Cultural Relativist

Confessions of a Former Cultural Relativist

by Henry H. Bagish

Henry H. Bagish

It’s true. I confess it. I was a cultural relativist once. What’s more, I still believe in some of it, even though I’ve rejected most of it. I suppose I first ought to explain what cultural relativity is.


Did you know that the Eskimos don’t call themselves Eskimos? That’s an Indian name for them, meaning “eaters of raw flesh,” a custom that the Indians found disgusting. The Eskimo name for themselves is “Inuit,” which translates as “The People.” In fact, that sort of thing is quite common; many tribal names translate as “human beings.” And if each tribe thinks of itself as “human beings,” you know what that must mean about other tribes — they, obviously, must be something less than human. Each group feels that, somehow, it is the best.

Actually, this kind of attitude is found universally. Early in this century, the American sociologist, William Graham Sumner, coined a word for it. He called it “ethnocentrism” — the universal tendency for every human group to believe that its own ways, its own customs and beliefs, are right ways, the best ways — and everybody else’s ways are distinctly inferior.

Throughout human history this ethnocentric attitude has been the typical reaction of most travelers who have ever come in contact with people of foreign lands. And it was also the reaction of the early anthropologists of the 19th century, who believed that other cultures represented more primitive, more backward ways, while our Western culture, in Europe and the United States, represented the most advanced, highest pinnacle of evolutionary cultural development.

Cultural Relativity

It was against this background that Franz Boas, an American anthropologist of German birth, developed the concept of cultural relativity. He rejected the ethnocentric judgments of the 19th century evolutionists, and insisted that each culture should be intensively studied as a separate entity. He also insisted that each culture needs to be understood in terms of its own unique background and circumstances. Rather than judging another culture, or even any practice of another culture, by our own ethnocentric standards, Boas said that the practices and customs of another culture should be understood only in terms of its own context and its own standards. This, then, was the doctrine of cultural relativity.

Franz Boas has sometimes been called the father of American anthropology, and he certainly set the predominant tone of the field for the first half of this century. The cultural relativity that he espoused became the dominant philosophical stance of both anthropology and sociology.

Probably one of the more vigorous exponents of the doctrine of cultural relativity was Melville Herskovits, a student of Franz Boaz. He formulated what has become one of the basic statements of cultural relativity: “Evaluations are relative to the cultural background out of which they arise.” Herskovits rejected the notion that our culture, or any culture, has exclusive possession of a set of absolute standards by which all other cultures can be judged. He rejected any such claim as just another example of ethnocentrism. Our perception of the world around us is conditioned and influenced by culture, so that truth and reality themselves become relative, each culture with its own unique view of reality, again with no way to prove that any view is superior to any other. It behooves us then to have tolerance and respect for other cultures. Herskovits put it this way: “Cultural relativism is a philosophy which, in recognizing the values set up by every society to guide its own life, lays stress on the dignity inherent in every body of custom, and on the need for tolerance of conventions though they may differ from one’s own.”

What’s Wrong with Cultural Relativity?

How could any right-thinking person find anything wrong with tolerance and respect for other people’s ideas, with granting them the dignity and validity that surely all the world’s peoples are entitled to? To question tolerance and respect is like questioning God, motherhood, and apple pie — but I’d like to give it a try, and in so doing, show you how I became disillusioned with cultural relativity.

In my Cultural Anthropology class at various times during the semester, the class and I proceed on our journey of exploration of human cultures. First, the students read in their textbook about cultural relativity. They also learn about ethnocentrism. Thus equipped we’re ready for the first visit of our journey. We see a film about life — and death — among the Dani, a Stone-Age people in a remote valley in New Guinea. They believe in ghosts, and that the ghosts of people slain in war or ambush must be avenged — because unavenged ghosts bring sickness, unhappiness and disaster. Therefore, at the time the film was made, in 1961, the Dani were still fighting a seemingly endless series of retaliatory wars fought with spears, bows and arrows. How do the students react to this apparently “senseless” killing? They understand that it’s not “senseless,” that in fact it “makes sense” within the context of Dani beliefs and Dani culture. When I ask them whether such warfare and killing should be stopped by, say, some outside authority, their answer is almost unanimously a vehement “no!” Most of them have by now developed a thoroughly relativistic attitude.

