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Cultural relativism

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Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
​Still the world is wondrous large,

— seven seas from marge to marge — ⁠And it holds a vast of various kinds of man; And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu, ⁠And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban. Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose ⁠And the reindeer roared where Paris roars to-night:— There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

—Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

Cultural relativism is the idea that all peoples' views and beliefs are biased by their cultural background, and should be understood based on their culture. This bias may extend to sensory perception as well as worldview.[1]

The basic observation — that we're all the bearers of certain biases as a result of our culture and upbringing — is largely uncontroversial, and indeed serves the critical thinker well. Racialists disagree, as cultural relativism correctly disconnects the pseudoscientific concept of race from that of culture.

The utility of the epistemological and methodological claims of cultural relativism is another question, and whether or not these claims necessitate a specific ethical stance is a matter of debate.

There is widespread popular conflation of cultural relativism with moral relativism.

As a fallacy[edit]

I am a Norman. It is the immemorial custom of my people to conquer our neighbors, seize their land, suppress their culture, and impose our rule as aristocrats. By the principle of cultural relativity this way of life is no worse than any other.

—Brett Evill

Sometimes cultural relativism is used as a non-sequitur to make excuses for actions that harm people of different cultural and social backgrounds. This is a variant of the relativist fallacy; if some cultures practice Female genital mutilation (FGM) and we don't, therefore we cannot judge that action as immoral just because it mutilates female genitals for the sake of misogynistic misconceptions of human sexuality, as this would be considered ethnocentrism to do so.

"Working" use[edit]

A loose form of cultural relativism is effectively required in the field of anthropology, in order to avoid "contaminating" the culture with one's own while studying it. Many cultural anthropologists claim to be cultural relativists. However, it is usually possible to isolate some bias in any given ethnography.

The tradition of cultural relativism arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction to forms of biological determinism such as eugenics and scientific racism. It was instituted as a form of methodology in anthropology by Franz Boas.[2][3]

Ethical considerations[edit]

Cultural relativism raises ethical issues for anthropologists on field work projects who come from cultures strongly opposed to practices such as female genital mutilation.

The concept also raises questions (or should) for many differing groups of professionals in the world. Should businesses work with, and therefore give money to, governments that engage in practices which are considered reprehensible by the West but which are widely practiced in the countries in question? Should foreign aid be given by nations that oppose genital mutilation to nations that practice it?

Relation to moral relativism[edit]

Moral relativism is the position that the truth or falsity of ethical judgments is relative to some group of persons. Typically, relativism takes the form of individual relativism, where the truth of judgments is relative to each individual person, or cultural moral relativism, where the truth of judgments is relative to a culture. This is in contrast to descriptive moral relativism, which is the position that there is substantial moral disagreement across different societies.[note 1]

Because cultural relativism is often conflated with moral relativism, a number of distinctions have been made, such as methodological vs. philosophical relativism[4] and cultural vs. ethical relativism.[5]

In reaction to this common conflation, Clifford Geertz coined the term "anti-anti-relativism."[6]

Relation to human rights[edit]

There has been some protest that the concept of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was more a declaration of Western style of rights. It is asserted that the document didn't properly include people of all backgrounds, cultures, and societies, so that it is not really "universal" (we didn't consult aliens either). Some anthropologists hold the idea that the Western style of democracy and freedom is not compatible with what some cultures have practiced for hundreds or thousands of years, so that our measuring them with our (Western) measuring stick isn't really fair.

Human rights groups have been accused by some pundits of practicing cultural relativism for condemning actions by America or other western governments, but not condemning other countries with less than stellar governments for the same thing.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Descriptive relativism leaves open the possibility that there are universal, non-relative moral facts, in which case the substantial disagreement suggests widespread moral errors (indeed, it allows that everybody is wrong about the moral facts).


  1. See, e.g., the "carpentered world hypothesis": Marshall H. Segall, Donald T. Campbell, and Melville J. Herskovit. (1968) The Influence of Culture on Visual Perception. Chapter 14 in Social Perception, eds. Hans Toch and Clay Smith
  2. Peter Fettner. Rationality and the Origins of Cultural Relativism. Knowledge, Technology, & Policy, Spring - Summer 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1 & 2, pp. 196-203.
  3. Franz Boas, "On Alternating Sounds", American Anthropologist, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 47-54, January 1889
  4. Gananath Obeyesekere. Methodological Relativism and Philosphical Relativism. Man, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Sep., 1966), pp. 368-374
  5. Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism, Renato Rosaldo, Markula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University
  6. Clifford Geertz. Distinguished Lecture: Anti-anti-relativism. American Anthropologist, vol. 86, 1984