Please provide a good definition of "Cultural Relativism."

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As reflective of the concept itself, the idea of a "good definition" is a contextual one.  Cultural relativism revolves around the idea that all cultural notions of acceptance are bound by contingencies and temporality. What constitutes "right" and "wrong" are not really absolute notions of the good. Rather, they are formed by cultural acceptance and understanding.  Therefore, cultural relativism strives to articulate the role that "cultural orientation" plays in determining what individuals believe as acceptable.

The underpinnings of cultural relativism can be found in the work of anthropologist Franz Boas.  He argued that there can not be much in way of moral and ethical absolutes because individual judgments were seen as dependent on cultural context:  "...civilization is not something absolute, but ... is relative, and ... our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes."  This reflects the elemental block of cultural relativism's definition.  What is seen as "true" can only be understood " so far as our civilization goes." Cultural relativism prevents the ability to make absolute and sweeping judgments about cultural practices because individuals are cultural and social beings that are bound by their contextual understanding of the good.

Cultural relativism asserts that "truth" is a relative quantity.  In her article on cultural relativism, Ruth Benedict argues that a critical aspect of relativism's definition is how human beings are limited as a result of their social context:

One of these problems relates to the customary modern normal-abnormal categories and our conclusions regarding them. In how far are such categories culturally determined, or in how far can we with assurance regard them as absolute? In how far can we regard inability to function socially as abnormality, or in how far is it necessary to regard this as a function of the culture? 

In defining cultural relativism, the idea that all social orders limit the human being from making sweeping judgments is essential.  Cultural relativism is defined as asserting relativity because of context and contingency.

Therefore, a definition of cultural relativism should include some elemental ideas.  One has to be that all truth is relative due to cultural notions of the good.  What might be seen as repugnant in one culture could be deemed as totally acceptable in another.  Another aspect of defining cultural relativism would be the assertion that human beings are products of context and contingency.  Due to this condition of being, asserting universal notions of the good becomes  a challenge.  Civilization and social settings play a role in defining what is good or bad, and recognizing this becomes a critical element in defining cultural relativism.  The definition of cultural relativism should include these elements.  In true relativistic fashion, this definition is not all encompassing and should not be seen as resulting in the exclusion of other aspects of relativism.  Yet, in surveying the literature and the concept itself, these elements are an accepted part of the understanding in defining cultural relativism.

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