What is cultural relativism?

It is impossible to understand what the actions of members of other groups mean if we analyze them in terms of our motives and values. We must interpret their behavior in the light of their motives, habits, and values. The same behavior has different meanings in different cultures and we must look at the behavior in relation to the culture of the society where it takes place. In short, the meaning of behavior is related to the culture in which it occurs.

Cultural relativism, according to Rosado, (2003) is in essence an approach to the question of the nature and role of values in culture. If values are shared ideals which give rise to beliefs and norms of behavior around which a people or a group organizes its collective life and goals, cultural relativism declares that these values are relative to the cultural ambiance out of which they arise.

Cultural relativism in anthropology is a key methodological concept which is universally accepted within the discipline. This concept is based on theoretical considerations which are the key to the understanding of “scientific” anthropology as they are the key to the understanding of the anthropological frame of mind.

Cultural relativism, according to Glazer (1996), is an anthropological approach which posits that all cultures are of equal value and need to be studied in a neutral point of view. The basis of cultural relativism is a scientific view of culture, which also rejects value judgments on cultures. There is, in this view, no single scale of values which holds true for all cultures and by which all culture can be judged. Beliefs, aesthetics, morals and other cultural items can only be judged through their relevance to a given culture. For example, good and bad in one culture is specific for that culture and cannot be imposed in cultural analysis. The reason for this view is. of course, that what is good in one culture may be bad in another. This indicates that every culture determines its own ethical judgments to regulate the proper behavior of its members.

The anthropological attitude that a society’s customs and ideas should be described objectively and understood in the context of that society’s problems and opportunities is known as cultural relativism. It refers to the practices considered immoral or taboo to a group with a different cultural orientation. Does cultural relativism mean that the actions of another society, or of our own, should not be judged? Does it mean that the same behavior has different meanings in different cultures?

Although Philippine culture has assumed a greater degree of uniformity throughout the country, there are still sub-cultural differences which affect the meaning of behavior. Considerations of cultural relativism are often brought up in relation to the question as to whether subculture should be exempted from laws which are otherwise applicable to the whole country. An example is laws relating to marriage and divorce. Christian Filipinos consider polygamy by Filipino Muslims and some mountain groups as wrong feel that these regulations are based only on the culture of the Christian society and have no relation to their own norms. The central point in cultural relativism is that in a particular cultural setting, certain traits are right because they work in that setting while other traits are wrong because they are not accepted in their culture.

Sociologists are sometimes accused of undermining morality with their concept of cultural relativism and the claim that almost “everything is right somewhere.” From this it may be surmised that, if right and wrong are merely social conventions, one might as well do as she pleases. This is a grave misunderstanding. It is approximately true that “everything is considered wrong somewhere” but not everywhere. The central point in cultural relativism is that in a particular setting certain traits are right because they work in that setting while other traits are wrong because they clash painfully with parts of the culture (Hunt, et al. 1998).