What is cultural relativism?

cultural relativism

In today's post-Einstein world, everyone is familiar with the word 'relativism'. However, the term has travelled a lot from science to literature, culture, tradition, anthropology and other fields. We use the term in a broad spectrum of varied subjects. One of them is cultural relativism. According to the view of cultural relativism, no culture is absolute. Any and every culture exists as a related entity against the other cultures. Therefore, cultural relativism views that every culture, its beliefs, ethics, traditions, customs are fundamentally relative for an individual within the social boundaries of his living.

Etymological history:

It is a social theorist and philosopher, Alain Locke who first used the term 'cultural relativism' and recorded it in the prestigious pages of 'Oxford English Dictionary'. However, the word gets popularity with its widespread use by Franz Boas. He elaborated the idea of cultural relativism first in 1887. He theorizes that civilization is never an independent entity. He continues that it is relative, and an individual's ideas and conceptions are only valid as far as his or her civilization reaches its claws.

Goals of Cultural Relativism

In this world of globalization and open-market culture, we are not only a part of our ethnicity but also of the global culture. The goal of cultural relativism is to promote a sensitive understanding of diversified cultures across the world. If a person understands the concept of cultural relativism, he or she might also understand the dynamics of a cross-cultural relationship; be is academic, social, personal or economic.

Another goal of this agenda is to provide an individual with a plethora of opportunity that might have barred itself from him or her because of the ethnic group he or she belongs to. Cultural practices can restrict opportunities from a person because the activity is 'wrong' according to the culture. For example, during the colonial era in India, Hindu culture restricted any Hindu individual from going across the sea to Europe. They considered the sea as the cursed water or the 'Kala Pani', and anyone who has crossed the seas gained the reputation of an untouchable. Therefore, any Hindu was denied the opportunity of studying abroad. Now, it is unthinkable. Anyone from any country can study under any university irrespective of his or her cultural identity. As a result of cultural relativism, people have been aware of the opportunities which are available in front of them.

The practice of cultural relativism also increases tolerance in people. People are learning the existence of other cultures. The people are beginning to understand the different cultural practices and their worth. As a result, we are more pliant to the idea of a cross-culture. Extensive exposure to different cultures has taught and increased our tolerance level. Now, it is normal that a college class has students from several cultural groups. For example, in older India, a Sudra boy cannot study at the same level along with a Brahmin boy. However, now, no one bothers about the cultural identity of a dear classmate.

Concept of 'high' and 'low' cultures

This idea of cultural relativity is widely accepted and practised in the modern world. Recent anthropology says that no culture is 'high' or 'low'. On the contrary, every culture is worthy in its worth. Every culture deserves equal value and respect in its own right. The social stratification based on the ancient caste system has lost any meaning. Since no culture is high or low, any social hierarchy based on caste cannot be functional within a society which runs on the idea of cultural relativism. Therefore, in an ideal community that practises 'cultural relativism,' the words like untouchable or Dalit lose any significance. Every culture is unique in its right. Every ethnicity is valuable and deserves respect and equal recognition.

Concept of 'right' and 'wrong'

Similarly, there is no concept of 'universal right' and 'universal wrong'. The terms 'right' and 'wrong' are relative. What may seem to be right in one culture may seem to be wrong in the other. An individual should not judge any cultural practice practised by another individual belonging to a different culture. For instance, it is a customary rule in Christian culture to wear black clothes at a funeral. Although if a Hindu individual shows up at a commemoration of a Hindu wearing all black, it would be very embarrassing for him and the other concerning people. So an activity can be 'right' in one context. The same action can be frowned upon in another context.

Concept of 'sin'

Next, we need to consider the idea of 'sin'. Apart from some fundamental wrongdoings, like, theft or homicide, which are regarded as 'sin' in all culture, there is a relative concept of 'sin' in a different culture. For example, Hinduism believes in monogamy. Marriage is a sacred bond between two souls. No foul energy can break the sanctity of the union. If a man takes more than one wife, he is a sinner according to the religious practices. However, in Islamic culture, a man can take four wives at a time. Therefore, he is not a sinner or anything from the Islamic viewpoint. However, the Christian religion denies the idea of relativity. Since cultural relativism rejects the concept of absolute truth; it also rejects the idea of an 'Omnipotent'. According to the Christian religion, following this path man attains moral license and defies the concept of 'sin'.

Postmodernism and Cultural Relativity

The concepts of postmodernism and cultural relativity are somehow beautifully homogenous. Both defy any idea of 'absolutism'. In a way, both sweep away any possibility of a mega-narrative, which was the basis of Modernism. Instead of it, they both promote the idea of 'mini-narratives'. Whereas, cultural absolutism will consider a so-called 'high' culture to be the 'absolute' and measure other 'low' perceptions against the standards of the 'absolutecultural relativism, cultural relativism urges every culture to establish its 'mini-narratives'. Bothe postmodernism and cultural relativism invite us to break free of the traditional giant narratives and be open-minded and greet every small and puny mini-narrative. Cultural relativism is binding us together with an invisible string of love across cultures. 

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Feb 17, 2020

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