What is cultural relativity? Why is it an important principle in anthropology and in cross-cultural studies in general? Are there limits to cultural relativity? Illustrate your answers by drawing on ethnographic examples. Culture has been defined by Tylor (1871) as ‘That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. Cultural relativism “asserts that concepts are socially constructed and vary cross-culturally.
These concepts may include such fundamental notions as what is considered true, morally correct, and what constitutes knowledge or even reality itself”…. (Harper Collin Dictionary of Sociology). The concept of culture, like any other piece of knowledge, can be abused and misinterpreted. Some fear that the principles of cultural relativity will weaken morality. “If the Bugabuga do it why can’t we? Its all relative anyway” (Kluckhohn 1944:43). But this is exactly what cultural relativity does not mean. Cultural relativity challenges our ordinary beliefs in the objectivity and universality of moral truths.
Different societies have different moral codes. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another. The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is only one among many. It is only clear that a negative attitude towards other culture or groups arise out of ethnocentrism, while positive attitude is the result of a cultural relativist approach. One must never feel that not understanding another culture is problematic. It is always a disadvantage to view culture in an etic outside way. To understand culture one must endure and encounter the culture from the emic, the inside.
It would be mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other cultures. We should perhaps keep an open mind and a genuine insight that different cultures do have different moral codes. The principle of cultural relativity does not mean that because the members of some savage tribe are allowed to behave in a certain way that this fact gives intellectual warrant for such behaviour in all groups. Cultural relativity means, on the contrary, that the appropriateness of any positive or negative custom must be evaluated with regard to how this habit fits with other group habits.
Having several wives makes economic sense among herders, not among hunters. While breeding a healthy scepticism as to the eternity of any value prized by a particular people, anthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes. Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behaviour of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable.