What is cultural relativism in Anthropology?

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I’ve read plenty about this but I genuinely wish to understand with real examples by anthropologists

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It’s a tough topic to think about and there isn’t really an “answer” to the questions it poses.

Cultural relativism is the idea that all humans grow up in some culture, and that culture shapes their ideas of right and wrong. So when they view and study other cultures, they can often be shocked that things are different. They may decide those cultures are “worse”. But cultural relativism wants us to ask ourselves the question, “Why do I think this thing is right or wrong, and can I really say ALL human cultures need to think the same way?”

Here’s one. The world is not unanimous about punishing crimes with death. Only 27% of the world’s countries allow it. I’m in the United States, particularly Texas. I’ve grown up around people who strongly support the death penalty my entire life. But I’ve also met and talked with plenty of people who do not support it and grew up in countries that do not have it. Those people tend to think it’s barbaric. There are people who think that it’s just one of many things that makes the United States, Texas in particular, a place where bloodthirsty people fantasize about finding an excuse to kill strangers. But when I talk with people who really support the death penalty, they portray the people in those countries as “soft” and assert that they are “lawless places” where it’s impossible to be safe because you aren’t allowed to punish criminals.

Both are really weird hyperbolic views. But they’re also both cultural relativism.

The reason anthropologists bring this up is as a reminder, when documenting what a culture believes, that they are supposed to be objective and state WHAT is believed and, when possible, let people who believe it explain WHY they believe it and *let that explanation stand* without criticism. That way the world can learn what those people believe. If, instead, the people who observe this culture document the behavior and only provide their own opinions of why, the world gets a filtered and incomplete view of that culture.

In my anthropology classes, we watched a video about a tribe where the young men of a certain age undergo a procedure where the village elder carves scars into their forehead so deep you can see grooves on their skulls. It is extraordinarily painful. But it is their rite of passage. They believe it is proof that the man has reached a stage of maturity where he can do the right thing for the community even when under excruciating pain.

I think that’s kind of crazy. But the explanation kind of makes sense. Lots of cultures have weirdo rights of passage like that. Ours does not. Instead we have a strange period between 16 and 25 where our citizens become increasingly expected to be treated as adults but also sometimes still treated like children depending on context. Some anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists think the lack of rites of passage causes stress on societies and creates issues.

So like, my thoughts that “this is weird and barbaric” is a view that comes from cultural relativism. Those people do NOT think it is weird and barbaric. If I told them we do not do that, they would ask me, “Well, how did you prove that you are responsible enough to raise a child and provide food?” Nobody in our society has something like that. They’d think that’s pretty foolish. They’d point at our child poverty and divorce rates and suggest maybe the reason we have these problems is we don’t do enough to make people prove they are responsible adults. That’s also cultural relativism.

So the big takeaway is supposed to be that the job of anthropology isn’t to make those kinds of judgements. It’s just to find out what people do, why they do it, and document it using those peoples’ words as accurately as possible WITHOUT judging it. That can be really hard.

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