Cultural Relativism expresses the idea that the beliefs and practices of others are best understood in the light of the particular cultures in which they are found. The idea is predicated on the degree to which human behavior is held to be culturally determined, a basic tenet of American cultural anthropology. This is often joined with the argument that because all extant cultures are viable adaptations and equally deserving of respect, they should not be subjected to invidious judgments of worth or value by outsiders. Alternatively, some argue that since all norms are specific to the culture in which they were formulated, there can be no universal standards of judgment.
Cultural relativism in American cultural anthropology is often attributed to the critique of social evolutionist perspectives by Franz BOAS and his students, especially Ruth BENEDICT, Margaret MEAD, and Melville HERSKOVITS. Boas criticized the use of EVOLUTIONARY STAGES as the basis for organizing museum displays, arguing that exhibits should display artifacts in the context of specific cultures.
Most societies are not relativist: they view their own ways as good, other people's as bad, inferior, or immoral a form of ETHNOCENTRISM. However, the reverse is also possible, a syndrome Melford Spiro (1992b: 62 7) termed "inverted ethnocentrism," in which some anthropologists go well beyond relativism to assert that Western culture is globally inferior to Primitive or Third World cultures.
Cultural relativism as an approach can be contrasted with the search for human UNIVERSALS, the latter often grounded in claims based on such analytic perspectives as Freudian psychology, marxist political economy, Darwinian natural selection, or technoenvironmental determinism. Strong cultural relativists often see anthropology more as an art than a science and prefer to interpret symbolic meanings rather than explain social mechanisms. Clifford GEERTZ (1984b) has been an influential spokesman for this approach.
In the broader philosophical context, cultural relativism is sometimes merged with cognate forms of relativism (moral, ethical, cognitive, linguistic, historical, etc.) under the general rubric of Relativism, which is then seen in opposition to Rationalism, or occasionally, Fundamentalism (see M. Hollis & Lukes 1982). In treating the lively debates on cultural relativism in anthropology and philosophy, Spiro (1992b) discussed cultural relativism in relation to both cultural diversity and cultural determinism. Taking the existence of cultural variation as well documented, as do most anthropologists, he distinguished three types of cultural relativism descriptive, normative, and epistemological each with its attendant subtypes.
These detailed distinctions have not become conventional within the discipline. Most anthropologists remain content to distinguish the first-order methodological use of cultural relativism in anthropology from insensitive ethnocentric attempts to arrive at final ethical, moral, or scientific judgments.