Cultural Relativism in Sociology: Definition, Argument & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is Cultural Relativism?
  • 1:37 Cultural Relativism & Judgment
  • 2:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

In Bolivia, 14-year-old girls can legally get married. In China, men have to wait until they're 22. Why is there such a variance in what's acceptable and what's not? Cultural relativism explains why one society shouldn't try to impose its own beliefs onto another.

What is Cultural Relativism?

The world is a big place, full of many different groups of people, each with a unique perspective on how to survive and thrive. Collectively, all of a group's core beliefs, rituals, traditions, and other customs make up its distinct culture. Part of what makes the world interesting is that each human civilization has come up with a unique culture and value system, which leads to people viewing life and lifestyles differently. Cultural relativism means that actions should be measured by the standards of an individual's own unique culture, not by the standards of others. This explains why some things are perfectly acceptable in one society, but totally taboo in another.

While observing indigenous societies in the Amazon rain forest, early European explorers desperately tried to categorize what they saw there into their own comfortable mental boxes from home. It didn't work well. Arm-chair anthropologists of the Victorian Era didn't feel comfortable mentioning that the Jivaro warriors tend to be married to several women at once; this was not an acceptable practice or even an acceptable topic of conversation. How could they possibly explain why decapitating an enemy and then ritualistically shrinking his head was normal?

Largely in response to this looming problem of European anthropologists (not to mention the rest of us laypeople) not being able to fully wrap their heads around such foreign customs, the concept of cultural relativism was more fully developed. Franz Boas, and later, Alain Locke, argued that one civilization cannot simply be transposed over another. The pieces just won't fit!

Cultural Relativism and Judgment

If you buy into the concept of cultural relativism, which you don't necessarily have to, then you tend to suspend judgment of other societies' controversial rituals and other practices, at least for a minute. The goal here is not to change your mind about the validity and truth of your own beliefs and practices, but rather to understand that other cultural groups' customs have inherent value and worth, too. You might not agree that it's acceptable to shrink the head of a fallen enemy, but you should realize that the Jivaro warrior knows more about that than you do. It's his society's spiritual beliefs that led him to do it, and it's cultural relativism that leads me to say, 'I'll try not to judge you for that.'

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