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Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism

Anthropology has used the notion of cultural relativism - the idea that all cultures are equally worthy of respect and that in studying another culture we need to suspend judgment, empathize and try and understand the way that particular culture sees the world. Anthropology also seeks to dismantle ethnocentrism - the idea that one culture is superior to another and the idea that one culture has the right to impose the tenets of one’s own culture onto another culture. While these ideas remain central to anthropology, the notion of cultural relativism itself becomes problematic.

Cultural relativism is not universal. Many cultures around the world believe that their beliefs, practices are in fact superior to that of others. Many cultures' own name for themselves means “human” or “people” meaning that other people are not. In adopting the notions of cultural relativism and using it in relation to other cultures are we being ethnocentric? If you don't use the notion of cultural relativism are you supporting rampant ethnocentrism?

Let’s suppose we agree that although cultural relativism is not universal it is crucial in order for different people in this multicultural world to get along with each other. What do you do in the case of a culture whose basic tenets involve notions of superiority over other cultures, hate, discrimination against and destruction of other people either inside or outside the group? Think of the basic tenets of groups like the Aryan nation’s subculture in the US for example. If you embrace cultural relativity in this case you are actually supporting the tenets and beliefs of culture - in this case, racism. The US allows the freedom of any belief and punishes specific behaviors that are violent or discriminatory against other groups. There is a basic contradiction here, since culture is the patterns, beliefs, values that guide our behavior. If you teach racism, violent behaviors against other groups will occur.

Hagish says that if you tolerate anything and everything then it paralyzes change and the need to judge and evaluate some particular aspects of a culture, which may be negative for particular groups, people in those groups, based on a hierarchy of values where the most important value predominates. On the other hand who are you to judge and evaluate? Whose notions of right and wrong are being imposed here? This can also become a forum for rampant ethnocentrism.

Even if there are some basic tenets upon whom a group of cultures agree are important - for example the notions of human rights - these are always going to be applied and manipulated according to specific agendas and interests. Not all cultures are treated equally or with equal respect. For example if the US is taking the position of the guardian of Western democracy and human rights, why did the US jump into the Gulf war and hasn't intervened at all in East Timor? Economic interests, political agendas, personal views influence the way all cultures and individuals act.

Although cultural relativism may be the ideal, in practice particular agendas do predominate. On the other hand many Indigenous people (ethnicities) in Latin America have appealed to human rights organizations in order to stop the discrimination, land usurpation and violence practiced against them by the nation states in which they live. They have adopted the notion and language of human rights. Take for example the Mapuche from southern Chile and their claims to the United Nations commission on human rights.

Cultures are always contested. Some individuals and groups within a culture dissent with the tenets of their own culture. Some individuals have also adopted values and beliefs of other cultures and incorporated it as their own. For example capitalism. So when cultural relativism is saying it respects and tolerates the tenets of that culture, whose culture are we taking about? What happens when there are internal conflicts in a culture, different values and beliefs? Some more traditional, others newer.

Think about practices that have had traditional value in creating notions of womanhood and beauty for example: Foot binding in China and Peru, Female Circumcision in some parts of Africa. That has become contested within that culture. Some women embrace them, others want change and are looking for alternative ways in which to “become a woman” (initiation ritual) or to be conceived as a woman in that culture. If we are only taking into consideration the more traditional values and not the way cultures are today with their contested identities, values and beliefs we are being ethnocentric. Understanding a culture requires understanding it internal controversies too.

Anthropology is always political. Initially anthropologists believed that they could go and study another culture and not have any effect on the people they study. This is impossible. We have an effect on them; they have an effect on us. Although we go to learn and assume a non-judgmental position or embrace their beliefs, practices and way of understanding, just our presence there does make them aware that there are other ways of understanding. Furthermore, who you are, what group you study, what families you live with, the people you make friends with all have political consequences.

Take for example my work with Mapuche shamans in southern Chile who compete with each other and accuse each other of witchcraft. It is impossible to work with rival shamans. If you respect their systems of understanding and way of seeing the world you will have to choose. It is not possible to be neutral. Also the Mapuche are divided politically. Some support previous military dictator Pinochet and include him in their prayers, others had families and friends who were tortured or killed by him. Families will make you choose "either me or them". And by choosing one over another your work, even though mainly descriptive is going to give a particular perspective.

The way you write, where your work is published and who reads it is also political. Is the work published in Chile where shamanism is still illegal medicine and people remain divided politically? What effect wills you work have on the way shamans or the Mapuche in general are perceived in that country? Think of the larger political consequences. The particular case of Chagnon comes to mind. He wrote about the Yanomami and their warring practices. After reading the work the government of Venezuela decided that these “warring people” were barbarians and therefore their culture deserved no respect. Their land is being given over to other people. We need to be careful about how we do our work and think about the consequences of it from many different angles.

Finally, what do the people you study get from you working there? If this is to be a reciprocal process of sharing and understanding and you are collecting information, which is valuable to you, you owe them something back. Some people want material goods, others want personal favors, commitment to political endeavors, help in developing certain projects, all which require that the anthropologists step out of their neutral role. Again there is a debate on how far the anthropologist should go in this process and its wider implications.


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