Cultural relativism is a philosophical approach to cultural differences that tries not to judge other cultures based upon your own culture’s values. Instead, people are expected to suspend moral judgment of other cultures’ beliefs and practices.
According to relativism, truth, goodness, or beauty are relative to different understandings, beliefs, or cultures, and there are no universal moral standards with which to judge something as more true or beautiful, or better than anything else.
Gairdner (2008) writes that cultural relativism is relativism applied to groups of people. It means:
what is believed or practiced as true, or right, or wrong for any culture is whatever that culture believes or practices as true, or right, or wrong (p. 29).
The cultural relativist perspective stands against ethnocentrism. It defends the principle that one should not impose one’s values on the values and practices of others and judge them as right or wrong.
Origins of Cultural Relativism
The idea of cultural relativism sprang from the research and writings of Frank Boas (1887; 1901). Known as the “Father of American Anthropology,” Boas’s framework paved the way for a social science research method called ethnography.
Ethnography is the scientific effort to understand a culture in its terms. This is useful in the name of avoiding bias in research.
There is an ongoing debate among scholars between relativism and cultural universalism. In contrast to relativism, universalism emphasizes a fundamental human unity and permanent universal truths.
Cultural Relativism Examples
- Doing business with dictatorships: Western democracies have embraced cultural relativism when it comes to doing business with dictatorships. While the suppression of democratic values offends them, they still want to do business, so cultural relativism becomes convenient to endorse.
- Genital mutilation: This practice – for both boys and girls – occurs worldwide. Some cultures find it offensive while others embrace it. Cultural relativists would take a backseat and choose not to judge.
- Gender discriminating cultural conventions: Some societies enforce gender roles more than others. It is hard for liberal nations to accept the treatment of women in some more traditionalist cultures because gender equality is a core value of liberalism.
- Women’s dress codes: Enforced coverings for women has long been a touchpoint for cultural relativist debates. On the one hand, western liberals might see the practice as patriarchal, but they still respect a woman’s right to participate in their own culture’s modes of dress.
- Hand holding: Same-sex friends holding hands and walking in public, though they are not in a romantic relationship, may be frowned upon in one culture but okay in the next.
- Eating habits: The eating of animals like horse and dog are frowned upon in some cultures but accepted in others. A cultural relativist would defend each culture’s right to set their own moral rules here.
- Diverse marriage arrangements: Historically, some cultures have embraced polygamy; while today, same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted in the west. Cultural relativism would observe but not judge each culture’s approach to marriage.
- Public Breastfeeding: Suspending judgment of another culture’s approach to public breastfeeding is an example of cultural relativism.
- Child Labor: Whereas developed nations tend to see child labor as inappropriate, people in developing countries often see it as a necessity for family survival.
- Public nudity: European nations have been known to accept public nudity far more than the United States. Suspending judgment of one another’s cultures’ practices related to nudity would be an example of cultural relativism.
5 Best Examples
1. Opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
A cultural relativist may oppose the universal declaration of human rights on the grounds that it imposes Western values upon all cultures around the world.
At its 183rd session, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. International Human Rights rose over the principle of Universalism.
Accordingly, all individuals are entitled to inalienable natural rights by the virtue of common humanity, regardless of race, sex, caste, language, and religion. Universalism treats an individual as a social unit, whereas Cultural Relativism regards the community as the basic social unit (Jain, 2020).
Since 1970s, cultural relativists have begun to question and criticize the universality of human rights on the grounds that it is a Western concept and not reflecting a culturally diverse world.
Joining them are certain academics, Asian and Islamic governments, various regimes of the Global South among others (Zechenter, 1997, pp. 322-323), which claim that universal human rights are designed to extend Western imperialism.
Zechenter claims that many governments in the Global South instrumentalize relativism to suppress women and minorities, and forestall political reform at home (pp. 338-39).
2. Suspending Judgment of Female Genital Mutilation
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) refers to the removal of various parts of the female genitalia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines four types and lists a list of complications as a result of the practice, including severe pain, excessive bleeding, death, infections, sexual problems, increased risk of childbirth difficulty, and newborn death (World Health Organization, 2018).
International agencies report that it is practiced in 30 countries in Asia, Middle East, and Africa, and among migrant communities in the West stemming from practicing countries. It is a cultural practice in patriarchal and hierarchical societies, but with no religious mandate.
It is mostly the girls or young women subject to the practice as part of a rite of passage. Kalev (2004) explains that through the practice “a girl usually gains social status within her group and becomes a legitimate candidate for marriage” (p. 339). Kalev states that the Western feminist perspective condemns the practice, advocating and campaigning that it is banned (p. 340).
Supporters of FGM would not accept arguments around “right to bodily integrity” and the “right to sexuality,” considering these as part of Western colonial discourse (Gosselin, 2000).
Followed by CEDAW (the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations against Women) and the 1993 UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, FGM has been increasingly characterized as a violation of human rights.
3. Suspending Judgment of Public Breastfeeding
Public breastfeeding is considered culturally acceptable and normal in some cultures and offensive in other cultures. A person who believes it to be acceptable based on their culture’s worldview but suspends judgment of other cultures that suppress it (and vice versa), is practicing cultural relativism.
Breastfeeding is a natural way for an infant to get nutrition. WHO strongly recommends infant breastfeeding. With the Industrial Revolution, baby formulas became alternatives in industrializing societies in the West.
Over the course of the 20th century, there was unfavorable reception to breastfeeding, especially in Canada and the United States. The public started to regard it as uncultured behavior (Nathoo & Ostry, 2009).
Breastfeeding in public is common practice in different corners of the world, but is moralized and associated with sexuality in some countries.
