ourselves the prerogative of evaluating others
by our own standards even in our capacity as private individuals, and it
comes close to Dundes Rentelns ethical relativism as prescriptive.
A third variant of ethical relativism is what I would characterize as a ver-
sion of self-determination. This view posits that each community has its
own values and ideas regarding how people should treat one another and,
regardless of our feelings about another communitys values or its way of
life, other peoples standards are their business. Just as we would not like
them to impose their values on us, we have no right to impose our views
on them. Adherents to this position might well make the further point that
we have enough ethical breaches in our own society that we are in no posi-
tion to criticize anyone else; that our concern should be to set our own
house in order. This version of relativism is accepted by many critical
and Marxist anthropologists in making anti-colonialist arguments (e.g.,
Dominy and Carucci 2005; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Roseberry 1989; Ulin
2001 [1984]) as well as by indigenous nationalists in the developing
world who wish to be free of interference by former imperialist powers.
Ethical relativism, in any of its guises, is an obstacle to moral judg-
ments and actions based upon such judgments. However, it says nothing
about the possibility of non-evaluative comparison. A third complex of
ideas going under the heading of cultural relativism is what might be
termed epistemological relativism, and it makes any cross-cultural com-
parisons, whether evaluative or not, close to impossible.
Epistemological relativism is the position that no one can ever under-
stand another culture in any truly meaningful way. Versions of this doctrine
can be traced to the perspectivalism of Nietzsche, and even the Greek
sophists, who contended that reality is always viewed from a particular per-
spective, and there is no impartial arbiter of objective truth. In anthropolog-


ical history, the seeds of epistemological relativism may be seen in Boass

historical anthropologywhat Harris (1968) called historical particular-
isma view attributing to each culture a unique system of meanings as well
as a distinctive structure and dynamic. Cultures, the argument goes, are
incommensurable: nothing that one learns about one culture entails any-
thing about another. Boasian particularism was later applied in a linguistic
context by Boass student, Edward Sapir, and Sapirs student, Benjamin Lee
Whorf, to produce the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. According to Sapir
and Whorf, the external world is not directly and immediately apprehended,
but sense data are always filtered in some manner. Each of us understands
the world from his or her own perspective, and a major determinant of that
perspective is ones language. People from different cultural backgrounds
speak different languages and perceive the world in fundamentally different
ways. The best that any anthropologist can hope to achieve, then, is a poor
translation which inevitably distorts the Others cultural reality by virtue of
rendering it in a language that is comprehensible to the intended audience.
More recently, this form of relativism has been incorporated into the
work of symbolic or interpretive anthropologists, as illustrated by David
Schneider and his deconstruction of kinship as a cultural category. In a
series of publications stretching from the 1960s through the 90s
Schneider, along with Geertz and othersargued that culture is best con-
ceptualized as a system of arbitrary symbols and that, through manipula-
tion of such symbols, each community creates its own reality. Since culture
is arbitrary, it is limited only by the possibilities of the human mind; it is
infinitely variable and not constrained by external reality. Therefore, the
existence of a category in a particular culture cannot be assumed a priori
but must be freshly demonstrated in each instance. 6 Schneiderian decon-
struction was a precursor to anthropological post-modernism, which
rejects supposed scientific objectivity as nothing more than ethnocentric
arrogance. 7 Post-modern skepticism has been further transformed and
taken over by a number of indigenous activists and scholars, who use it as
grounds to dismiss anthropology wholesale as a colonialist enterprise, ded-
icated to imposing a Western mindset on the subaltern Other. 8

This Collection: Genesis and Arguments

This collection of articles arose from a conversation between Thomas
Johnson and a student who had been assigned to read Rachelss well-

