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Cultural Relativism

  Cultural relativism was introduced by the American anthropologist Franz Boas, who founded the Cultural School of Anthropology in the early 1900s, to emphasize the particularistic nature of differences between cultural systems. He criticized the evolutionist tendency to overgeneralize, and instead believed that each society should be documented in detail before any attempts were made to draw conclusions about perceived similarities. At the beginning of this century, anthropologists in the USA were engaged in trying to preserve the remnants of the Indian communities that had survived virtual extinction through war and disease, by recording what was left of their ways of life. The meticulous recording of customs and traditions, along with a concern with material objects and artefacts, provided the basis for the style of exhibition one finds in modern ethnographic museums.

In its heyday, cultural relativism radically challenged evolutionary modes of thinking about ‘primitive’ societies, and came to represent an emphasis on the ‘particulars’ of a society rather than making broad cross-cultural comparisons about concepts that were presumed to be universal. In anthropological debates of the last few decades, the concept of cultural relativism has been opposed to that of cultural universalism, questioning the extent to which Western criteria can be used to evaluate other social systems. Cultural relativists argue that the diversity of cultural systems means that each one can only be evaluated according to its own values and belief systems. Taken to its logical extreme, the concept of cultural relativism can be used to uphold the status quo in a community, by not stepping outside a system in order to make any broadly comparative evaluations, or not locating the current state of play in a historical context. Cultural relativism has been criticized for resting on the assumption that communities can be considered as naturally demarcated like the remaining American Indian communities who were literally ‘enclosed’ on reservations. CL RK

See also culture; evolutionism; language.Further reading Stocking, G., (ed.), Franz Boas, The Shaping of American Anthropology.



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