anthropology

The timeless influence of cultural relativism on society today

Author’s note: This post is the first part of a series discussing ideas from Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists. I am looking forward to discuss cultural anthropology on this blog!


The field of cultural anthropology was born almost 150 years ago, and since then, it has been influential in today’s societal perceptions of race, gender, and class. This timeless influence has fascinated me, and I am currently reading Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century on a recommendation. As equally important as the influence of anthropology in today’s society are the roots that led it to this place. How did this field begin? How did it challenge institutional racism and supremacy?

In the 19th century, a scholar named Franz Boas was acutely aware of the inequality and supremacist beliefs present in society and scholarly beliefs at the time. In America at the time, people widely held Eurocentric beliefs that placed white Americans at the top of a racial hierarchy. “Inferior peoples”, including Native Americans, the First Peoples of Canada, and others of tribal descent were considered savage, deemed less civilized than the Europeans simply due to their different societal structure and darker skin pigment. Unfortunately, those in power had incentive to preserve the institutions that safeguarded their privilege; thus, as no one challenged these problematic views, this led to a self-reproducing mentality of white supremacy.

Yet, after Boas’s firsthand studies, he saw that some held more progressive beliefs than America did. For example, many native tribes he observed described gender as a fluid, non-binary characteristic independent from biological sex. Even in the 21st century, after thousands of published studies, researchers are finding this to be true. Therefore, Boas suggested that American society may learn a thing or two from these progressed tribes. Yet, for suggesting such a simple idea—that societies were each developed in different ways, that European societies weren’t the pinnacle of humanity—Boas received much backlash from racial theorists and environmental determinists. His work was met with disbelief and ridicule from the general public.

Through his discussions of race, culture, and language, he arrived at a new frontier: the theory of cultural relativism. At the time, America frequently judged other peoples as “alien” and “savage”, as evidenced by President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the cruel treatment of natives upon colonization. Yet, in making these claims, it ignored a simple principle of bias—as people making those critiques had been raised in an American society, they inherently judged others from a standpoint that idealized any society similar that was to theirs and critiqued any that was dissimilar. This perception-based cultural critique explained that racism was not due to objective differences between people but because of the subjective way we perceive each other.

Artwork from Wikimedia Commons

To put it simply, there’s no way for people to determine the “best” without falling into the trap of judging from their own belief systems. Thus, Boas concluded that cultural comparisons are made in relation to one another, instead of being simply true or false.

Boas continued his anthropological studies for many decades, and time and time again, he arrived at the same conclusion: The society he lived in considered itself superior to others. While the general public may have held this belief simply due to the lack of information at the time, academic racism in scholarly fields contributed to racism more subtly yet more powerfully. Due to the scholars who created theories to justify racial hatred (e.g. environmental determinism), and in doing so, academic racism provided a convenient “backbone” that ethnocentrists at the time could point towards.

Boas was truly a revolutionary in his unwavering advocacy for racial and ethnic equality. By recognizing that all societies, from tribal systems to European societies, were all human, he saw through the racial filter that many scholars had long propagated. All humans were capable of the same ingenuity and intelligence, so it followed that no one society was better than others. Now more than ever, the world needs another leader like Boas to promote equality among all humans, no matter their race, gender, or socioeconomic background.

Further reading:

Hitchens, J. (1994). Critical Implications of Franz Boas’ Theory and Methodology. Dialectical Anthropology, 19(2/3), 237-253. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/29790560

King, Charles. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Doubleday, 2019.

Tilley, J. J. (2017). Cultural Relativism. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, G. Ritzer (Ed.). DOI:10.1002/9781405165518.wbeosc176.pub2

Featured image from Wikipedia Commons

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