Dialectics of Culture: Relativism in Popular and Anthropological Discourse

known article on cultural relativism for a philosophy class. The student was
aware of relativisms importance to anthropology and brought the article
to Johnsons attention. Johnson was taken aback by what appeared to be a
fundamental misunderstanding of cultural relativisms meaning to anthro-
pologists, and he decided to explore the issue with colleagues, first from
his own department and later from the Central States Anthropological
Society. The result was a panel at the 2004 CSAS meeting, a second one at
the 2005 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association,
and the present set of articles.
Thomas Johnson is disturbed by the failure of many philosophers to
understand what cultural relativism means to anthropologists and how
we use the concept in our research. He recognizes that we share some
blame for the conflation of cultural with ethical or moral relativism and
strives to elucidate the difference.
This leads him to explore the contrast in objectives and perspectives of
philosophy and anthropology. Philosophers deal with logical abstractions
and deductive arguments, hoping to arrive at ultimate truths. They work
primarily in offices and libraries and, while they may test their ideas
against the responses of carefully-selected interlocutors, comments from
informants do not constitute their primary data. Anthropologists see
themselvesourselvesas empirical researchers; indeed, we often flat-
ter ourselves with the appellation, social scientists. Our job is to explore
how real people lead their lives, to learn their patterns of behavior, and
to understand the principles that guide their social action. For the most
part, we do not seek ultimate truth but try to understand the worlds that
fellow human beings, who may have cultures very different from our own,
inhabit. Cultural relativism is an indispensable tool, particularly as we
carry out field research. If we hope to understand why people act the way
they do, we must come to know how they believe the world is organized.
We need not agree with our informants, nor need we refrain from judging
their morality. But in our capacity as (social) scientists, our job is not to
cast such judgments; rather, it is to attempt to understand their under-
standings. In this sense, cultural relativism for anthropologists entails a
kind of objectivity as we do our best to understand objectively another
persons subjectivity.
Johnson has good company. Lowie (1937:25), in his history of ethnolog-
ical theory, tells us that The modern scientific procedure is to refrain
from all subjective pronouncements (italics in original). The anthropol-


ogist as an individual, he concedes, cannot but respond to alien mani-

festations in accordance with his national and individual norms.
However, as a scientist, he merely registers cannibalism or infanticide,
understands, and if possible explains such customs.
To understand something objectively does not preclude criticism or prac-
tical intervention to change the course of history. To offer an analogy, a
microbiologist may study the mechanisms through which the anthrax bacil-
lus causes human disease. Moral judgments about the bacillus, however,
are not part of the researchers job description. Similarly, it could be argued
that relativists studying people who practice cliterodectomy must temporar-
ily put aside their own values if they hope to comprehend the practice. And,
just as Pasteur used the knowledge accumulated from his study of bacteria
to create an anthrax vaccine, the anthropologist who studies body modifi-
cation may later use that knowledge to ameliorate the practice.
Robert Ulins contribution begins by exploring relativisms positive
contributions as well as what he considers to be misguided critiques from
outside of anthropology. He notes that many anthropologists have used
cultural relativism as a pedagogical tool to challenge ethnocentric
Western beliefs and practices and to promote an appreciation of cultural
diversity. He favorably quotes Rachelss acknowledgement that cultural
relativism has served to promote tolerance and open-mindedness. He cor-
rectly argues, contra Rachels, that one cannot easily evaluate the Others
customs on the basis of their ability to promote human welfareowing to
the difficulty of defining and measuring welfare outside the context of
a particular culture. And he examines Dundes Rentelns attempt to recon-
cile cultural relativism as a celebration of cultural diversity with the abil-
ity to criticize morally objectionable practices.
Arguments against cultural relativism, in one way or another, usually
come down to an insistence on the universality of basic moral standards.
Many writers echo Rachels and Dundes Renteln (see also Hatch 1983) in
asserting that such standards are empirically demonstrable. Habermas
(1984) comes to similar conclusions via a different route, drawing from
Wittgensteins ordinary language philosophy andby analogyfrom
Kohlbergs developmental psychology. Likewise, psychological anthropol-
ogists such as Edgerton (1978) and Spiro (1978) derive what they take to
be universal standards from the irreducible properties of the human psy-
che. And functionalists (e.g., Firth 1963 [1951]) have argued that certain
moral principles are necessary for a society to operate effectively. 9

