Cultural relativism is a contentious methodological and theoretical stance in anthropology, which advises that cultures should only be contemplated in their own context. This was conceptualised by Franz Boas (Boas, 1904). It rests on the idea that cultures are formed through the accumulative process of enculturation. Each culture has evolved in its own circumstances, thus it cannot be judged from a different framework (Herskovitz, 1955). The applicability of cultural relativism when it was founded has become divergent to its use today. As the world is becoming increasingly globalised through the spread of universal morality and migration, cultural relativism is also applicable where narratives of Indigenous people are contending amongst leftover colonial sentiments. The relevance of cultural relativism will be further explored mainly through the contemporary paradigm of Indigenous Australians.
The prevailing benefit of cultural relativism is that it counteracts ethnocentrism, the process of judging a culture in comparison to one’s own subjective culture (Tilley, 2000). Ethnocentrism is a morally superior perspective; it can be used to justify cultural imperialism, racism and colonialism (Tilley, 2000). This merit of cultural relativism is evident in earlier ethnographic studies, yet it continues to act as a barrier to ethnocentric attitudes today. From my childhood in the Northern Territory, I recognise that policy developers perpetuate ethnocentric attitudes towards the Alyawarr people of the Eastern Desert. This is evident in the policies surrounding housing on remote communities. In Amplatawatja, where kinship is prioritised over personal spa...
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...aps it is not so much that Cultural relativism is no longer applicable; it is just that it is often distorted from its former intentions. The original intentions of cultural relativism are well, but today we need to focus not so much on a rigid theory and methodology of cultural relativism but a guideline, with the original intentions of reaching understanding and cooperation. Cultural relativism demands continual critique, and it should be contingent to some universal morals. Despite it’s contemporary criticisms, cultural relativism should not be undermined as an out-dated concept. Just as how Geertz wrote “anti-anti-relativism”, (Geertz, 1984) to be able to see both the merits and pitfalls of cultural relativism is an important concept to comprehend. It is thus concluded that cultural relativism in contemporary society should be practiced relatively.
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