Cultural relativism

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Cultural relativism is a counter-term to ethical or sociological universalism . While universalistic positions assume that there is only one universally valid ethic or sociological theory that applies to all people and situations, cultural relativism restricts the applicability of certain ethical terms and sociological categories to the culture that produced them, and considers a partial correspondence at best, but in no way a complete translation into the terms of another culture possible. However, it also sees itself as an alternative to ethnomethodology .


Cultural relativism tries to avoid an ethnocentrism that regards one's own culture as authoritative and classifies and judges all other cultures with regard to one's own worldview. It emerged as a reaction to the naturalistic thinking of the 19th century . Cultural relativism emphasizes the pluralism of cultures and postulates that cultures cannot be compared or assessed from the perspective of another culture. Certain forms of cultural behavior must always be seen in the light of the associated social, value system and cultural understanding. This should lead to a value-free and unprejudiced intercultural exchange. Accordingly, cultural phenomena can only be understood, assessed and viewed in their own context ( emic point of view). Different cultural thought patterns and behaviors are to be seen from their respective perspective as plausible and reasonable as your own.

According to Melford Spiro , three types of cultural relativism can be distinguished: descriptive, normative and epistemological .

Important representatives of cultural relativism are Franz Boas , Ruth Benedict , Margaret Mead , Ray Birdwhistell and Clifford Geertz . Franz Boas, who made cultural relativism the central premise of cultural studies research, assigns Spiro to the descriptive form.

Cultural relativistic reasoning

Dealing with concepts such as “human rights” and “market economy” shows that these can be introduced into non-Western cultural areas without being rejected, but that they can then be interpreted in a culturally relativistic way, so that their normative content reflects the values ​​of local culture approved:

The existence of human rights is recognized, but as a sign the term “human rights” is directed to different designates: In the “West” for example the right of an individual to enforce his or her right, in China for example the right of the masses, not by claiming an individual to be endangered in their stability.
The relationship between the symbol “human rights” and the interpreter is used for differentiation. This enables Chinese rulers, for example, to claim human rights themselves after years of rejecting “human rights”, but “ with a Chinese character ” (“Zhongguo tese de”).
The example from pragmatics is at the same time an example of controlling the relationship between characters by means of repeated syntactic linking of characters. It is observed here that the character pointing to the designate occurs very frequently together with a certain character serving as its attribute. The character “market economy” also appears very often in modern Chinese with the character “with Chinese characteristics”, with the aim of programming its pragmatic relationship. This relationship consists in the meaning of the sign for its interpreter, which is influenced here with syntactic means.

The - often unconscious - application of semiotics to the construction of a culturally relativistic argumentation is particularly interesting if it is used effectively in the discussion between representatives from different “cultural groups” and thereby points out commonalities in the discussion culture of the people.

Cultural relativism in criticism

The basic attitude that every cultural manifestation is plausible and justified in itself is not undisputed. As a result, values ​​such as human rights do not apply universally either. In this context, the term cultural relativism is used critically by advocates of universal human rights . The evaluation or devaluation of a culture that does not respect human rights of European character would be " racist ", "ethnocentric" and " Eurocentric " according to cultural relativism . Accordingly, one could not demand that general human rights be taken into account in every culture.

This position is in turn criticized , for example, by the German-Syrian political scientist Bassam Tibi . He argues that it is precisely racist to want to deny people the right to human rights because of the culture attributed to them by their origin. With such apodictic argumentation, cultural relativism also commits a performative self-contradiction, insofar as it wants to forbid western culture to act in the west, while it wants to allow oriental culture to act in the east: Western culture is essentially a culture of criticism in which hardly any Taboos or prohibitions of criticism would be recognized; cultural relativism should then accept this as well. In 2017, Bassam Tibi criticized “ that the cultural relativists, who regard the Enlightenment as just a European fad, are working into the hands of the Islamists ”.

On a philosophical level, the objection to cultural relativism is that the "self-application" reduces the claim of cultural relativism to general recognition ad absurdum: after all, cultural relativism itself is a norm that is only recognized within a certain culture, or, more precisely, only within certain currents of "western" culture. On the basis of its own principles, cultural relativism must reject the general validity of such a norm. On the basis of its own principles, cultural relativism cannot lay claim to general recognition. In recent ethnology, cultural relativism was therefore accused of being an ethnocentrism itself .

In the Chinese cultural area, the cultural critic Bo Yang coined the image of the “soy sauce barrel”, in which cultural influences from outside China are inserted until they have adopted a uniform Chinese taste and have lost their original core. In doing so, he illustrated what he saw as a Chinese way of assimilating concepts adopted from other cultures.

See also

List.svgfList of topics: Ethnological theories  - Overview in the portal: Ethnology


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b c Christoph Barmeyer: Pocket dictionary interculturality . V&R, Göttingen 2012, p. 105 .
  2. Bassam Tibi: Enlightenment and cultural relativism do not go well together. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung . November 29, 2017, p. 38 ( ).