Dialectics of Culture: Relativism in Popular and Anthropological Discourse

My own response to all these arguments is that issues of moral recti-

tude, like those of truth, cannot be resolved by popular vote. Even were it
true that certain standards are accepted everywhere, it does not follow
from their mere existence that they are correct.10 But rather than pursue
that line of argument, Ulin favorably cites Geertzs skepticism about the
empirical existence of cross-cultural moral universals (see Geertz 1973 and
elsewhere). In this respect, Ulin and Geertz are joined by other advocates
of symbolic and interpretiveas well as, arguably, post-modern and criti-
calanthropology. According to Geertz (1984), no one seriously argues
that anything goes; the most pressing danger is not moral relativism but
a blind parochialism that restricts our cultural and social options.
While Ulin seconds Geertzs skepticism about universal human values,
he objects to treating culture as unproblematic and insists on adding the
dimensions of history, power, conflict, and resistance. Geertz, like many
of his predecessors and contemporaries, tended to view cultures as inter-
nally homogeneous, neatly integrated, and clearly bounded. That view,
Ulin argues, obscures histories of colonialism and oppression, which
should be at the center of the anthropological enterprise. To put the mat-
ter differently, the problem with cultural relativism may be less with rel-
ativism than with culture. Thus, while he contends that relativism is a pro-
gressive force well worth defending, a viable form of cultural relativism
must also be reflexive and critical.
Finally, David Peruseks essay addresses many concerns that parallel
those raised by Ulin. He protests what he sees as distortions of cultural
relativism in popular political and religious discourse and proposes ways
of thinking about culture and relativism that are designed to restore their
critical edge and liberating potential. Perusek discusses the introduc-
tion of cultural relativism as an antidote to the ethnocentric arrogance of
evolutionarily-inclined Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment scholars.
He contends that relativism is not a latter-day add-on to the anthropolog-
ical notion of culture but is an intrinsic part of it, visible even in Tylors
classic treatment. Tylor, unlike most of his predecessors and despite his
evolutionary framework, recognized non-Western peoples as creative
actors, worthy of understanding and respect. That perspective was further
developed and refined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen-
turies by Boas and his American students as well as the British function-
alists. As Perusek puts the matter, culture and cultural relativism became
powerful tools of social analysis and human understanding because our


ancestors listened to, took seriously, and indicted what others around
them were saying and doing in the name of culture.
According to Perusek, anthropological concepts of culture and cultural
relativism were truly revolutionary when first introduced. Their liberating
quality was further developed through most of the twentieth century, as
Boas and his followers devoted their careers to demonstrating the separa-
tion between culture and biology or race. Yet paradoxically, by centurys
end these concepts had been misappropriated by powerful political and
business interests, repackaged, and sold to disenfranchised groups as
tools designed to ensure their continued disenfranchisement. While shar-
ing Geertzs (and Ulins) concern about the dangers of anti-relativist
parochialism, Perusek voices equal apprehension that cultural relativism
has been co-opted and, itself, used to promote parochial interests. In the
hands of identity politicians, and of even many so-called multicultural-
ists, culture has regressed to its pre-Boasian position and been re-con-
flated with biology. Self-selected groups, at times, describe themselves as
people of culture, thus denying Tylors pioneering insistence on cul-
tures pan-human character. At the same time, repressive elites attempt
to insulate themselves from outside interference by appealing to pervert-
ed notions of culture and cultural relativism.
This leads back to Ulins observation that cultures are heterogeneous and
only imperfectly integrated; that they contain contradictions, tensions, con-
flicts, and often oppression and resistance. Perusek calls attention to a
point made well by Henry (1963) a half century ago: that culture can con-
strain as well as liberate, and that anthropologists should turn their atten-
tion to its contradictions. We should be aware of how our disciplines most
cherished contributions are sometimes distorted and misused in service of
nefarious political objectives, and we should work to set things right.
Perusek joins with Johnson in suggesting that cultural relativism is not
a conclusion about data, but a tool for data collection and interpretation.
Since the days of Malinowskis pioneering research in the Trobriands,
anthropologists have relied on fieldwork and participant observation.
Cultural relativism is situated, Perusek tells us, at the intersection between
observation and participation, enabling us to develop an empathetic
understanding of one anotherboth in the field and in everyday life. It is,
he says, a dialogue between self and other [that] transpires as one moves
between the particular and universal; between the emic and etic; between
the ephemeral, transitory and somewhat more permanent; between micro

Dialectics of Culture: Relativism in Popular and Anthropological Discourse

and macro levels of data and analysis andbetween absolute and relative
poles of thought and frames of understanding.

