Anthropology: Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights

Updated on August 11, 2016
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Amber MV holds a BA in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University. She writes at her blog, The Leafy Paw.

picture by kcelsner, CC0 Public Domain
picture by kcelsner, CC0 Public Domain | Source

Anthropology is the study of human cultures. It's a fun and fascinating field of social sciences that offers tremendous insight into the dynamics of our increasingly global human culture, with all its complex issues and advantages. Allow me here to introduce to you some of the foundational branches of anthropology, before we jump into the juicy questions surrounding contemporary research.

The Four Fields

The four fields of anthropological study are cultural, biological, linguistic and archeological anthropologies.

Cultural anthropology studies the cultural aspects of groups of people, such as their social, religious, and moral practices.

Biological anthropology studies the primal, evolutionary, "natural" parts of our human identity and physiology as distinct from cultural practices. This includes studying near-humans, our fellow primates and our shared fossils.

Linguistic anthropology focuses on the patterns of languages across cultures, which gives clues to our patterns of movement over time and geography, and how the earth's environments have influenced our many languages' development.

Archeological anthropology studies cultures of the ancient past, including the pre-literate cultures making up 99% of our species' history unwritten. Techniques used here are similar to research methods used in paleontology, and extends to include paleo-zoology and other interrelated fields.

Who's Looking at Who?

Anthropologists need to study diverse cultures in order to find out what we human beings all share in common universally, and what are merely our cultural differences. Unfortunately, sometimes doing such field research tactfully, with awareness of how a culture expects to be respected, can be difficult to discern before getting to know a group of people well. There are some situations where ethnographic fieldwork may, controversially, be considered damaging to a group's traditions or integrity.

One criticism of scientific methodologies is that sometimes things must be altered or destroyed in order to be studied, such as killing an insect or plucking a flower to examine it under a microscope. When a non-group person comes to learn about a group's practices, the same feeling of exposure or exploitation could happen to a private, sacred ritual or even an entire way of life. If an outsider comes in to "observe" the private lives of a culture of people, their lives may not feel so private. The potency of a ritual has been observed, and so the potency may feel altered, even if the observing researcher was initially freely invited. The very situation of one human observed by another for the sake of "objective" study can be weirdly dehumanizing, even in the best of situations. But of course, science itself is also a rare gem in the human lineage, and so anthropologists is recent decades have become much more discerning and sensitive in going about this type of research. Some propose more vulnerability on the part of the researchers, perhaps allowing themselves to undergo being the one observed by the gaze of others, putting the power dynamic back into balance.

photo by Devanath. CC0 Public Domain
photo by Devanath. CC0 Public Domain | Source

Cultural Relativism

When conducting anthropological fieldwork, there are some advantages to maintaining cultural relativism, such as striving to not be hierarchical or colonialist in one's approach. This helps us keep subjective feelings about differing experiences in perspective. However, some question whether cultural relativism is truly possible to achieve - or even consistently ethical.

There's that golden nugget of wisdom which speaks in our wisest selves that we are all human beings, the same interconnected family, and so we are all worthy of respect. Not one group is inherently of more worth or innate intelligence than the other. Therefore, keeping in mind the seriousness of universal human rights, there are some things that many people are not willing to acquiesce to cultural relativism over.

For example, I am unwaveringly opposed to female genital mutilation as practiced in some east African and Middle Eastern cultures. Defending girls and women against having their genitals horrifically mutilated—often done to small female children, without consent or anesthesia and leaving a lifetime of severe psychological damage—is far more important to me than toeing the line of “cultural relativism.” There are boundaries. To this extent I am proud to be a Westerner and remain completely and vehemently opposed to sexual torture.

Of course, most cultural differences are in no way that extreme, and so I am happy to be affirming and tolerant about nakedness, food, religious beliefs, consensual sexual practices among adults, traditional uses of mind-altering substances, or such things that could be a big deal to someone more conservative. But I do draw the line at defending human rights, standing firmly on the side of the West in opposition to any such horrendous sexual crime against children. Cultural relativism can never be an excuse for that.

photo by ekohernowo. CC0 Public Domain
photo by ekohernowo. CC0 Public Domain | Source

On the Topic of Universal Human Rights and the West...

Even with all our Western failings, I must nonetheless bring to light the fact that even our Western past has been aware of universal humanity in spite of its offenses against it. In fact, it is in our defense that we are even so self-aware and self-critical as to be now so collectively appalled at our bad historical behavior as to put so much legal and cultural effort into trying to fix it. The same can't be said of every other culture on earth: due to serious self-reflection arising from the Enlightenment era, our Western society has adopted a far more humanistic bent. From America's founding days our identity has been bound up with attempting to right our wrongs and achieve an egalitarian society, however much we stumble and fall short of the goal, as all cultures do.

On that note, I don't think it is possible to humanly achieve total cultural relativism, nor should it even be always desirable, as with the example given above. The fantasy that we in the West could redeem our historical colonial sins by getting rid of all personal reference points of morality or normalcy entirely is unnatural, self-abusive and, at worst, makes us forget what sincerely good and humane gifts the West has to give the rest of the world. In short, it's weirdly un-anthropological to think we're not allowed to have a few basic unwavering ethical standards here in the West.

For that matter, just because one culture has been historically oppressed does not mean that they are therefore now innocent in all that they do, or that others should do nothing to challenge their own human inclination toward cruel behaviors which we as a global society must confront. By holding each other accountable we partake in a universal moral call to change which recognizes as equal free agents our foreign relations.

So, Do Any Universal Cultural Values Exist?

To an extent, yes: we share many underlying themes in our human values across cultures. There is a great book on this topic called The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, that explores how concepts of morality developed in different cultures and how those dynamics still affect us today.

One example of a universal cultural value is that it is wrong to kill your parents. The rule against murder is made even more specific when it comes to not killing family members, those considered closest in kin to you and therefore interconnected with your very identity and survival. Most societies have some variant of "Do not kill humans," with exceptions for self-defense, war, political execution, infanticide, abortion, or cannibalism for survival's sake, but even all these exceptions are exactly that: life-and-death exceptions to the rule of not killing other humans around you without just cause. Murder is the ultimate anti-social thing to do, and we humans are about as social as mammals come. In every place the crime of murder, when it is recognized as legitimate and inexcusable killing, is taken very seriously. Now, what exact situation constitutes a valid exception to this rule is a more messy, sensitive and shifting issue that varies from culture to place to the amount of stress a group or an individual may be under, but the strong sentiment is nonetheless undeniably there. Every parent in their right mind instills this law in their child, do not murder humans, and arguably we are born already instinctually knowing it.

photo by sharonang. CC0 Public Domain
photo by sharonang. CC0 Public Domain | Source


O'Neil, Dennis. "What Is Anthropology: Fields of Anthropology." What Is Anthropology: Fields of Anthropology. Accessed August 09, 2016.

Pels, Peter. "After Objectivity: An Historical Approach to the Intersubjective in Ethnography." Journal of Ethnographic Theory. Accessed August 09, 2016.

Hussein, Leyla. "The Invisible Scars of FGM." Girl Effect. June 2, 2015. Accessed August 09, 2016.

"1999 Statement on Human Rights." American Anthropological Association. June 1999. Accessed August 09, 2016.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. "Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights." AnthroNotes. January 22, 1999. Accessed August 09, 2016.

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    © 2016 Amber MV


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