There is one other Dani custom, however, that gives us pause. There is one more ritual that must be performed in order to placate the ghosts of the slain. Early in the morning, two or three young girls who are closely related to the dead person are brought to the funeral site, and there, with a sharp blow from a stone adze, each girl has two fingers chopped off. Virtually all Dani women have lost two to six fingers in this way. Just as you wince at the thought, so do the students. This custom they find harder to accept. Is it just ethnocentric narrow-mindedness and squeamishness, or is it something more?

Now we see another film, one that shows us another aspect of the problem. This film is about the Nuer of southwestern Ethiopia, a black, handsome, cattle-herding people. But we see some Nuer children dying of smallpox, their faces and bodies covered with the eruptions and lesions of the disease. The Nuer hold a special ceremony, asking the gods to relieve them of this scourge. They dance, they fire precious bullets into the air, they sacrifice goats to the goddess of the river. This is the Nuer way of dealing with small-pox. I ask: “What’s our way?” “Vaccination,” comes the answer. “Which way is better?,” I ask. Whoops — we good relativists don’t like questions like that. We’ve been taught not to judge, not to evaluate one way as better or worse than another. All ways, after all, are equally valid, and to claim that our way is better than others is to slip into the old trap of ethnocentrism. Besides, now you’re challenging the validity of somebody’s religious beliefs, and that violates an even more deeply-rooted taboo.

But I press them. “Which way is more effective?” Now the answer comes, even if a bit reluctantly, and almost with embarrassment: “Yes, it is true that our way is more effective.” In fact, this has just recently been demonstrated, in one of the most dramatic triumphs of modern Western medicine. On May 8, 1980, the World Health Organization declared the total and complete eradication of this major killer of mankind all over the world. Apparently it can be demonstrated that some ways are better than others.

Let’s join the class again. Here we’re learning that the Arunta, an Australian aboriginal people, believed that women conceived babies by going too near trees or rocks where various totemic spirits lived. A frog spirit or lizard spirit would enter her body, and in time a baby would be born. The Trobriand Islanders, living on small islands off the east coast of New Guinea, had a similar belief, that pregnancy was caused by spirits that lurk in the water. If a woman waded in too deep, a spirit would enter her vagina, and thus she’d have a baby. If a Trobriand woman didn’t want to get pregnant, the rule was simple: “Don’t go near the water.”

So I pose the question: “Are our sperm/ovem theory and their frog/water-spirit theory of equal validity?” Well, it turns out that the Trobrianders themselves have already answered the question for us, it seems. About a year and a half ago my wife and I went to the Trobriand Islands to try to find out whether beliefs and customs have changed there. We learned that the Trobrianders are as sexually active as ever, both premaritally and extramaritally — that hasn’t changed, despite the best efforts of missionaries. But they’ve apparently found that the Western sperm/ovem theory does have a certain advantage over the water-spirit theory — namely, it works better when you want to slow down the rate of arrival of new little Trobrianders. We learned that there were two family-planning people on the island who visit the villages and provide contraceptives — and the Trobrianders find that method of controlling births a lot more effective than simply staying out of the water.


Evaluation of Cultural Relativity

What’s good and right about cultural relativity? Well, as a working rule for the anthropologist, I think it’s very useful, even necessary, in order to gain as much objective understanding as possible about the culture he’s studying. If you want an objective, accurate understanding of another culture, then you’d do well to suspend value judgments about what you see and hear, and try to get an “inside” view of what the culture is all about, in its own terms. As a scientific tool, cultural relativity is demonstrably useful for achieving that goal.

