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CULTURAL

ANTHROPOLOGY
FIVE : RELATIVISM

Basic idea of relativism
The world appears different to different people

Perceptions are concerned with the nature of the mind
the products of various individual experiences
change through learning
information processed often as result of prior
experience

Different interpretations of Relativism

I____________________>______________________I
People see reality This becomes basis for
differently & operate misunderstanding and
according to different judging their worth
rules e.g. exotic customs

Historical Overview:
Herodotus, Ancient Greek philosopher
exercised restraint about judging foreign customs
respected different customs, however distasteful
more concerned with observing and reporting

Next thousand years, Christian theology / absolute
laws precluded neutrality towards different customs

Historical Overview:
The European Enlightenment
Importance of rational thought
Experience, especially education, molded the human
mind. Rousseaus (1751) suggestion: education could
transform apes into humans
Power of enculturation and adaptability of humans

BUT assumption : Rationality was absolute & desirable

Historical Overview:
19
th
Century Evolutionists
Cultural evolution is ever-increasing rationality
Rational thought as an absolute standard
Differences between societies due to degree of
mastery of rational thought

e.g. Tylor : Animism / Polytheism > Monotheism

IMMANUEL KANT
Major German philosopher
Critique of Pure Reason (1781)
Extent to which mind a
product of experience &
learning
Certain concepts shared :
space and time; cause and
effect; morality


FRANZ BOAS Geographer
Influenced by Kant

Civilization is not something
absolute butrelative, and
our ideas and conceptions
are true only so far as our
civilization goes (1887)

Cultural Relativism = attitude to
comprehend other cultures







Prior experience:
Boas experienced life-
threatening hypothermia
on Arctic coast; the Inuit
saved his life
He had great respect for the
Inuit as complex humans
with immense knowledge
of their difficult
environment
Boas experienced personal
racial, ethnic discrimination


Boas time : Most people ethnocentric about less
developed people
Precise, complete data essential for scientific
validity in Anthropology
Not just Family Organization ; Presence of tools,
pottery BUT understanding meanings of these to
their creators
Need to understand thought & emotion behind
observable behavior



Boas ideas :
Culture as extrasomatic, non-Biological therefore
Culture and Biology separate, complementary
fields
Language profoundly different systems of logic
challenged Latin & Greek as model for all
language
Archaeology important to study human past.
Independent study required as each human group
has own history



American Anthropology as 4 field discipline:
Ethnology
Linguistics
Physical Anthropology
Archaeology
4 fields distinct yet complementary
distinguished from sociology, economics, political
science
different to developments in Britain and France


Notion of Relativism
An aspect of the wider intellectual climate of late 19
th

early 20
th
Century
Intellectual energies challenged Absolutist assumptions of
the nature of reality and
conventional perceptions of reality

SCIENCE
Einstein : Relativity showing Time
affected by Speed
ART
Post-Impressionists e.g. Gauguin,
Renunciation of Artistic Realism



Key aspects of Cultural Relativism in Anthropology :

Objective scientific enquiry separates value judgments from
observation

Anthropologists aim : Observe, record, understand.

Emotional response based on cultural and personal experience,
distorts understanding




KEY CONCEPT FIVE :

Misunderstanding of Cultural Relativism

Premise: every practice or custom, irrespective of
cruelty or injustice, is good
Absurd assumption
Contradiction because it amounts to a value judgment

KEY CONCEPT FIVE :
The Cultural Relativism Dilemma
Prescribed observation of other cultures but emphasis
on the uniqueness of each cultural system meant
cultures could not be compared.
Serious problem for developing anthropology as a
science which requires generalizations or laws that
apply to more than one case i.e. the comparative
method.

KEY CONCEPT FIVE :
RUTH BENEDICT
Student of Boas
Patterns of Culture (1932)
Rejection of scientific
comparison
Contrasts 4 different groups
-internal consistencies and
minds of individuals
KEY CONCEPT FIVE :
Further Questions for Cultural Relativism

Can humans in different communities understand one
another at a deep level, even with long mutual
collaboration?
Do some issues, e.g. those involving human rights,
transcend cultural boundaries?
Are some versions of reality more accurate than others?
References

Benedict, R. (1943). Patterns of Culture. New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason (1998, orig. 1781)
Ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP
Perry, R.J. (2003). Five Concepts in Anthropological
Thinking. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice-Hall


Conclusion of Relativism, thank you