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While the word “culture” was first used in 1877 by Edward Tylor to describe the totality of humans’ behavioral, material, intellectual, and spiritual products, it was Franz Boas who gave the term one of its most distinctive elaborations. Unlike some other anthropologists (e.g., Malinowski), Boas refused to devalue cultures regardless of how primitive they might appear to outsiders. For Boas, the principal task was to describe accurately and understand completely the cultures of the world, not to rank them from good to bad. Students of Boas, especially Benedict and Herskovits, carried on his legacy, especially his commitment to cultural relativity. They adopted cultural relativity as a principal way to generate respect and tolerance for human diversity, while defending indigenous peoples from threats to their collective and individual well-being.
Sociocultural relativism is a postulate, a method, and a perspective. One implication of the postulate of relativity is that actions and attributes vary from time to time, place to place, and situation to situation. If anything real” or objective” exists in the social world, it is the intrinsically situational nature of both rules and reactions and the dynamic, negotiated nature of social order. A second implication of the postulate of relativity is that collective definitions of actions and attributes are elastic and also vary from time to time, place to place, and situation to situation. Things that are mightily upsetting to one generation may be trivial to the next (or vice versa), and a particular trait of an individual can be admired by friends but despised by enemies (Goode 2001: 37). The concept of relativism is based on the fact that at certain times and places, acts and attributes that an outsider might find distressing or wrong are not defined as such by individuals living in those times or places. Socio-cultural relativism is a method, too. It demands an actor-relevant approach in which social scientists take the role of their subjects and understand the world through the subjects’ eyes. While this does not guarantee freedom from ethnocentrism, it does make this bias less likely. In Goffman’s (1961: 130) words, the awesomeness, distastefulness, and barbarity of a foreign culture can decrease to the degree that the student becomes familiar with the point of view to life that is taken by his [her] subjects.” Sociocultural relativism requires that you put yourself in the shoes of another, maybe even an adversary’s, in order to understand why someone might wear those shoes at all.
Sociocultural relativism is also a perspective, as it is possible to find relativism or nonrelativism in human experience depending on how an observer’s eye is slanted. If you are looking for vacillation, drift, and indeterminacy, they are easy to find in this constantly changing, multiplex world of ours; if, however, you are looking for stability and constancy, you can find them, too. Not all sociologists consider themselves relativists, but all sociologists must wrestle with the ethical, philosophical, logical, theoretical, and empirical issues that surround a discussion of sociocultural relativism.
Respect for diversity must be tempered with the knowledge that some conditions can neither be easily overlooked nor dismissed as an example of the equivalency of human cultures. We have neither a convincing moral code that can be applied to all places and times nor any theory that makes it possible to understand human experience separate from its social context. Nonetheless, situations will be found in which it is impossible to maintain an attitude of indifference. Sociocultural relativists do not have to believe in the absolute equivalency of values, norms, or customs and blindly accept whatever they find. Romanticizing diversity blunts our ability to recognize the genuine tragedy, pathos, and harm that deviant social practices can produce.
A relativizing motif is a driving force of sociological consciousness, and sociologists call into question what most other people take for granted. One of sociology’s strengths is that it can make sense of groups and relationships in a world in which values have been radically relativized. Sociologists uncover and critically evaluate the pretensions and propaganda individuals use to hide, distort, or legitimize what they are doing. They shift from one perspective to another, ranging from the impersonal and remote transformations of the wider society to the inner experiences of individuals in order to understand the interconnections between the two. Sociologists participate mentally in the experiences of individuals differently situated from themselves no matter where or when they are found. Sociocultural relativism can help us to understand the experiences of people in groups and subcultures within the boundaries of any one society, as well as the experiences of people drawn from different societies and cultures.
- Goffman, (1961) Asylums. Doubleday/Anchor, Garden City, NY.
- Goode, E. (2001) Deviant Behavior, 6th edn. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
- Hatch, E. (1997) The good side of relativism. Journal of Anthropological Research 53: 371-81.