Ok, now, what’s wrong, bad, invalid, insufficient about cultural relativity? Basically, there are two conclusions that relativists have drawn that I think are in error: the first is that all cultural practices are equally valid, and the second is that all cultural practices are equally worthy of tolerance and respect. Let’s consider each in turn.

Are All Cultural Practices Equally Valid?

The relativist conclusion that all cultures and all cultural practices are equally valid is based upon certain hidden, unstated assumptions that I believe just aren’t correct. The first of these is the assumption that each culture, and each cultural practice, by performing positive functions for the people, “meets the needs” of that society, and thus in that sense is “valid.”

Now it’s true that every practice probably has some positive functions, some advantages for its practitioners. For instance, even the Nazi killing of six million Jews performed some beneficial functions for the Nazis — all the psychological and material benefits of scapegoating. But does that make the practice “valid”? The truth is that most practices, in addition to positive functions, have negative functions as well, disadvantages — the price that must be paid for the benefits. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” says the old slogan, and I believe it.

Also, I doubt that any culture meets all the needs of all its members. In short, I believe that all cultures are, to some greater or lesser extent, imperfect, and thus could be improved. But then, if all cultures are to some extent imperfect, must we conclude that all are equally imperfect?

This, then, brings us to the second hidden assumption of the relativist, namely, that there is no scientifically valid way to compare cultures, to rate or rank them, to say that one is better or worse than another. Now, in one way I agree — in the sense that I don’t know of any valid way to compare entire cultures. But I do believe that many specific cultural practices and beliefs can be compared, can be demonstrated to be clearly better or worse, on a non-ethnocentric basis.

In fact, human societies have been doing this all through history. Despite the universal tendency to ethnocentrism, when societies have come in contact with other societies that had better tools, or weapons, or practices, ones that worked better than their own, most of the time, sooner or later, they have given up the old and adopted the new.

Examples?…Which is better when it comes to eradicating smallpox: the Nuer way of shooting bullets and sacrificing goats, or our way of vaccination? Clearly, vaccination; it did work, the other did not. Which is better when it comes to controlling births: the Arunta/Trobriand way of avoiding rocks, trees, and water, or our way of contraceptives? Again, clearly, the contraceptives — and that’s not just our own biased ethnocentric view, but the conclusion reached by the Trobrianders themselves, because they also, just as we did, learned that contraceptives enabled them to predict and control that aspect of their lives better than they could by dodging spirits in the water.

The Pragmatic Principle

What’s the basic principle underlying this kind of comparison? It’s very simple: it’s the pragmatic principle. That which works is “better” than that which doesn’t work. Or more accurately, when people are given a choice, that which works better, to achieve certain valued ends, is what most people end up choosing, most of the time.

But what do I mean by “work better?” Any belief or practice that enables human beings to predict and control events in their lives, with a higher degree of success than previous beliefs or practices did, can be said to “work better.” Better prediction and better control of events — those are the two essential ingredients that enable human beings to adapt better to the world around them.

I’d like to put that somewhat differently, in the form of a general formula that can then have even broader applicability — although I’ll caution you right now that it won’t work for everything. Here’s the formula:


IF you value       X

THEN A   is better than    B

However, the pragmatic principle can’t be applied in all areas of culture. All the areas we’ve considered so far have been ones in which we’ve been concerned with choosing instrumental means toward specified ends: “If you want this end, then A will achieve it better than B.” But some kinds of cultural activites are basically not instrumental, not means toward further ends, but rather they’re performed as ends in themselves. When that’s the case, such as in art, for example, the pragmatic test can’t be applied.

Are All Practices Equally Worthy of Tolerance and Respect?

It should be noted that the doctrine of cultural relativity purports to be one of scientific objectivity and neutrality, designed to keep our investigations value-free. Various writers, however, have pointed out that cultural relativity, behind its facade of objectivity and neutrality, is actually a moral theory, one that is not objective and does not exclude value judgements. In fact, says Frank Hartung, cultural relativity is actually a moral theory that gives central place to one value: tolerance.

