The Importance of Cultural Relativism in Attaining Cultural Understanding

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Cultural relativism is a principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture.

It was established and accepted in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and later popularized by his students.

It refers to not judging a culture to our own standards of what is right or wrong, strange or normal. Instead, we should try to understand cultural practices of other groups in its own cultural context. In other words, right and wrong are culture-specific. What is considered moral in other society may be considered immoral in another, and since no universal standard of morality exist, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs to be correct or incorrect.

Ethnocentrism, in contrast to cultural relativism, is judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture.

According to William G. Sumner, ethnocentrism is defined as the “technical name for the view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.”

He further characterized it as often leading to pride, vanity, beliefs of one’s own group’s superiority and contempt of outsiders.

Ethnocentric individuals born into a particular culture that grow up absorbing the values and behaviour of the culture will develop a worldview that considers their culture to be the norm (standard). They judge other group or culture specially with concern to language, behaviour, custom religion etc.

For example, we have an American woman dressed in a bikini and another woman dressed in Islamic way which is pretty much conservative than the other woman. They are viewing each other’s clothing in terms of their own cultural beliefs and practices. The American woman in the bikini walking down the street looks at the Muslim woman in her dress and says, “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male-dominated culture!”. She is viewing that woman’s clothing choices in terms of her American culture which doesn’t fit to the culture that the Muslim woman is a part of . While the Muslim woman looks back at the American woman and says “Nothing covered but her eyes, what a cruel male-dominated culture!” She is also being ethnocentric and looking at American woman in terms of her own culture. As oppose to both of these women, instead say “Oh, the way that she is dressing is a product of her own cultural beliefs and views” is cultural relativism. To sum up, cultural relativism is the practice of viewing the beliefs, values and practices of a culture from its own viewpoint rather than being ethnocentric and viewing the beliefs, values and practices from your own viewpoint.

Another example is a racial discrimination of a black girl in school. She was judged by the color of her skin. During the exploration period the discrimination against black and white was a major controversial issue. They believed that the darker a person is, the dirtier and impure they are. That is what an ethnocentric person would say but a cultural relativist will not.

How Cultural Relativism Mitigates Ethnocentrism

It is widely believed in the field of sociology that ethnocentric behaviour may be mitigated through the recognition and application of cultural relativism. A person can practice cultural relativism by recognizing that our culture shapes what we consider to be beautiful, ugly, appealing, disgusting, virtuous, funny, and abhorrent and that this should not be the basis for evaluating other culture. Cultural relativism shapes our understanding of different issues in the society as to why certain religion believe in this and other not, or how come this group eat this type of dish, wear this weird clothing , sing and dance along with music while others prefer not to. What we need is an open heart and unbiased and critical mind, exposure, education, and involvement in activities, programs supporting and recognizing the uniqueness and beauty of every culture for us to truly grasp what cultural relativism means.

Cultural relativism leads to the view that no culture is superior to another culture in terms of systems of morality, beliefs, values, law, politics, etc. We should not assume that all of our preferences are based on some objective moral standard. It’s a good idea to keep an open mind when we encounter practices different from our own.