Describe cultural relativism and explain why it is impotant in anthropology.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In anthropology, cultural relativism can be defined as the idea that a society’s customs and beliefs should be described objectively and that they should be understood in the context of the problems and opportunities faced by that society.  In other words, cultural relativism holds that anthropologists should not judge other cultures by the values of the anthropologists’ own culture.  Instead, they should believe that all cultures are equally valid and simply describe why various cultures engage in various behaviors.

This is an important issue for anthropology because it is difficult to know whether cultural relativism is the correct belief system to adhere to.  It is very hard to know if anthropologists should abide by the tenets of cultural relativism.  For example, what if a given group of people practices slavery?  What if they try to commit genocide against their enemies?  Should anthropologists really try to explain and condone those actions?  Should they not believe that there are fundamental human rights that all people have and that should not be violated?  Should they not try to do something to bring about changes that will halt these immoral practices?

Cultural relativism is a challenge to anthropology for this reason.  Anthropologists have to find some way to avoid imposing all of their own values on other societies, but they must (most people would say) figure out how to draw the line between imposing their own values on others and engaging in complete cultural relativism.

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