Nor is it true that cultural relativity is a position of neutrality on value questions. In its tolerance and acceptance of whatever is, relativity is essentially lending its approval and support to the status quo, whatever that might be, as against any attempts to change or intervene in the status quo. Relativity ends up, then, as a basically conservative doctrine. As such, it’s often opposed by would-be agents of change, of widely varying ideological persuasions — from religious missionaries, on the one hand, to radical reformers and revolutionaries on the other.

Be that as it may, cultural relativity still does stand for tolerance and respect. What could be wrong with that? Aren’t all cultural practices equally worthy of tolerance and respect?

Well, in our classroom journey we encountered three cultural practices that I suspect many of us may have had trouble granting tolerance and respect: the Dani practice of choppng off little girls’ fingers, the Nazi extermination of 11 million human beings, the South African practice of apartheid….To tolerate anything and everything that’s done in the world around us leads to a paralyzing inability to do anything at all to defend our own conceptions of the good and the right.

But if we do agree that not all cultural practices are equally worthy of respect and tolerance, we’re then faced with a very real problem: where and how do we draw the line?

Tolerance in One’s Hierarchy of Values

I look at it this way. Yes, I do value tolerance, and tolerance happens to be high up on my personal list of values. But we human beings have many values, not just one, and these values, when we stop to think about them, are arranged in our heads or hearts in a kind of hierarchy, a rank order, with some of our values being much more important to us than others. Sure, I value and enjoy strawberry ice cream, and I suppose it’s there somewhere in my personal hierarchy of values. But compassion for my fellow human beings is a value that is much, much higher up on my list, being much more important to me than any flavor of ice cream.

Now, the advantage of thinking of values as existing in a hierarchy is that when we realize that if we should ever experience a conflict of values — something that happens frequently in life — the value that is lower in our hierarchy will have to yield to the one that is higher.

And this is precisely what’s happening with our dilemma concerning tolerance. I imagine that many of us, probably most of us, do value tolerance. After all, it’s part of our liberal democratic heritage. But what happens when we encounter cultural practices such as the ones I’ve mentioned earlier, the finger-chopping, the ovens for humans? Something very important, I think; let me explain.

To do so, I’m going to give you one more example, one that I warn you you’ll probably not enjoy, but it will help to make my point. This is a photograph (showing photograph) of a seven-year-old African girl who has just had a ritual clitoridectomy; that is, her clitoris and labia minora have just been cut out, without benefit of anesthesia. She is one of some 30 million females in the world (1981 figure), most of them in Africa and Arab countries, who have undergone this removal of the focal point of female sexual pleasure. Many explanations are given for this ritual practice, but most of them seem to boil down to an attempt to reduce female sexual pleasure and thus ensure sexual fidelity. Now, how do you react to this custom? Do you find it “quaint,” “interesting,” — or something else?

First of all, please notice that all these things — the fingerchopping, the ovens, the clitoridectomies — aren’t being done to us, after all; so it could fairly be asked, why is it even any of our business?

Well, I believe that sometimes some of our most dearly held values, ones that are toward the very top of our hierarchy of values, are deeply outraged by events out there in the world, even though they don’t threaten us personally or directly. What happens when our values are outraged in this way is that our circle of concern broadens. It widens beyond the limits of our own personal bodily self, or even our own family, our own community, even our own society. What we do then is to extend the boundaries, the limits of our sense of identity, of community, of who is included in the circle of “us.” We now identify with those people “out there” as well. We empathize with them, we feel with them. Did you wince when I showed you the clitoridectomized girl? I know I did. What hurts those people hurts us. “Compassion” is what it’s called; we “suffer with” those others – and when that happens, respect and tolerance, both good but lesser values, have to go by the boards. Those practices we cannot accept, cannot tolerate. Somehow, in some way, we are moved to want to change them.

