Cultural relativism, a concept that anthropologist Franz Boas developed in the early twentieth century, promotes understanding distinct cultures on their own terms, and thus fundamentally supports efforts at international understanding. Contextualizing any given culture’s traditions and behaviors involves looking at all customs, not just any specific one. Human rights, a concept developed more recently, maintains that there are universal principles that guarantee rights and cannot be denied to anyone. Universality as a key component of human rights has been contrasted to relativism through emphasizing the negative qualities of controversial customs, often concerning race, gender, and LGBT rights. An example often featured in this debate is female genital cutting, including its most extreme forms, which is practiced in some African societies. Proponents of relativism, however, point out that similar customs, such as male circumcision, that occur in Europe or the U.S. are less likely to be critically examined from within their own societies. Claims of universality may mask ethnocentrism, including cultural biases, religious restrictions, or political agendas, and thus fail to support international agreement.
Donnelly, Jack. (1984). Cultural relativism and universal human rights. Human Rights Quarterly 6( 4): 400-419.
Englund, H. (2016). Human rights. In F. Stein, S. Lazar, M. Candea, H. Diemberger, J. Robbins, A. Sanchez & R. Stasch, eds., Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology.