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  • Dialectics of Culture:Relativism in Popular and Anthropological Discourse
  • Richard Feinberg

For well over a century, cultural relativism has been among anthropology's 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 liberation (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 inhumane, misogynist, and often physically dangerous behavior, while opponents of presumably-fanatical religious sects denounce relativism as an underpinning for some of our planet's most pernicious ideologies.2

What are relativism's 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 societies—or elsewhere? Indeed, can a relativist [End Page 777] even make claims about an objective reality external to one's own—or any other—culture? 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 storerooms of our venerable museums? The three articles that follow address this question from a number of perspectives, exploring the notion of relativism 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 question, to paraphrase Raymond Firth (1936) from quite a different context, is not what cultural relativism is, but what we choose to mean by "relativism."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 within 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 else's [End Page 778] 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...


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