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Cultural Relativism can be defined as a concept whereby cultural norms and values derive their meaning within a specific social context[1] . The idiom “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is a simple means of summarizing the concept, however it implies action, whereas the history of the term relates to observation[2] . The principle was established by anthropologist Franz Boas in the early 20th century, and was popularized by his students[3] . From an academic point of view, this is, and should be, the sole intention of cultural relativism, as it is a fundamental tool for social scientists, by which they can learn about and understand another culture, and subsequently share such knowledge and observation[4] .

For example, Western cultural norms include monogamy, care for the elderly, and sanctity of life. In contrast, Eskimo are to the contrary, with polygamy, elder abandonment to the elements (certain death), and an infanticide[5] . As a cultural observation, these are certainly differences, and relative to each. However, when the question of which practice is right comes into play, it changes the application of the theory.

Ethical Application & Criticism

Despite its anthropological origins, cultural relativism has gained prominence as an ethical theory, however not without significant criticism[6] . The core issue lies in applying a theory of observation and understanding to one of right and wrong, with the relative culture serving as the measure of appropriateness. As it is not the intended purpose, this ethical interpretation is inherently flawed[7] , resulting in a confused doctrine with semantic ambiguities[8] .

Applied in this manner, cultural relativism states that there is no singular truth on which to base ethical or moral behavior as our interpretations of truths are influenced by our own culture[9] . Modifying our idiom, you could say that Whatever the Romans do in Rome is ethical and acceptable because that’s what they do there (and we have no right to judge them on it). Viewed in this manner, it shares the position with moral relativism that there is no absolute or universal set of values or principles that can be used to judge human behavior – what is acceptable is judged by the culture in which the actions take place, and cannot be viewed out of that context.

Cultural relativism is a normative ethical position, rather than a prescriptive one. That is to say, rather than prescribing what ought to be done in a specific situation, it merely describes how people behave in that situation, [10] as dictated by the accepted norms.

With moral behaviour being relative to (conforming with) a learned set of cultural norms rather than being relative to the actions of the individual, Cultural relativism differs from moral relativism[11] . In this sense it considers moral behavior to be historically and contextually situated. However one criticism dismisses this notion, as cultures evolve and change, as do the subsequent norms[12] . For example, slavery was once acceptable in western cultures, but that is no longer the case. Therefore, cultural relativism can be questioned based on its foundation of a changeable set of norms[13] .

As the basis for cultural relativism is the observation that different cultures have different sets of norms and values that govern behaviour in their culture. This is in contrast to universalism that holds the position that moral values are the same for everyone. Cultural relativists consider this to be an ethnocentric view as the universal set of values proposed by
Universalists are based on their set of values[14] . Cultural relativism is also considered to be more tolerant than universalism as, if there is no basis for making moral judgments between cultures, then cultures have to be tolerant of each other[15] .


Cultural Relativism is heavily criticized for its focus on behavior shielded by cultural norms. For example Universalists argue that while behavior may differ from culture to culture, these are surface differences supported by moral principles that are common across cultures[16] . However, harsher criticism contradicts this notion, warning that for Cultural Relativists and Universalists alike, assuming cultures have commonalities is willfully ignorant [17] .

What Cultural Relativism does provide is a lens through which to view two certainties, as summarized by Rachels[18] :

  1. There is inherent danger in assuming an absolute rational standard defines our preferences; they are a product of our society.
  2. Being aware of what produced our preferences, we should keep an open mind to those that differ.

It should be noted that criticism of cultural relativism lies with the ethical interpretation of the theory, not with the root anthropological premise of observation, despite the apparent synonymy.

  1. ^

  2. ^ Johnson T. Cultural Relativism: Interpretations of a Concept. Anthropological Quarterly [serial online]. Summer2007 2007:791, 802. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 19, 2013
  3. ^

  4. ^ Barnard, Alan; Spencer, Jonathan. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2011. http://msvu.eblib.com.www.msvu.ca:2048/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=465404 (accessed September 19, 2013)
  5. ^

  6. ^
    Tilley, J. J. (2000). Cultural Relativism. Human Rights Quarterly, 22(2), 501-547.
  7. ^ Barnard, Alan; Spencer, Jonathan. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2011.http://msvu.eblib.com.www.msvu.ca:2048/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=465404 (accessed September 19, 2013)
  8. ^ Nowell-Smith, P. (1971). Cultural relativism. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1(1), 1. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1300110553?accountid=12617
  9. ^
    Zechenter, E. (1997). In the Name of Culture: Cultural Relativism and the Abuse of the Individual. Journal of Anthropological Research, 53(3), 319-347. Retrieved September 27, 2012 from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3630957
  10. ^
    Philosophy 302: Ethical Relativism. (2001). Retrieved September 27, 2012 from: http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/relativism.html
  11. ^
    Moral Relativism. (n.d). Retrieved September 27, 2012 from: http://www.moralrelativism.info/index.html
  12. ^ http://faculty.uca.edu/rnovy/Rachels--Cultural%20Relativism.htm
  13. ^ http://faculty.uca.edu/rnovy/Rachels--Cultural%20Relativism.htm
  14. ^

    Tilley, J. J. (2000). Cultural Relativism. Human Rights Quarterly, 22(2), 501-547
  15. ^ Tilley, J. J. (2000). Cultural Relativism. Human Rights Quarterly, 22(2), 501-547
  16. ^

    Kim, Hyo-Sook,(2005) “Universalism Versus Relativism in Public Relations” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 20 (4), p 333- 344
  17. ^ Moore, D. (2011). Cultural relativism. Marine Corps Gazette, 95(10), 24-27. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/900194605?accountid=12617
  18. ^