Cultural Relativism vs. Ethnocentism – which is more objective?

To view one’s own culture as the universal by which all others are judged would be ultimately subjective, as our perceptions of cultural differences are shaped largely by our immersion in our own culture. An ethnocentric approach stems from judging an alternate culture in relation to one’s own pre-conceived cultural values, held to be superior; the parallax phenomenon, the inability to escape our own biases, prevents objective analysis of different cultures.

A cultural relativist maintains the post-modernist view that there is no moral or cultural high-ground with which to judge one culture in relation to another, thus each culture must be understood from its own perspective, and within its own context. Some practices may appear bizarre when observed cross-culturally, however, in their own cultural context, they seem quite natural. A relativist approach has its limits, and these boundaries are drawn at cross-cultural universals.

Practices such as female genital mutilation and cannibalism are abhorrent from an ethnocentric, western point of view; however relativist thinking requires greater analysis and debate as to whether such abhorrence is purely ethnocentric, or whether such practices break cross-cultural universals. Marriage practices, which vary widely in different cultures require a culturally relativist understanding in order to prevent subjective criticism. Fundamental to ethnocentrism is the notion of fallibility; there is no infallible, moral or cultural high-ground’ by which all cultures and practices may be judged.

Our moral perceptions have their basis in social conditioning and our enculturation into a specific culture (Spiro, 1986, p260) and so objectivity can only arise from distancing the observer from his or her preconceived ideas of what is correct and what is morally acceptable. The key to distancing oneself from one’s preconceptions is through relativism; thorough knowledge and understanding of one’s own values and the subtle value-laden assumptions [that] creep into sociological research’ (Weber, 1949, as cited in Jureidini & Poole, 2003, p68).

Social prejudice and a human propensity for ethnocentrism cause observers of a culture other than their own to judge such practices and beliefs as peculiar, yet many of our own practices are peculiar when viewed through the lenses of other cultures’ (Karp, 1990, p74-75, cited in Schultz & Lavenda, 2005, p24). In the Trobriand Islands, the native people’s fear of female sexual power and pollution would seem alien and bizarre from any externally ethnocentric outlook (Glass, 1988, p56).

This view would be essentially subjective, as it relies upon the biases of the observer; the judgement is superficial and does not require any further understanding of the context of the Trobriand’s fears. From a cultural relativist’s perspective, the subject requires contextual understanding before judgement. The Islanders’ history of attack from rival Dobu islanders with a propensity for cannibalism caused Trobriand society to maintain powerful political controls to protect the society from outside infiltration (Glass, 1988, p57).

Rigid controls on bodily hair and gender segregation, although strange to a Western observer, are just symptoms of a society’s survival mechanisms. Through relativism, logical and objective deductions can be made about practices that would be seemingly inferior from a partisan, ethnocentric viewpoint. The radical implication of cultural relativism is that every cultural practice or belief requires an attempt to understand it from a sympathetic perspective, no matter how abhorrent the practice may seem (Greenwood & Stini, 1977, p182, as cited in Schultz & Lavenda, 2005, p25).

However, relativistic thinking does not give free licence and acceptance to all practices; for example, female genital mutilation. There are boundaries drawn by cross-cultural universal values that require an observer to question why a cultural group practices female genital mutilation, but do not stop that observer from condemning the practice as morally repugnant.

Egyptian and Tanzanian studies have shown a historical context and attempted to understand the cultural reasons for the practice from a relativistic perspective (Boyle et al. 01, p525), but do not lose objectivity in their condemnation of the custom; Objectivity is not sacrificed in condemnation, as the judgement is based on global support for particular human rights, not on the ethnocentric biases of the observer. Marriage, as a social process, differs greatly from culture to culture. Even the most open-minded individuals in a Western society have difficulty understanding the marriage patterns of other cultures. Monogamy is so strongly enculturated into Western society that laws exist to forbid any other form of marriage.

This ethnocentric perception of marriage fails to understand the varied cultural contexts and requirements of the individuals within any given marriage pattern. A relativist, objective understanding of Sinhalese culture in Sri Lanka provides economic reasons for why a second husband may enter into a pre-existing monogamous marriage (Leach, 1955, p183), opposed to an ethnocentric rejection of such a practice as superficially repulsive. Once again, an objective perspective on a controversial subject only arises from relativistic interpretation of cultural backgrounds.

The search for objectivity is essentially philosophical and is the foremost aspiration of any anthropological study. Subjectivity in cross-cultural observation stems from our culturally conditioned value-laden assumptions regarding that which is culturally acceptable. These ethnocentric perceptions of other cultures tend toward superficial judgements against any belief of practice that differs from our own; only through a relativistic approach can one observe objectively, and in context, the customs of a foreign culture.

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