Cultural Relativity: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is Cultural Relativity?
  • 2:27 Examples of Cultural…
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson discusses the concept of cultural relativity, which is an approach to understanding cultures that are different from one's own. It encourages us to see cultures as different but not better than others.

What Is Cultural Relativity?

Do you think your culture is better than other cultures around the world? For that matter, is one culture superior to another due to its morals or values? These complicated questions are getting at the notion of cultural relativity, which is a fancy way of saying that all cultures are different but one is not better than another.

Cultural relativity (sometimes called cultural relativism) is a position, developed by early anthropologists, that states we must understand individuals in the context of their own culture. In other words, we can't judge what others do based on the standards of our culture, but on the standards found in their culture.

Cultural relativity helps us to understand other cultures and their practices without thinking that they're inferior or backwards. Each culture is unique, and if we practice cultural relativity, we should celebrate that. Or at least try to understand it, even if it seems strange.

Cultural relativism is a position that has a few important principles we should discuss. First, cultural relativism states that different societies have different moral codes. Basically, you can think of a moral code as the widely-excepted rules and norms within a society that help people determine what is wrong and what is right.

Put simply, this principle is saying that if you go to another country, you'll likely find that different things are considered good or bad. This might not be the same as in your home country, and this difference is known as descriptive cultural relativism. Think of this as simply describing the rules in a culture.

Next, cultural relativity states that one moral code is not better than another. So the moral code of your home country is not better than the code found in the country you are visiting, it just happens to be one particular moral code. There are many others a society could follow. This is known as the equality principle. This goes one step further than describing the rules of a culture and helps us to understand the rules are not better or worse.

Cultural relativity also states that the moral code of a given society deems what's right or wrong. If a society decides murder is wrong, then it's wrong - at least in that society. This is known as a cultural standard. These standards vary across cultures.

Cultural relativity also means that we shouldn't judge other cultures. This is known as the tolerance principle, and it means that we shouldn't think any culture is better or superior to others.

Examples of Cultural Relativity

Cultures around the world operate in very different ways. In some places, getting married very young is common. In others, drinking alcohol is strictly prohibited until a certain age, while children in other places might enjoy a small glass of wine with their parents at dinner. If you subscribe to the notion of cultural relativity, then this basically means that you don't judge other cultures for these actions if they're different than your own.

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