Cultural Relativism vs. Ethnocentism - which is more objective?

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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 &... ... middle of paper ... ...23, No. 1. March, 1988, pp. 56-76. Available from: Stable URL: < > Jureidini, R. & Poole, M. Sociology: Australian Connections, Third Edition, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2003. Leach, E.R. ‘Polyandry, Inheritance and the Definition of Marriage’, Man, Vol. 55. December, 1955, pp. 182-186. Available from: Stable URL: < > Renteln, A.D. ‘Relativism and the Search for Human Rights’, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 90, No. 1. March, 1988, pp. 56-72. Available from: Stable URL: < > Schultz, E.A. & Lavenda, R.H. Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005. Spiro, M.E. ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 3. August, 1986, pp. 259-286. Available from: Stable URL: < >

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