Cultural Relativism: What Does It Mean?

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What Is Cultural Relativism?

Defining Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism is the ability to understand a culture on its own terms, making judgements measured by the standards of their culture. This means one shouldn’t compare and contrast elements of another culture to one’s own. They shouldn’t judge another culture based on the standards of their own.

Cultural relativism is a concept that aims to promote positive cross-cultural relationships. These relationships should involve respect and understanding. This perspective helps to eradicate cultural hierarchies because it means that no culture is superior to another.

There is no absolute standard of good or bad because these values are laid out differently in each culture. Cultural relativism understands that the moral and ethical systems of one culture are different from another. This means that no system is inherently better because each system functions to its own moral standards. As an example, the majority of cultures look down on cannibalism. However, members of the Korowai tribe in Western New Guinea practise cannibalism ritually.

Brief Evaluation of Cultural Relativism

Cross-cultural discussions and understanding are important. The elements of culture can be easily misinterpreted, which can lead to conflict and discrimination. In recent years, whaling has been a controversial topic. Fishing industries and organisations have been accused of wrongfully harming endangered species. Other countries argue that it’s not the responsibility of inland countries to police fishing rules and regulations.

Suggested: Cultural Imperialism: An Overview of Globalisation, McDonaldisation and Media

In another example, it’s culturally encouraged for men to take several wives in some cultures. In these relationships, a man should share his love equally between his wives. He is expected to shower them each with the same amount of gifts, and not prioritise one of the wives over the others. From an economic standpoint, these relationships can be highly effective. Other cultures may be used to monogamy because it makes sense to them and has its own benefits. However, monogamy won’t immediately make sense to people from cultures that support polygamy.

Cultural relativism can introduce different cultures to new perspectives on certain topics. For example, the ideal structure of a family varies massively from culture to culture. In western culture, single-parent families, same-sex parents, and multiracial families have only recently become more common and culturally normalised.

Cultural values can limit and restrict the opportunities of individuals. For example, people with mental health disorders face many difficulties with healthcare, social life, and employment because society looks down on these people. Therefore, they don’t provide for the needs of these communities, which adds to the struggles they face.

If we introduced these cultures to cultures that understood and respected mental health disorders – perhaps not viewing them as “disorders” and simply differences – then these individuals could have better access to healthcare, society and employment.

Raising awareness of other ways of life increases the awareness of individual perspectives.

Absolute Cultural Relativism vs Critical Cultural Relativism

Absolute cultural relativism means that everything within a culture should not be questioned or challenged by outsiders. An extreme example would be the Nazis, who used absolute cultural relativism to justify the Holocaust.

Many regions in Africa also notoriously use absolute cultural relativism to defend their use of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is a surgical procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. Many outside cultures have expressed issue with this but this practise is protected by its culture.

Critical cultural relativism allows questions and criticisms of certain cultural practices and cultural elements. This usually takes into account their history and why certain elements are accepted by society.

Ethnocentrism

Have you ever eaten food from a foreign country, such as snails or crickets, and thought it was disgusting and weird? Have you ever heard of certain cultural practises, such as men taking multiple wives, and thought it was ridiculous and dysfunctional? These are two examples of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism means judging other cultures according to the standards and conventions of your own.

Cultural relativism involves using the standards of another culture to make judgements on the elements of that culture, rather than ethnocentrism. Instead of saying “Ew, snails are so gross!”, instead we should ask “Why do some cultures eat snails?”. Is it a healthy luxury food, according to their culture?

Ethnocentrism is a problematic concept. It can lead to negative judgements against other cultures, which can turn into prejudices against them. This also leads to discrimination against individuals associated with other cultures, which can be translated into political sentiment and legislation.

Suggested: Cultural Imperialism: An Overview of Globalisation, McDonaldisation and Media

For example, in many countries, religious minorities face discrimination and prejudice. This can become legislation that restricts their ability to practise or express their faith. There are endless examples of governments that have introduced bans against certain religions and aspects of those religions. France has recently introduced a ban to ban the hijab on Muslim women under 18 (read more).

However, ethnocentrism can also develop a sense of pride in one’s own culture. This can build solidarity in a given society that shares a culture. For example, at the Olympics people naturally support their own country.

Linguistic Relativity: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Linguistic relativity suggests that the structure of a language directly creates (or manufactures) its’ speakers’ outlook and worldview. This suggests that people’s perspectives are directly related to the language that they speak. Linguistic relativism is academically debated and has developed into two forms.

The first is the strong hypothesis, or ‘linguistic determinism’, which claims language determines thought. In other words, spoken language and linguistics determine a person’s cognition. The second form is the weak hypothesis, which states that language only influences cognition and perspective.

In the 1930s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee noticed that the Hopi Indians had no words that mean past, present and future. Their language had no way of differentiating between the tenses. Through this, they realised that individual and cultural worldviews are deeply rooted in language. For example, in the UK, when we say we need a rubber, it’s because we’ve written a mistake in our work and need to get rid of it. However, if you said you needed a “rubber” in a US classroom, you’d get some very funny stares and you’d probably be sent to the principal’s office (it means condom).

Language is an essential foundation of culture. Learning a language doesn’t only involve learning the words. It also involves an understanding of the cultural context of that language. The cultural context influences people’s worldviews and perspectives, which is a massive part of linguistics.

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