The limits of cultural relativism



Four Subfields and Approaches


Compare and contrast the 4 fields of Anthropology

Discuss how anthropology bridges the sciences and humanities

Describe why any student should study anthropology

Define “ethnocentrism” and “naïve realism” and give examples of how ethnography can help us to eliminate these, in favor of a culturally relativistic approach

Anthropology: the study of human beings

Anthropology is not the only discipline to study humankind.

What makes anthropology different?

It combines four fields and bridges the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities

Anthropology’s origins coincide with early European exploration and colonialism (15th century). It was primarily the study of “others.”

The Nacirema: Making the Familiar Strange

Magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present unusual aspects that exemplify the extremes to which human behavior can go. Many people seem to be either sadistic or masochistic.

These magic ridden people love ritual activities. The focus of their ritual activity is the human body; its appearance and health, as in this society there is a strong aversion to the natural body and its functions

In every house there are shrines where they ritualize over their bodies.

Focal point of the shrine is a box or chest built into the wall in which to keep the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he/she could live.

Key figures are the medicine man, holy-mouth-man and the listener or witch doctor.

Pathological horror and fascination with mouth, which is viewed as central to most social relationships.

Private and medical mouth rites.

Special women’s rites (like baking their head in an oven)

Latipso Ceremonies led by the medicine man

Anthropology Today

Anthropologists today “are just as likely to examine cultural practices in an urban setting in the United States as to conduct fieldwork in some far-off place. However, anthropologists continue to graple with the basic questions of human diversity and similarities through systematic research within the four subfields described below” (DeCorse and Scupin 2016, 2).

The four core subfields of anthropology and applied anthropology


Figure 1.1 The four core subfields of anthropology and applied anthropology.

Biological Anthropology

“… the branch of anthropology concerned with humans as a biological species.”

Primarily based in a natural science approach.

Biological anthropologists study:

human evolution and

modern human variation

How Biological Anthropologists Work

They analyze fossils (paleoanthropology) as well as other human history in the form of historical objects.

They study other primates (primatology) for evidence of how early human ancestors may have lived, worked, and communicated

They study the range of physical variation within and among modern human populations

They study human osteology (the skeleton)

They study genetics… espcially to understand adaptation, natural selection, and evolution

Excavation of a human skull from an ancient burial.

Credit: dtopal/


Biological Anthropology

Human variation

Physical traits

Hair color, eye color, skin color

Body size



“… the branch of anthropology that examines the material traces of past societies [and] informs us about the culture of those societies – the shared way of life of a group of people that includes their values, beliefs, an norms.”

Archaeologists study human history through analysis of material culture. They may study tools, everyday items, buildings, and food waste.

How Archaeologists Work

Archaeologists study human artifacts, “the material products of former societies…”

Despite the glamourous life portrayed in popular film, archaelolgists spend a great deal of time sorting through ancient trash piles, or middens.

They perform “scientific digs” or excavations, in order to carefully uncover materials that can help us understand the past.

The Archaeological Past

Prehistoric archeologists study the artifacts of groups such as the ancient inhabitants of Europe and the first humans to arrive in the Americas. Without written documents or surviving oral traditions, the archaeological record is all we have.

Historical archaeologists study more recent societies. They work with historians to combine their research with other types of knowledge.

Classical archaeologists conduct research on ancient civilizations such as in Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Linguistic Anthropology

“… focuses on the relationship between language and culture, how language is used within society, and how the human brain acquires and uses language.”

Structural linguistics compares grammatical patterns or other linguistic elements to learn how contemporary languages mirror and differ from one another.

Can answer the question of how language shapes our thoughts and our experience of the world around us.

Historical linguistics conentrates on the comparison and classification of different languages to discern the historical links among languages.

Understanding how languages transform can help us to trace historical patterns of human migration

Cultural Anthropology

“… examines contemporary societies and cultures throughout the world.”