Conclusion: Going Beyond Cultural Relativity

I feel that the doctrine of cultural relativity has served, and even continues to serve, a valuable function — that of gaining objective understanding. But in its refusal to compare, to evaluate, to judge, in its insistence on indiscriminate tolerance of every possible practice, it has tended to paralyze us in our ability to cope with the world we live in. This isn’t a world composed only of small, isolated tribes with benign, quaint practices. The real world we inhabit is a rapidly shrinking one, with its peoples in increasingly close contact with each other. Some of those people have cultural practices that either threaten us directly, or else represent an assault on our most deeply-held values. What are we to do? How can we go beyond cultural relativity to cope with this world that presses in upon us?

First, I urge that we recognize that it’s not only possible, but indeed desirable to compare, evaluate, and judge many cultural practices, not on the basis of a naïve ethnocentrism, or on the presumed possession of absolute standards, but rather from an objective, cross-cultural perspective. Such judging can be done in terms of the pragmatic “if…then…” formula that I presented earlier. Another example to remind you: “If you value your children’s life, and don’t want them to die of smallpox, then vaccination is better than goat sacrifice.”

Please notice the way this approach employs values. It doesn’t impose any one set of values on anyone; rather, it asks, what do you value? If you value X, then…and so on. Once the value has been established, then there’s a basis for evaluations and judgments.

To be sure, not everyone in the world has the same values, as we all know. But on the other hand, in many areas of life we may find more consensus on basic values than we thought, and therefore we may develop greater agreement on means toward those ends as well — as was the case with the example I just gave you. It turned out that an awful lot of the world’s people did value their children’s lives, and did want them not to die of smallpox — and so they went along with vaccination instead of their former practices. Might we achieve other consensus in the future as well, on other values that are also dear to our hearts?

Interestingly enough, human history has shown some value convergences, some achievement of consensus. Head-hunting is practically a thing of the past — and even though a dyed-in-the-wool relativist might regret the passing of this “noble” custom that undoubtedly performed important functions for those who hunted heads, I suspect that the potential victims — the “donors” for this quaint practice — were happy to see the passing of the custom. Slavery, too, is virtually eliminated from the earth — so it is possible to achieve some consensus on important values.

Second, I urge that as we compare, evaluate, and judge, that we make our values explicit. We need to be aware of what our values are, of course; examine them, think them through, become aware of what order they stand in our own personal hierarchy of values. But then I urge that we not be bashful; let’s speak up for our values, each of us; let’s express them, even attempt to persuade others to share them with us. I don’t fear this process, rather, I welcome it. If it should turn out that our values are actually narrow and parochial and are only self-serving, I’m sure that others will rapidly let us know by their reaction. If, on the other hand, our values should touch a responsive chord in others, if they should agree, “Yes, that would be good, that would make for a better world,” why, then perhaps we’d all be a little bit closer to achieving consensus on the kind of world we could all live in, in peace and harmony.

Try substituting your most cherished value in there, and then try to envision what I’m advocating. What is it? Love? Compassion? Peace? Human dignity? Justice? A sense of human brotherhood/sisterhood? Whatever it is, I guess the message I’ve been aiming at is that we shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed and guilty about having values, standing up for them, advocating them, trying to persuade others that they’re well worth adopting. I think we’ve been hampered too long by demands for tolerance and respect in a world that increasingly doesn’t offer any in return. In a world filled withh all kinds of evil things (as viewed, to be sure, from our value perspective) I feel that something can be said for a certain degree of intolerance. Some things, I feel, should not be tolerated, and I suspect that many of you out there may agree with me. If so, here’s a way to start doing something about it: let’s stand up for what we believe in, and tell others about it. That kind of discussing and sharing of values just might lead to something good.

Henry Bagish is a very popular and respected instructor of anthropology and sociology at Santa Barbara City College, where he has been teaching since 1951. He has traveled extensively with his family throughout North, Central, and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania as part of his ongoing anthropological research. Due to his outstanding teaching and unselfish, dedicated service to the College, he was chosen by his colleagues to present the second in a series of Annual Faculty Lectures in 1981. This article is based on exerpts from that lecture.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.