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Grounding Cultural Relativism

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 80, Number 3, Summer 2007
pp. 821-836 | 10.1353/anq.2007.0045

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Cultural relativism, or at least the idea of cultural relativism, is in trouble. Not only is it the case, as Robert Ulin suggests in an adjacent article in this collection, that "cultural relativism is among the most misunderstood yet publicly important concepts associated with twentieth century anthropology that endures today." It is also one of the most passionately contested notions in all of contemporary intellectual life. Pregnant with real-world political implications from the start, cultural relativism by now inspires critics from all points along the political spectrum. After having long been regarded by Western traditionalists as a gateway to and icon of moral degeneration, criticized by philosophers as a negation of the idea of universal truth in ethics, and denounced as evil by clergy—most notably by Joseph Ratzinger, whose pontifications on the subject now carry the weight of his recent ascendancy to the papacy —cultural relativism is increasingly under fire from human rights activists, socialists, communists, and left-leaning thinkers the world over.

In fact, the situation is so bad that Maryam Namazie, public intellectual and Director of the Worker Communist Party of Iran has, for instance, taken to calling cultural relativism "this era's fascism" and is demanding that it be consigned to "the garbage cans of history" (1998:1), while in February 2006, a group of twelve internationally prominent intellectuals, with deep ties to the Islamic World, among them Salmon Rushdie, brought forth a manifesto denouncing cultural relativism as an anti-democratic doctrine that facilitates what they call "the new totalitarianism-Islamism." How ironic.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the anthropological concepts of culture and cultural relativism had broken into the universe of ideas as revolutionary tools of social analysis and human understanding. The former consigned elitist, ethnocentric, racist notions of culture to the shadows of intellectual life, while the later sounded the death knell for social evolutionism and announced the possibility of new levels of human understanding across cultures. A century later, the historically liberating concepts of culture and cultural relativism, while facing real challenges within anthropology itself are as widely misunderstood, distorted and selectively applied outside of it, as at any time in their history. In vulgar and caricatured form, they have come, as often as not, to serve as signifiers that distort reality, pre-empt intellectual effort and retard meaningful social analysis.

I intend in what follows, to highlight the contours of this calamity and to offer suggestions for thinking about culture and cultural relativism in ways that may contribute to restoring their critical edge and liberating potential. I will argue the importance of recognizing that the culture concept and cultural relativism have been mutually constitutive from the start and that cultural relativism ought not be regarded as an idea that took shape independent of the culture concept or as a doctrine that stands on its own. I will suggest that culture and cultural relativism developed not only as a response to what anthropologists were learning about societies, peoples and difference "out in the world," but also in direct and critical opposition to what others around them were saying and doing in the name of culture, and I will argue that preserving the critical dimensions of these concepts will require that we too pay attention to discourses of culture and difference and, like our ancestors—indict them as need be. I will suggest that historical accident in the early development of anthropology may have played a latent role in the problematic diffusion of cultural relativism and offer an antidote for that. Finally, I offer a further critical grounding for discussions of cultural relativism by asserting the primacy of participant-observation not just "in the field"—but everywhere—as the single context in which cultural relativism may be fully apprehended and applied. All of that may be best accomplished, and the depth of the current calamity better understood by starting with a backward glance at the meaning of culture a century ago.

Within the intellectual landscape of the nineteenth century, "culture" had been viewed as a de-facto, unambiguous good, as "sweetness and light," (Arnold: 1882) and as a property of the select few—both across populations and within them. From within...

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