Cultural anthropologists use participant observation to get an inside view on a cultural group.

Cultural anthropologists call both their research and the product of their research “ethnography.”

Ethnography is a written description of a society or cultural group…. It is also a collection of fieldwork practices, including participant observation and in-depth interviewing.

Applied Anthropology

“… the use of anthropological data … to address modern problems and concerns, [which] may be environmental, technological, economic, social, political, or cultural.

Characteristics of Anthropology

Anthropologists employ a holistic approach, overlapping with psychology, economics, political science, history, and sociology

Each field draws on the other Subfields

They employ a global perspective, addressing all times and places

Anthropology as Science

Anthropologists employ the Scientific Method to evaluate their interpretations.

Research should be testable and verifiable.

Inductive vs. Deductive method

Anthropology as Humanism





This approach interprets all societies with the “soft focus” of relativism… Arts and cultures everywhere arise out of their unique contexts and have value within those contexts.

Why Study Anthropology?

Creates a global awareness and appreciation of humanity past and present.

Develops critical thinking skills by evaluating a variety of data.

Anthropological inquiry sheds light on one’s own personal situation as a human being in a particular time and place.

Using Anthropology

How did Susan Stanton use ethnography to her advantage in her position as a company manager?

In what other fields, jobs, or activities can these ideas and lessons be applied?


Written description and interpretation of a set of cultural practices (S& McC)

Also refers to the practice of various field research techniques


Ethnographic Fieldwork

A combination of research methodologies applied by anthropologists, and sometimes by people in other disciplines such as sociology and political science.

Ethnographic fieldwork usually requires very close, long term residence with the people studied.

How it began…

– Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1943)

Polish anthropologist who laid down the methods and principles of ethnographic fieldwork

Defined the goal of ethnography as to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world. “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” (Dutton, 1961 edition)

Participant Observation: what it isn’t

We don’t study people in isolated laboratory conditions.

We do not study them as detached observers.

Participant Observation

Studying humans as they are requires that we interact and participate in their lives.

The Work of the Anthropologist: Reading Culture

We do this by “reading” symbols, objects and practices prevalent in a culture as “texts”– as phenomena that are imbued with meaning, much like literary texts.

“Reading culture” is the work of analyzing and interpreting the meanings and values attached to and conveyed through symbols, objects, practices and the like.

Interpretive Anthropology and Thick Description

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), influential American Anthropologist who conducted research in Indonesia and Morocco and taught at Princeton University

Interpretation of Cultures (1973)

Geertz defined the task and work of anthropologist as producing “thick description” of cultural symbols and practices. This is inherently an interpretive act.

What is the difference between a wink and a blink?

Thick Description:“Wink” and “Blink”

A blink might be a reflex movement or might mean you have something in your eye

A wink is full of meaning. It is a form of semi-formal communication, assuming shared knowledge.


Is meant to communicate a message

Fits into a wider code of recognizable meaning

Indicates an inside knowledge between winker and recipient

Describing the rich meaning of winking is the objective of thick description, which involves the careful interpretation of observed events in a larger context

Interpretive or Symbolic Anthropology: Culture as Text

In this school, cultural anthropology is seen not as a science but as a humanistic discipline like literature

Its goal: not to discover laws of predictable human behavior, but to interpret meaning in context

The interpretive approach aims to portray, interpret, imagine and appreciate humans in their richness and diversity


Reading Culture

Control of the body

Focus of activity



What does the school desk tell us?


Who are the people we work with in ethnographic research?

S&McC call them “informants,” suggesting a one-way directionality. Native “informants” teach foreign experts or scholars the rules of the culture being studied.

Most contemporary anthropologists call them“consultants,” “interlocutors,” “research associates,” “research participants,” or “collaborators.”

We don’t simply study these people, we learn from them, and we learn about ourselves in conversations across difference.

