Cultural relativism is a core concept in cultural anthropology. It means that an observer or analyst of any particular culture should try to understand it from the perspective of the people of that culture. By extension, one considers all cultures as equals rather than ranking any culture as higher than another. This relativism extends to individual members of the culture.
Cultural relativism developed in the early-twentieth century as an alternative to the then-dominant theoretical perspective in anthropology, evolutionism. That theoretical approach did rank societies and people, using terms such as "primitive" and "modern." Among its negative aspects was the association with colonialism, through which supposedly advanced peoples (primarily white Europeans) would try to change others ostensibly for their improvement. Racism and religious intolerance were also strongly associated with this line of thinking.
In the twenty-first century, anthropological theory rarely aims to classify people and values as "typical." Acknowledging the importance of hierarchy and inequality in many cultures, anthropologists use a relativist perspective to try to understand how some people gain and maintain dominance over others.
Relativism can be very useful in understanding one's own culture as well as that of others. Moving away from an assumption that anything people do is ever completely "natural," we can examine the role of culture even in the earliest stages of life, such as childbirth and mother–infant relationships.