Definition of Cultural Relativism in Sociology

How Breakfast Foods and Rules About Nudity Help Explain It

breakfast food on plates
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Cultural relativism refers to the idea that the values, knowledge, and behavior of people must be understood within their own cultural context. This is one of the most fundamental concepts in sociology, as it recognizes and affirms the connections between the greater social structure and trends and the everyday lives of individual people.

Origins and Overview of Cultural Relativism

The concept of cultural relativism as we know and use it today was established as an analytic tool by German-American anthropologist Franz Boas in the early 20th century.

In the context of early social science, cultural relativism became an important tool for pushing back on the ethnocentrism that often tarnished research at that time, which was mostly conducted by white, wealthy, Western men, and often focused on people of color, foreign indigenous populations, and persons of lower economic class than the researcher.

Ethnocentrism is the practice of viewing and judging someone else's culture based on the values and beliefs of one's own. From this standpoint, we might frame other cultures as weird, exotic, intriguing, and even as problems to be solved. In contrast, when we recognize that the many cultures of the world have their own beliefs, values, and practices that have developed in particular historical, political, social, material, and ecological contexts and that it makes sense that they would differ from our own and that none are necessarily right or wrong or good or bad, then we are engaging the concept of cultural relativism.

Examples of Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism explains why, for example, what constitutes breakfast varies widely from place to place. What is considered a typical breakfast in Turkey, as illustrated in the above image, is quite different from what is considered a typical breakfast in the U.S. or Japan.

While it might seem strange to eat fish soup or stewed vegetables for breakfast in the U.S., in other places, this is perfectly normal. Conversely, our tendency toward sugary cereals and milk or preference for egg sandwiches loaded with bacon and cheese would seem quite bizarre to other cultures.

Similarly, but perhaps of more consequence, rules that regulate nudity in public vary widely around the world. In the U.S., we tend to frame nudity in general as an inherently sexual thing, and so when people are nude in public, people may interpret this as a sexual signal. But in many other places around the world, being nude or partially nude in public is a normal part of life, be it at swimming pools, beaches, in parks, or even throughout the course of daily life (see many indigenous cultures around the world).

In these cases, being nude or partially nude is not framed as sexual but as the appropriate bodily state for engaging in a given activity. In other cases, like many cultures where Islam is the predominant faith, a more thorough covering of the body is expected than in other cultures. Due in large part to ethnocentrism, this has become a highly politicized and volatile practice in today's world.

Why Recognizing Cultural Relativism Matters

By acknowledging cultural relativism, we can recognize that our culture shapes what we consider to be beautiful, ugly, appealing, disgusting, virtuous, funny, and abhorrent. It shapes what we consider to be good and bad art, music, and film, as well as what we consider to be tasteful or tacky consumer goods. (See the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu for ample discussion of these phenomena and the consequences of them.) This varies not just in terms of national cultures but within a large society like the U.S. and also by cultures and subcultures organized by class, race, sexuality, region, religion, and ethnicity, among others.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Definition of Cultural Relativism in Sociology." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2018, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2018, February 5). Definition of Cultural Relativism in Sociology. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Definition of Cultural Relativism in Sociology." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 17, 2018).