Reflexive Anthropology: Field Relations and Positionality

Challenges to the dominant paradigm of anthropology beginning in the 1960s – up steam in the 1980s

Women, scholars from the Global South, and people of color began to question the aims and modes of anthropological research

Reflexive turn begins to examine the anthropologist’s own place in the relationships that are so essential to ethnographic research

Fieldwork to gain emic perspective

Richard Lee, “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”

Lee bought the best/fattest ox as a Christmas gift to the !Kung in the Kalahari desert, only to be teased by them in return.

He later understood that the !Kung people’s reactions were directed towards “cooling his heart” and “making him gentle”– that is, fighting arrogance, leveling pride and nurturing humility.

In every generous act there is some sort of calculation.

!Kung people need to be humble, as this is key to securing the cohesiveness of the group and preventing social hierarchies, which do not work in a society that needs to share to survive

Lee is very proud of offering the !Kung a fat ox. He forgets that to kill an animal and share the meat with others is really no more than what the !Kung do for each other every day, with far less fanfare.

Insider’s Perspective: Why is it significant?

Helps us to overcome the traps of

– Naïve realism

– Ethnocentrism

Naïve Realism: “The belief that people everywhere see the world in the same way””

Laura Bohannan, “Shakespeare in the Bush”

Tells the story of Hamlet to the Tiv elders in West Africa.

A naïve realist, she believes that human nature is the same the whole world over, and that the Tiv will interpret Hamlet as her own culture does!

Hamlet can only have one universally applicable interpretation, she believes. The same for the English as the Americans. Decides to test it in West Africa.

Reading Shakespeare in the Bush

Bohannan encounters a series of interpretive complications that give her a hard time!

The elders of the Tiv interpret and re-frame the story according to their own cultural values and modes of knowledge. They undertake to teach Bohannan the “true meaning” of Hamlet.

What is the main point of this article?

– that people interpret the same thing in different ways according to the specifics of their own cultural context!

– people act and interpret actions according to their own cultural values, modes of knowing and understanding!


Based on two main assumptions:

that there is only one proper way to do things – one’s own culture’s way of doing things.

that this way of doing things is superior to all others

So, ethnocentrism means to take our own culture as the standard or norm to interpret and judge other peoples’ beliefs, values, actions.

Ethnocentrism is a profound form of ignorance and intolerance.

Examples of Ethnocentrism?

What are your family’s rules of how to eat a meal?

How do you feel about marrying you cousin?

Cultural relativism

Understanding and interpreting other people’s beliefs, actions, and behaviors within cultural context.

No behavior or belief can be judged to be wrong simply because it is different from our own.

To understand different cultural practices, for the purpose of this class, means that you try to see how they fit into a broader structure of beliefs, values, and worldview.

This does not mean that you find it harmonious with your own life…

This is not a perfect practice, but a useful exercise!

Early explorers tended to see indigenous people through their own cultural lenses, often tinged with an idea of human progress from primitive (animal-like) to more cultured:

“Many had very prominent jaws; and there was one man who, but for the gift of speech, might well have passed for an orangutan. He was remarkably hairy; his arms appeared to be of an uncommon length; in his gait he was not perfectly upright; and in his whole manner seemed to have more of the brute and less of the human species about him.”

David Collins An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales: with remarks on the dispositions, customs, manners, etc. of the native inhabitants of that country, 1798

The work of anthropologists has not been immune to



Franz Boas (1858-1942)

One of the founders of American cultural anthropology

Studied the Eskimos and the Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast.

Argued that each culture should be analyzed in its own terms (cultural relativism); and one could not really understand a culture without having direct access to its language.

Worked to undo “scientific racism”



Questions to think for this week

What are the limits of cultural relativism?

Try to think of some examples of situations or “intercultural encounters” where cultural relativism is undesirable or impossible. Please post a discussion post or response in a thread on “Limits of Cultural Relativism.” (Whoever wants to get it started, please go ahead!)

Make sure to Quiz 1 before Thursday at 11pm.

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