Cultural Relativism In The United States Essay

While many societies around the world are becoming more connected due to globalization, individual civilizations have distinct cultures that affect all aspects of that society’s behavior, including play. How people play is often misconstrued as a universal constant, however, this is not the case and such an interpretation can make it difficult to objectively study a group of people.

Indigenous tribes, like the Yanomamo Tribe, and western civilizations, like the United States, are where some of the starkest differences can be seen on both how play is perceived and how people engage in play. In the United States play is largely perceived as a pleasurable activity. People play to avoid responsibilities or relax in the United States, but this is not the case among the Yanomamo. This tribe spends the majority of their time engaging in leisure activities, but their play is not considered a waste of time as many of their games influences the “hierarchy” in their society.

The Yanomamo are technically an egalitarian society, but the winners of their games are considered to be more aggressive and are often the ones who are sent to make deals with other tribes or hunt rather than be given a less physically demanding job (Chagnon 6). The purpose and perception of play are polar to each other in these two societies, and these differences can be seen throughout the world due to cultural diversity. Anthropology and sociology are disciplines within the social science discourse that focus on the behavior of groups of people.

The main difference between the two is that sociology focus on “society” and anthropology focus on “culture”. What constitutes as a society with reference to sociology is social life, change, and causes and consequences of human behavior. The anthropological definition of culture is “abilities, notions, and forms of behavior persons have acquired as members of society; refers to both the basic similarities and to the systematic differences between humans. ” The American Anthropological Association defines anthropology as “the study of humans, past and present.

What this means is that anthropologists are drawing conclusions based on analyzing “cross-cultural differences in social institutions, cultural beliefs and communication styles. ” Culture permeates every society through both “explicit culture” when one is aware of rules and customs within a culture and consciously learn them, and tacit culture, parts of the culture that are explicit or directly observable. This distinction between anthropology and sociology is an important one as it shapes the lens by which one analyzes a group of people.

This paper will be using anthropological theories and perspectives to analyze the cultural differences between the Yanomamo and the United States, more particularly how they have played from the 1960’s to the present. The view that each culture is a collective representation of its own history is a theory called historical particularism. This is a widely utilized theory because it fits the accepted definition of anthropology, “the study of humans, past and present” and is very relevant in this case as this paper focuses on an evolution of two cultures in comparison to each other over a period of almost 70 years.

Play can have many definitions, but according to a professor of Anthropology at Rice University play is defined as “behavior, resting upon a biologically inherited stimulus or proclivity, that is distinguished by a combination of traits: play is voluntary, somehow pleasurable, distinct temporally from other behavior, and distinct in having a make-believe or transcendental quality” (Norbeck 1). Play in and of itself is culturally universal, something that is common in every human culture on the planet, yet it varies from culture to culture, however, it is no universal constant.

A universal constant is something that is exactly the same across every culture on the planet. This is often misconstrued with not just play, but many other aspects of cultures which can lead to ethnocentric points of view and overall ignorance. In “Play Is”, a chapter from the book Play Matters by Miguel Sicart, attempts to broaden the readers’ understanding of play. While this chapter does not explicitly provide a definition for play it explains modes of play and how play is incorporated into everyday life.

Play has a large influence on how people choose to spend their time and how to interact with one another. Sicart shows this throughout the chapter outlining several examples of not only typical play, like video games or playing with toys, but also actions one might not generally associate with the concept of playing, such as political actions. This is important to keep in mind when analyzing how another culture plays as just because one might not initially interpret an action as play does not necessarily mean it isn’t. Anthropology stresses the importance of cultural relativity.

Cultural relativism is defined as the idea that a person actions or behavior should be judged within the context of that person’s culture. While this seems like a simple concept, it can be difficult for many people to fully accept (Eriksen 73). Whether this is caused by ignorance or a negative bias of the culture being analyzed as a whole, the most effect method to increase cultural relativism is to increase awareness of the differences between cultures. Throughout western society, many people look down on those who live without the same level technology.

They may see those people as less fortunate or less intelligent and that is very rarely how the people in the societies with less technology see it. It is important to study cultures that differ from someone’s own to increase one’s understanding of others around the world. Looking at play, in particular, provides a narrow scope into particular differences between the two societies. Choosing the Yanomami, an indigenous tribe who has been untouched by outside societies (Indigenous Culture in the Amazon), and the United States, one of the most industrialized societies in the world will exaggerate the differences that can be een throughout the world.

The Yanomamo, while widely studied now, used to be unknown by most of the academic world and those that did know of them did not wish to participate in fieldwork to study them as they were known to be aggressive. The Yanomamo live along the border of Venezuela and Brazil and lived in complete isolation until anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon decided to participate in etic fieldwork through participant observation. Etic fieldwork is when an anthropologist goes to a community outside their own (etic) and lives within that community for a minimum of six months to observe their society.

Chagnon is now regarded as one of the most unethical anthropologists to date due not only to his biased ethnography (anthropological writing) of the Yanomamo but also for disrupting and changing their culture by introducing them to things from the “outside” world. Unfortunately, because of this, his testimony has the most reliable information on what they were like before outside influences changed their culture because any subsequent studies would reflect the changes he made.

His ethnography, Fieldwork among the Yanomamo, while very problematic is widely cited across academic texts that talk indigenous tribes. Chagnon allowed his opinions of the behaviors of the Yanomamo to color the way he wrote about them and it is important to keep this in mind whenever this text is used. The Yanomamo are a semi-nomadic group that avoids large rivers. Semi-nomadic tribes such as this one create temporary dwellings and cultivate some crops but move around as needed.

A semi-nomadic or settled group of people avoiding large rivers is rare as they are usually used for drinking, bathing and watering crops. Furthermore, the soil surrounding freshwater rivers tends to be more fertile so crops are more easily cultivated. This avoidance of large bodies of water is most likely the reason they were able to stay isolated for as long as they had as people had no reason to travel where they were settled. The Yanomamo are located on the border between Brazil and Venezuela.