Problems with Cultural Relativism in Anthropology

2167 Words Oct 9th, 2011 9 Pages
Cultural Relativism and Problems Associated with This Approach

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
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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":