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The concept of cultural relativism refers to the idea that one needs to understand all cultures within the context of their own terms (i.e., values, norms, standards, customs, knowledges, life-ways, world-views, etc.) rather than judge them from the perspective of one’s own culture. This ideal of cross-cultural understanding requires an epistemological ”suspension” of one’s own cultural biases in order to comprehend an unfamiliar cultural world.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Franz Boas applied the concept of cultural relativism to the theories and methods of anthropology, shifting cross-cultural research from the ”armchair” to ”the field,” and encouraging his students to engage with the people they studied through the cultural immersion and participant-observation that now characterizes ethnographic fieldwork. Along with the concept of ”historical particularism” (the idea that each culture has its own particular history and dialectics), the principles espoused by Boas and his students (such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead) questioned the conventional view that placed cultures in an evolutionary hierarchy ranging from ”primitive” to ”civilized.” Rather than view certain cultures as ”backward,” ”stuck in the past,” ”strange,” ”barbaric,” ”savage,” or ”living history,” Boas-inspired anthropologists argue that the study of cultural diversity, through the lens of cultural relativism, provides an antidote to ethnocentrism (the biased tendency to consider one’s own culture as the universal standard from which to judge all other cultures) and reveals the complexity of human existence in all its variations and manifestations, giving insight into one’s own particular culture as an invention of human intention and social construction. In other words, making the strange familiar contributes to making the familiar strange, thus highlighting the extent to which cultural understandings shape human universes and vice versa.
A common misperception is that cultural relativism entails ”moral relativism” (the nihilistic proposition that there is no such thing as ”right” or ”wrong” in absolute terms, and that any attempt to judge another’s actions is a form of ethical imperialism – an imposition of one’s own moral standards upon others who may not share those same standards). Social scientists that embrace cultural relativism in their theories and methods attempt to ”suspend” moral judgment in order to make sense of diverse socio-cultural practices; however, taking a cultural relativist stance does not necessarily translate into adopting a moral relativist one. In fact, postmodern critics have questioned the perception of ”culture” as a static, bounded, and homogeneous entity, and have fostered more complex understandings of ”culture” as dynamic and fluid webs of both shared and contested meanings. Within each ”culture” exists a range of ethical positions to which many social scientists have aligned themselves as culturally sensitive allies in the various political, social, and economic struggles of the people they study – an engagement propelled by, not in spite of, the tenets of cultural relativism.
- Boas, F. (1963)  The Mind of Primitive Man, rev. edn. with a new foreword by M. J. Herskovits.
- Free Press, New York. Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, New York.
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