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Cultural Relativism

This is a method whereby different societies or cultures are analyzed objectively without using the values of one culture to judge the worth of another. We cannot possibly understand the actions of other groups if we analyze them in terms of our motives and values.

We must interpret their behavior in the light of their motives, habits and values if we are to understand them. Cultural relativism means that the function and meaning of a trait are relative to its cultural setting. A trait is neither good nor bad in itself. It is good or bad only with reference to the culture in which it is to function. Fur clothing is good in the Arctic but not in the tropics. In some hunting societies which occasionally face long periods of hunger to be fat is good; it has real survival value and fat people are admired. In our society to be fat is not only unnecessary but is known to be unhealthful and fat people are not admired.

The concept of cultural relativism does not mean that all customs are equally valuable, nor does it imply that no customs are harmful. Some patterns of behavior may be injurious everywhere, but even such patterns serve some purpose in the culture and the society will suffer unless a substitute is provided. The central point in cultural relativism is that in a particular cultural setting certain traits are right because they work well in that setting while other traits are wrong because they would clash painfully with parts of that culture.