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  • Revisiting Cultural Relativism:Old Prospects for a New Cultural Critique
  • Robert C. Ulin

Cultural relativism is among the most misunderstood yet socially charged concepts associated with anthropology today. While most American cultural anthropologists have utilized cultural relativism as a pedagogical and sometimes political medium to challenge ethnocentric western views and cultural practices and to promote an appreciation of cultural diversity, ethicists, philosophers and the general public have all too often embraced a view of cultural relativism that ostensibly allows repugnant customs and social practices to go unchallenged. For example, British philosopher turned social anthropologist, Ernest Gellner (1995:18-22) maintains that cultural relativism, and by extension all interpretive theories that emphasize the "local," abandon the pursuit of truth and thus betray the cannons of scientific inquiry. On the other hand, while philosopher James Rachels (2003:28-31) acknowledges that there are merits to cultural relativism that include challenging assumptions about our own rational standards, keeping an open mind, and avoiding potentially dogmatic arguments, he invokes the rhetorically charged examples of excision, infanticide and funerary rites as practiced in a range of societies to dismiss cultural relativism as unsuitable for the rational grounding of [End Page 803] ethics. Rather, he argues "that there are some moral rules that all societies must have in common" (2003:26) and that therefore we should think about social customs in terms of "whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it" (2003:28). Not only does Rachels' view beg the question of the standards by which one identifies "welfare" but his perspective shares the instrumental shortcomings of utilitarianism more generally. That is, as Hannah Arendt (1958:153-54) has noted with respect to utilitarian philosophy, ends, or in this case practices, become the means for further ends or practices without raising the more profound social issues that inform civil society. In more particular terms, Rachels does not consider the historical, political and cultural configurations of power that inform the social construction of "welfare" in its multiplicity.

Less rhetorically charged but nonetheless compelling pleas for social justice that include protecting the rights of women and children and the free speech of oppositional political parties are advanced by human rights activists who claim, likewise, that cultural relativism leaves subaltern populations across cultures at risk because it has no universal standards to challenge abuse and exploitation. I argue, to the contrary, that examples such as the above employed to refute cultural relativism and to support universal standards are largely based on a misconception of cultural relativism. In some cases they present a caricature that both ignores cultural relativism's historical and political origins and negates the long-standing reflexive potentials that are intrinsic to encountering and knowing about others. Moreover, much of the argument concerning cultural relativism has also operated with untenable and static notions of culture. Cultural relativism needs to be reformulated to account for populations on the move, the refiguration of cultural assumptions across borders, and cultural practices as well as the contesting of culture that plays out dialectically in defined social spaces with porous boundaries.

Salient Formulations

Alison Dundes Renteln (1988) maintains correctly that cultural relativism is not an entirely new doctrine as the Greeks, most specifically Herodotus, recognized the importance of understanding cultural differences between societies in light of regnant assumptions that one's own values are superior (1988: 57). Moreover, permutations of the cultural relativism debate [End Page 804] are also found more contemporaneously in the writings of Hume and Montaigne, no doubt a reflection of the expansion of trade and empire, as was the case with Herodotus. This is not to say, however, that Dundes Renteln believes that cultural relativism is a historically continuous concept reproduced unchanged throughout history. She remarks that the modern version of cultural relativism was central to Franz Boas's, Melville Herskovits's and Ruth Benedict's opposition to invidious nineteenth century models of cultural evolution that placed European societies at the pinnacle of human development while relegating indigenous culture to humanity's dawn. Although acknowledging their historical, if not theoretical conflation, Dundes Renteln elects to ignore debates about epistemological and linguistic relativism in favor of discussing cultural and ethical...


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