What Is Cultural Relativism?

What is cultural relativism?

Cultural relativism refers to the idea that the values, knowledge, and behavior of people must be understood within their own cultural context. This is one of the most fundamental concepts in sociology, as it recognizes and affirms the connections between the greater social structure.

Origin of concept

The concept of cultural relativism was established as an analytic tool by German-American anthropologist Franz Boas in the early 20th century.

In the context of early social science, cultural relativism became an important tool for pushing back on the ethnocentrism that often tarnished research at that time, which was mostly conducted by white, wealthy, Western men, and often focused on people of color, foreign indigenous populations.

Ethnocentrism is the practice of viewing and judging someone else’s culture based on the values and beliefs of one’s own. From this standpoint, we might frame other cultures as weird, exotic, intriguing.

In contrast, when we accept that many cultures of the world have their own beliefs, values, and practices that have developed in particular historical, political, social, material, and ecological contexts and that it makes sense that they would differ from our own and that none are necessarily right or wrong or good or bad, then we are engaging the concept of cultural relativism.


Have you ever seen or eaten food from another country, such as dried squid and think of it as weird and gross? This is an example of ethnocentrism! That means you use your own culture as the center and evaluate other cultures based on it. You are judging, or making assumptions about the food of other countries based on your own norms, values, or beliefs. Thinking “dried squid is smelly” or “people shouldn’t eat insects” are examples of ethnocentrism in societies where people may not eat dried squid or insects.

Likewise, in some cultures Female Genital Multilation is regarded as a rite of passage into adulthood, and considered a pre-requisite for marriage. Although there are no hygienic advantages or health benefits to FGM, practising communities believe that women’s vaginas need to be cut – and women who have not undergone FGM are regarded as unhealthy, unclean or unworthy.

Female genital mutilation, or FGM for short, is the deliberate cutting or removal of a female’s external genitalia. It often involves the removal or cutting of the labia and clitoris, and the World Health Organization describes it as “any procedure that injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. 

It’s estimated that 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM, according to the United Nations (UN). The practice is much more prevalent in Asia, Africa, Middle East, Latin America, and among the immigrant populations living in Europe, Australia, New Zealand,

Normally, people view FGM as an unhealthy and unnecessary practice because it’s not the part of their culture. In contract to this, FGM is widely acceptable and a necessity in those countries where it’s a cultural norm and a pre-requisite for marriage.

Some people cringe at the sight of cockroaches, while others enjoy eating cockroaches as an appetizer. People of Mexico, Ghana, Brazil, Thailand, China, USA, and many other countries consume insects wholeheartedly. Even the Dutch make chocolate infused with ground mealworms.

Bugs certainly possess nutritional benefits, and many other countries acknowledge and appreciate their unique flavors. The roasted bee larvae is considered a good source of riboflavin, iron, thiamin and zinc. Insects are even used to make red dye for lipsticks. But here in Pakistan people don’t get eating bugs as right choice for food because of religious beliefs and cultural variation. Eating cow meat is admissible in Pakistan but eating a bee larvae is disregarded altogether. This is because of cultural relativism. People administer foods that are permissible to the culture of their habitat.

Is ethnocentrism bad or good? On the one hand, ethnocentrism can lead to negative judgments of the behaviors of groups or societies. It can also lead to discrimination against people who are different. For example, in many countries, religious minorities (religions that are not the dominant religion) often face discrimination. But on the other hand, ethnocentrism can create loyalty among the same social group or people in the same society. For example, during the World Cup or Olympics, you may tend to root for your own country and believe that the players or teams representing your country are much better. National pride is also part of ethnocentrism.

Similarly, widespread discrimination against Indian Muslims is also a consequence of ethnocentrism one way or the other. Conservative Hindus don’t accept the religious diversity and discriminate against the minorities at length. They do carry out mob attacks on Muslim men and beat them in public. Laws are being passed to criminalise their religious practices, food habits and even businesses. 

Attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs have risen in India, with little apparent official condemnation.

Especially under BJP’s leadership, India became one of the most dangerous countries for Muslims and Christians in the world. They are being persecuted physically, psychologically and economically.

Another horrendous example of cultural relativism is the ritual of Bashali that is prevalent in Kalash vallies in KPK Province of Pakistan. Kalash women move to ‘Bashali’ during menstruation and child birth because they are considered impure during this time. Bashali, also known as Bashaleni, is like a maternity home which is built away from the main houses and no men are allowed to enter it or even touch its walls or doors. The women confined to the Bashali spend their time gossiping and doing some handicraft work. They are given food by their families but no one touches them during their stay in the secluded house.

After the child is born, the women stay there for at least 10 days while menstruating women stay there during the time of the periods. They come back after things get to normal. However, no such practice is carried out in the culture of other regions of the country. This custom sits well only among the people of Kalash because it’s considered accurate according to their cultural norms and beliefs.

Moreover, The Kalash never miss a chance to dance and sing even when someone dies in the family. Though the close family members of the dead mourn in the house, they have to arrange for big feasts and arrange for celebrations. They put the body in the coffin and keep it for two to three days in the graveyard. Every Kalash community member from the three valleys is informed about the death. Women in the family sit around the body with their hair covering their faces while rest of the community people keep on dancing around the body. The Kalash from different villages continue to come and join the celebrations. This is unique to the culture of Kalash valley. No such thing can be allowed in other cultures of the country. Only Kalashi people do that to their deceased.

To avoid judging the cultural practices of groups that are different to yours, we can use the cultural relativism approach. Cultural relativism refers to not judging a culture to our own standards of what is right or wrong, strange or normal. Instead, we should try to understand cultural practices of other groups in its own cultural context. For example, instead of thinking, “Fried crickets are disgusting! ” one should instead ask, “Why do some cultures eat fried insects?”. You may learn that fried crickets or grasshoppers are full of protein and in Mexico, it is famous Oaxaca regional cuisine and have been eaten for thousands of years as a healthy food source!

Some people worry that the concept of culture can also be abused and misinterpreted. If one culture behaves one way, does that mean all cultures can behave that way as well? For example, many countries and international organizations oppose the act of whaling (the fishing of whales) for environmental reasons. These environmental organizations say that there are not many whales left and such fishing practices should be stopped. However, other countries argue that whaling is a cultural practice that has been around for thousands of years. Because it may be part of a country’s oceanic culture, this country may say that such a cultural practice should not be opposed based on cultural differences, say, by an inland country that does not understand. Who gets to define what a moral cultural behavior is? Is whaling immoral? Two different cultures may have very different answers, as we saw in the above example.

Anthropologists say that when we think about different cultures and societies, we should think about their customs in a way that helps us make sense of how their cultural practices fit within their overall cultural context.

Linguistic Relativism
In the 1930s, two anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, noticed that the Hopi Indians in the United States had no words to differentiate between the past, present, and future. This was a surprising discovery. In English, we can easily think of tense and know what time frame someone is referring to. The two scholars found that the way language is used affected the way we think about and perceive the world. In other words, worldviews and cultural influences are largely embedded within the language we use, even if we are saying things like coffee. When we talk about coffee in the US, we would think of a large mug, and the coffee would come from a pot of coffee. When Europeans talk about coffee, they are most likely thinking about little espresso cups filled with strong coffee.
How a language affects the way we think about the world is called linguistic relativism or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Linguistic relativism means that there are certain thoughts we have in one language (e.g. English) that cannot be understood by those who exist in another language context (e.g. Spanish).

For example, the Inuits (northern aboriginals) have dozens of ways to convey the word snow. In English, how many ways can you think of to express snow? Maybe four or five ways? Snow, flurry, sleet, etc.

So, learning a language does not mean only learning words. It also means that we need to learn the cultural contexts that are embedded in the language itself. Languages reflect our cultural experiences.

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