Cultural relativism is a complex concept that has its intellectual roots in discussions about relativism in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language. Relativism is typically viewed in contrast to realism, which is the idea that what is true and real exists independently of the mind. Where there are many different kinds of relativism-epistemological, moral, cultural, cognitive-they all have two features in common. First, they assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, knowledge, meaning) is relative to a particular framework (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, an era, or a language). Second, they deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. While cultural relativism provides a reflexive and critical tool for sociology (and other social science disciplines), political and moral conservatives tend to despair over the influence of cultural relativism on intellectual thought and the shift away from objective, identifiable standards as the measure for all truth-claims. However, some researchers have argued that it is possible to adopt a cultural relativist stance without abandoning a commitment to the idea of universal standards or human rights.
Keywords Difference; Epistemology; Ethnocentric; Incommensurability; Objectivity; Positivism; Rationality; Realism; Relativism; Standpoint
Cultural relativism is a complex concept that has its intellectual roots in discussions about relativism in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language. The general concept of relativism in sociology is associated with critiques of positivism in science and concomitantly, social science, which largely emphasize the differences between the focus and methods of inquiry associated with the natural and social sciences. Relativism is typically viewed in contrast to realism, which is the idea that what is true and real exists independently of the mind. This opposition between realism and relativism was influenced by the work of Immanuel Kant in his (Critique of Pure Reason (1788), who argued that the material and social world is mediated through our minds: that people's experience of the world is mediated through the knowledge and ideas they hold about the world. Consequently, this relative epistemology-or cognitive relativism-makes it difficult to identify universal experiences that hold true for everyone, because it is likely that one person's experience of an event or activity will not be the same as that of another person. Cognitive relativism, then, refers broadly to an intellectual stance that rejects the idea of an absolute viewpoint and the existence of objective criteria for making judgments about what is or is not real or true.
Cultural relativism is associated with a general tolerance and respect for difference, which refers to the idea that cultural context is critical to an understanding of people's values, beliefs and practices. It is viewed as a progressive stance that a researcher can take to make sure that she does not privilege her own understanding of the world in her explanation of what is happening in the context she is studying-a stance that ensures her portrayal of a culture to which she does not belong is faithful to its internal understandings.
Where there are many different kinds of relativism-epistemological, moral, cultural, cognitive-they have two features in common:
• They assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, knowledge, meaning) is relative to a particular framework (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, an era, or a language).
• They deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.
This latter feature of relativism has implications for how people develop and test knowledge about the social world (methodology) and how people make judgments about what kinds of social practices are better than others.
While cultural relativism is celebrated by postmodernists and poststructuralists, it is viewed negatively by moral conservatives, who see cultural relativism as the demise of moral obligation; the transformation of scientific endeavor into a random series of quixotic, subjective decisions and choices and the end of participation in civic affairs (Horowitz, 2004). The logic that sustains a commitment to cultural relativism is itself based on a claim that is relative to local (Western) criteria and begs the question: given the cultural differences in the world, how is it feasible to motivate compliance and implement ethical norms, such as human rights (Li, 2007)? Here, cultural relativism is seen to have an ethical dimension (moral relativism) that neutralizes people's ability to criticize the beliefs and practices of other cultures (Johnson, 2007).
The intellectual roots of cultural relativism within sociology lie in philosophical debates about distinctions between reality and relativism. Although the concept of realism has a complex history, it is generally accepted that it refers to the existence of a reality that lies beyond our thoughts or beliefs about it (Marshall et al., 1994). The main point of focus in debates about reality is whether universal truths or standards exist that we can use to measure or judge whether something is real (or true). This focus has had particular implications for philosophers and sociologists of science, who have studied the ways in which science makes claims about what exists, what is true and what counts as knowledge.
Philosophy of Science
Debates about cognitive relativism developed in the work of sociologists who engaged with the philosophy of science, which examines what science is, what makes it a special kind of knowledge and how scientists make claims that have authority and credibility. Science, it is assumed, occurs within a laboratory context that is free from bias, and which proceeds as a disinterested endeavor that creates a neutral product-such as explanations for differences between men and women. The aim of the scientific method is to produce knowledge that can be trusted, because it is based on empirical observation that can be repeated and tested by other researchers. This approach to knowledge production is known as positivism, which rejects knowledge based on belief, speculation or faith in favor of knowledge based on systematic observation and experiment that involves testing ideas against reality (i.e. what we see). Moreover, conventional accounts of science suggest that scientific knowledge grows cumulatively; each new discovery adding to what is already known.
However, sociologists have criticized this view of science and in particular, the role of objectivity and rationality (e.g. Feyerabend, 1993). For instance, Thomas Kuhn (1996) argued that the history of science was less linear than depicted because social beliefs and personal interests shape the practice and context of science. Moreover, researchers become attached to particular explanations and theoretical traditions associated with the scientific communities to which they belong, which influence whether new ideas are accepted or rejected. Thus, scientific exchange is not necessarily objective or rational and indeed, the criteria for deciding the merits of a scientific theory could be philosophical, or indeed political, as much as rational (Boudon, 2002). These associations and attachments undermine the potential for objectivity in science and for value-free inquiry. Kuhn suggests that the truth claims underpinning scientific theories are relative to the values and practices that shape scientific practice. Cognitive relativism suggests that there is no objective knowledge, only interpretations of what scientists observe and that no theory can be said to be 'true,' only probable (Boudon, 2002). Contemporary versions of these arguments assert that the objects of study within science are socially constructed and have no existence beyond the instruments that measure them and the minds that interpret them (Latour & Woolgar, 1979).
Philosophy of Language
Cultural relativism is linked to cognitive relativism through the claim that social science cannot identify truth, but only customs that vary from one society to another. While social scientists-such as anthropologists, geographers and sociologists-can observe and document such customs, explanations need to be grounded by reference to the contexts...
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