Problems with Cultural Relativism in Anthropology

Published: 2021-06-29 06:46:47
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Cultural anthropology is the study of cultural variation among people. An essential concept that professional anthropologists apply in their fieldworks is - cultural relativism - an approach to study of the nature and role of values in a culture without judgment and comparison to their own. According to the Study Guide, Smillie and Kenny state that major contribution to the study of the concept of cultural relativism can be attributed to Boas and his students, who challenged a wide-spread idea that societies are staged along a line from the most undeveloped to most "civilized." Rather, they suggested that each individual culture should be understood in terms of its unique beliefs and ideals. That is, in order to observe and understand how people live and operate in a particular culture, it is important to consider the way other view the world within the framework of their culture. A great example of this idea is depicted by Laura Bohannan in her work "Shakespeare in the bush." With an argument in mind, that human nature is more or less universal, she travels to Africa and discusses a famous Shakespeare's tragic play with native people of a tribe Tiv, expecting only slight variations in its interpretation accounted for discrepancies in culture. To her surprise, Bohannan finds out that customs, beliefs, translations and culture have an enormous role in the perception and interpretation of Shakespeare's play and that its meaning is not as universal as she previously thought. She realizes that many concepts that are well-known and taken for granted in western society are so remote to the elders of the tribe, that they become convinced that Bohannan got the story wrong. For instance, Hamlet's uncle's succession to the throne being as a motive to kill Hamlet's father, was entirely misunderstood, since in Tiv society it is only natural for a chief's brother to take over the throne after brother's death. Many more examples described by Bohannan demonstrate that the Tiv have very different justifications for the characters' actions and motives, resulting in the plot progression into a different direction. Thus, in order to understand and speculate about others, it is important to understand human nature in the light of unique cultural customs and beliefs before passing judgment.
However, there are situations when it is difficult to suspend judgment and engage with a cultural relativist approach. Particularly, when people engage in behaviors that are harmful to individuals or when basic human rights are at stake, sometimes it is necessary to intervene and hold back cultural tolerance. On the other hand, it has been questioned whether it is ethical to impose one's beliefs and cultural standards on someone else; especially, when subjected individuals have no concerns with their controversial cultural practices. Who decides at what degree of a controversial issue an anthropologist has a right to intervene on account of human rights violation? On that note, this paper will focus on the issues of human rights violation that makes it difficult to engage in cultural relativism.
While each cultural practice, controversial or not, can be justified within its cultural content, it does not mean that it is appropriate and accepted. Take into account an international debate that has been going on over the issue of "female circumcision" discussed in the article "Searching for "Voices": Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations" by Christine Walley. In her work, Walley addresses the issue of genital mutilation by examining the debate of genital operations and offering an ethnographic explanation of clitoridectomy within cultural context of a small village in Africa. Walley then questions whether there are sufficient grounds to either intervene with humanistic intention or ignore this issue, by challenging the nature of universal human rights.

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