The moralization of a health issue (e.g. weight or healthy lifestyle) may end up stigmatizing individuals not acting within the norm and compromising social cohesion (Täuber, 2018).
As a result, under the pressure of social stigma, many women feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public. This is despite the health benefits for infants who feed 8-10 times a day.
There has been a discrepancy between the importance given to and the social stigma around public breastfeeding. Recently, however, both public and legal support are on the rise in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, as well.
4. Child Labor
Child labor is widespread in the Global South, but not confined to it. Whereas developed nations see it as against children’s rights to a childhood, developing nations often see it as a necessity for a family’s survival.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 1 in 10 of all children worldwide are in child labor, or 160 million children in absolute terms (ILO, 2020). Poverty and adult unemployment force children to work in various sectors of the global economy:
“The worst forms of child labor involve children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age.”
From a universalist perspective, the UN and ILO conventions and agencies strive to eliminate the worst forms of child labor and set global standards on children’s rights.
Yet, household and children’s conditions vary in various parts of the world. Certain economic actors benefit from local variations and from the wanting protective mechanisms.
It is not only the local business that exploits children in defiance of international standards and rights. Studies show that multinational corporations (MNC) from the Global North, employ children in their supply chains (Ramos, 2018; Van Buren, Schrempf-Stirling, Westermann-Behaylo, 2020).
Despite pledges, corporations have yet to improve working conditions and eliminate exploitation of children, prevalence of which anchor MNCs to modern slavery.
5. Eating Habits
Different cultures around the world have different eating habits. For cultural relativists, no one habit is better or no diet is more delicious than any others.
Italians customarily eat marmalades and other sweet stuff at breakfast along with a cup of espresso or two. This is not a typical breakfast in Greece, Turkey, or Lebanon, although both are Mediterranean countries and share not so dissimilar a table for lunch and dinner.
In some countries, it is common to eat insects as part of the daily food and vitamin intake. Some cultures regard finishing the plate and others leaving leftovers on the plate as inappropriate behavior.
Chinese people traditionally eat noodles and peaches for celebrating one’s birthday, while in Western culture people typically eat cakes. In sweeping overgeneralizations, people from South America commonly refrain from drinking milk while many people from East Asia are reluctant to consume dairy products because of lactose intolerance.
In both Judaism and Islam, there are strict codes (Kosher and Halal, respectively) for butchering animals and preparing meat-based food. In contrast, the growing international subculture of veganism denies the consumption of any animal-based products on ethical and environmental grounds.
Kip Andersen’s documentary “Cowspiracy” portrays the environmental consequences of industrial animal agriculture.
Of course, cultural relativism is a controversial issue. On the one hand, we have the compulsion not to judge others; while on the other hand, we have a sense of universal justice and human rights.
Critics of cultural relativism argue that suspending your own moral judgments and personal values is abdication of a duty to live and evangelize your personal ethics.
Furthermore, it could be seen as eroding morality. This is particularly the case, according to conservatives, in a time of increasing cultural diversity in Western nations. A cultural relativist would have non-discriminatory immigration policies, whereas a cultural universalist would show migration preference for cultures with similar morals to your own.
As you can see, this topic is thorny: taking a stance on either side of the debate leaves you open to accusations of illiberalism, undermining morality, and even mistreatment of others.
The liberal concept of tolerance clashes with another core liberal value of “human rights”, causing cognitive disequilibrium and discomfort when trying to come to a coherent perspective on the issue.
Cultural relativism is the idea that advocates understanding of other cultures on their own terms and refraining from making value judgments using references from one’s own culture.
Accordingly, there is no absolute reference to judge truth, beauty, or goodness other than one’s own culture. What is right or wrong is whatever a culture perceives as right or wrong.
Such a principle is established as a countermeasure to ethnocentrism and to promote understanding of practices, values, and perceptions of people who are not part of our culture.
Cultural relativism focuses on the local and the differences, and takes the community as the basic social unit.
Boas, F. (1887). Museums of ethnology and their classification. Science 9, 589.
Boas, F. (1901). The mind of primitive man. Science, 13(321), 281-289.
Gairdner, W. D. (2008). The book of absolutes: a critique of relativism and a defence of universals. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Gosselin, C. (2000). Feminism, anthropology and the politics of excision in Mali: Global and local debates in a postcolonial world. Anthropologica 42 (1), 43-60. https://doi.org/10.2307/25605957.
International Labor Organization (2020). Child labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward. June 2021. Accessed October 28, 2022. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_797515.pdf
Jain, D. (2020). Cultural relativism and its influence on human rights. International Journal of Law Management & Humanities 3 (6), 1118-1131.
Kalev, H. D. (2004). Female Genital Mutilation and Human Rights. Sex Roles, 51 (5-6), 339-348. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:SERS.0000046617.71083.a6.
Nathoo, T. and Ostry, A. (2009). The one best way?: Breastfeeding history, politics, and policy in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.
Ramos, A.K. (2018) Child labor in global tobacco production: A human rights approach to an enduring dilemma. Health and Human Rights Journal 20 (2), 235–248. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6293346/.
Täuber, S. (2018). Moralized health-related persuasion undermines social cohesion. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, (909). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00909/full.
Van Buren III, H. J., Schrempf-Stirling, J., & Westermann-Behaylo, M. (2020). Toward ethical commitment: Avoiding MNC entanglement in modern slavery. AIB Insights 20 (2), https://doi.org/10.46697/001c.13540.
World Health Organization (2018). Female genital mutilation. January 2022. Accessed October 27, 2022. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/.
Zechenter, E. M. (1997). In the name of culture: Cultural relativism and the abuse of the individual. Journal of Anthropological Research, 53(3), 319-347. https://doi.org/10.1086/jar.53.3.3630957.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]