Cultural Relativism: Its Value and Its Limitations

The three contributors to this collection are in general agreement that
cultural relativism remains useful, but within limits. While anthropologi-
cal doctrines of cultural relativism are widely misunderstood, we anthro-
pologists are at least partially responsible for that state of affairs, owing
to our failure to enunciate as clearly as we might just what we mean by
the expression.
The main concern of all three articles is ethical relativism. Each
engages the anti-relativist argument that if all beliefs and practices work
in their own way, it becomes impossible to criticize even the most repre-
hensible practices. One possible response is that we should not criticize
those practices; that by intervening willy-nilly with other people and
inducing them to change their ways of life, we may end up doing more
harm than good. Each of the contributors appears to have some sympathy
for such a viewpoint, but none, it seems, would take an absolute position.
Another possible reply is to acknowledge that all practices have costs
as well as benefits, and that our job as anthropologists is to assess those
costs and benefits both carefully and critically. If that is the case, one may
provide candid assessments of anothers cultural beliefs and social prac-
tices. At the same time, however, we had better approach others with
humility born of recognition that our society has its share of problems. It
is ill-becoming to be hypercritical when a careful, unbiased look at our-
selves may be equally unflattering.
Nonetheless, the problem with cultural relativism may be less with rel-
ativism than with the culture concept as it has historically been articulat-
ed and utilized. All three contributors object to the old assumption that
culture is homogeneous and neatly bounded. All agree that cultures
involve inconsistencies, contradictions, and areas of contestation. Borders
are porous. Symbols and meanings may be shared by people who reside
in very different places and disputed by those living in the same commu-
nity. Men and women, young and old, commoners and chiefs, Brahmins
and untouchables, capitalists and proletarians, have divergent vantage
points and interests. They may come into conflict, and those conflicts pro-
duce change which is as much a part of culture as the solidarity, stability,


harmony, and integration with which our discipline has been historically
concerned. Hence, the dialectics in my title.

For 19th century formulations of cultural relativism, see several of the articles in Boas
(1966 [1940]). An early proponent of relativism in British anthropology is Malinowski
(e.g., 1929:Chapter 13).
A very different criticism, posed by Ottenheimer (2001) contends that cultural rela-
tivism is incoherent in the sense that it simply substitutes one form of ethnocentrism
for another. Anyone who insists that we study other cultures from the Natives point of
view, says Ottenheimer, is guilty of a form of absolutism and, therefore, is not relativis-
tic. My rejoinder is presented in Feinberg (2001).
In discussing the concept of clan and its applicability to Tikopia, Firth (1936:369)
observed, the fallacy of nominalism persists, and the problem is apt to be stated as
what is a clan? not, more correctly, what shall we mean by a clan?
These several points are discussed further in Feinberg (2005).
Fernandez (1990:146) makes a rather different but equally useful distinction between
methodological, philosophical, and practical aspects of cultural relativism.
See particularly Schneider (1968; 1969; 1972; 1984); also Schneider (1976; 1995;
1997); Feinberg (1979; 2001; 2003); and Feinberg and Ottenheimer (2001).
For a few examples of anthropological post-modernism, see Clifford (1988); Clifford
and Marcus (1986); and Linnekin (1992.
For works rejecting the anthropological enterprise as fundamentally ethnocentric and
colonialist, it is difficult to do better than Trask (1991; 1993) or Tuhiwai Smith (2002).
The latter point has run through functionalist writing since Durkheim (2001 [1912])
argued that the social order is intrinsically a moral order. See also Parsons (1937),
Wuthnow (1987), and others.
My point resembles that argued by Nielsen (1966). To put the matter somewhat dif-
ferently, whether or not moral universals exist is an empirical question. Those who
draw upon alleged universals to assert objective moral values are guilty of what
philosophers have termed the naturalistic fallacythe mistaken belief that ethical
judgments can be logically derived from empirical facts.

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