Cultural relativism


In principle, the truth is not objective so it is not possible to apply an objective standard to all cultures. Good and evil are not determined by people or by society. No one can say whether another is right or wrong. Everything is based on a personal opinion and no person has the right to judge another. Precisely, cultural relativism does not see anything inherently bad or good in any cultural way. Cultural relativists believe that all cultures are equal in worth and dignity . They also consider that all cultures are equally legitimate expressions of human existence .

What is cultural relativism?

Cultural relativism is the idea that all beliefs, customs and moral principles are related to the social context of the person . In other words, good and evil vary across cultures and what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another. In that sense, as there is no universal moral standard , no one has the right to judge the cultural expressions of another society.

  • What is cultural relativism?
  • Characteristics of cultural relativism
  • Story
  • Representatives
  • critics
  • Importance of cultural relativism
  • Examples

What is cultural relativism?

Cultural relativism refers to the idea that people’s values, knowledge, and behavior must be understood within their own cultural context .


This fundamental concept in the area of ​​sociology was established by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas , at the beginning of the 20th century .

Cultural relativism became a valuable tool at this time, to combat the ethnocentrism that existed in the investigations of the time and that were carried out mainly by upper-class whites. In these investigations, issues related to people of black or indigenous origin or people of a lower social class than the researchers were addressed.

Characteristics of cultural relativism

Among the characteristics of cultural relativism, we can mention:

  • The use of information gathered by investigations of the underlying value and belief systems of societies to support, based on facts, the different cultural perspectives and their state of morality.
  • The perception of culture as a flexible, plural and constantly evolving entity over different generations.


The thesis of cultural relativism, was not widely defended before the nineteenth century, can be found in the ideas of Herodotus, who described the traditions and customs of the peoples he visited without making an external judgment. Also, Plato , in his work Theaetetus , described Protagoras controversially and presented man as “the measure of all things.” Protagoras believes that each individual believes what is real for him. In this sense, it can be considered as a philosophical precursor of cultural relativism , for whom each individual perceives as real what his culture perceives as real.

Cultural relativism, and consequently moral relativism, developed in the West as a result of the encounter with other civilizations . Europeans as a dominant group claimed to have moral values ​​superior to those of the new cultures they encountered.

However, the development of anthropology progressively reduced this perception, especially at the end of the 19th century thanks to studies in which researchers put aside their own cultural values ​​in order to immerse themselves in other cultures and be able to understand his, her nature. Thus, the Western world discovered different perspectives from the traditional ones , something that Montesquieu tried to illustrate through his work Persian Letters and Voltaire through his stories.


Franz Boas considered that all cultural forms have the same value and that the differences that exist between different societies lie in their historical, social or geographical characteristics. For Boas, it was not true that societies went through degrees of evolution as proposed by evolutionism.


  • Although cultural relativism favors the understanding of other cultures, this does not imply that we should positively value or justify all their attitudes . If so, we should accept behaviors such as slavery , racism , sexism or cannibalism.
  • From the current of cultural relativism, it is not allowed to argue about what is good or what is bad , right or wrong, even when from the cultural perceptual itself, the bad of the other culture is evident. For example, from the standpoint of cultural relativism, Afghan policies about not educating women could not be condemned.
  • The beliefs and purposes of other cultures should be respected, even when they visibly violate human rights . In that case, the sense of ethics would be threatened by the absence of universal moral parameters that allow evaluating people’s behavior.

Importance of cultural relativism

From a position of cultural relativism, we can recognize our cultural forms , however they are, beautiful, ugly, virtuous or abominable. This is what determines what we consider good and bad. This varies not only in terms of national cultures but also in terms of subcultures organized by class, race, gender, region, religion , among others.


  • Cultural relativism shows, for example, how the first meal of the day, breakfast , can vary from one place to another, from one culture to another. What is considered a typical breakfast in Venezuela (arepas, empanadas, corn flour cachapas) is different from what is considered typical for breakfast in Argentina (bills, bread). Also, in some parts of the United States they eat clam chowder for breakfast, which may be strange to others.
  • The nudity is another example to illustrate cultural relativism. In many countries of the world, being naked in public places can be interpreted as a sexual attitude. But in certain cultures, being naked in public is part of everyday life as is the case in different indigenous cultures around the world.
  • In some cultures, polygamy is an accepted social and religious practice while in others, it is morally wrong to have a marital or loving relationship with more than one person.
  • Religious beliefs other than ours must be respected . These must be respected even when we do not believe in God or do not profess any religion.

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