Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology

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Essay Excerpt

Unlike old generals, the debate regarding cultural relativism neither dies nor fades away, as a spate of recent publications indicates (for example, Brown 1984; Geertz 1984; Gellner 1985; Hatch 1983; Hollis and Lukes 1982; Jarvie 1984; Lloyd and Gay 1981; Meiland and Krausz 1982; Shweder 1984). If the present contribution to this debate is not entirely redundant, it is because it has somewhat different aims.

The first aim of this article is to clear away some of the intellectual under-brush that has served to obfuscate some of the controversies surrounding this perennial debate. These controversies, I hope to show, have been beset by two conceptual muddles. The first derives from the frequently committed fallacy of confusing cultural relativism with cultural variability or diversity. The second derives from the fact that in contemporary anthropology there are not one, but three types of cultural relativism-descriptive, normative, and epistemological-which, because they are designated by the same term, are often conflated. These three types of cultural relativism are not merely analytically separable but historically distinct.

The second, and more important, aim of this article is to explicate the adverse consequences of epistemological relativism-arguably the dominant contemporary type of cultural relativism-for anthropological theory and research. (Spiro, 259)

About the Author

Melford Elliot Spiro (born April 26, 1920) is an American cultural anthropologist specializing in religion and psychological anthropology. He is known for his critiques of the pillars of contemporary anthropological theory--wholesale cultural determinism, radical cultural relativism, and virtually limitless cultural diversity--and for his emphasis on the theoretical importance of unconscious desires and beliefs in the study of stability and change in social and cultural systems, particularly in respect to the family, politics, and religion. Explicated in numerous theoretical publications, they are empirically exemplified in monographs based on his fieldwork in Ifaluk atoll in Micronesia, an Israeli kibbutz, and a village in Burma (now Myanmar). He was a significant figure in a series of debates overcultural relativism and postmodern theory among American cultural anthropologists in the 1980s and early 1990s, in which he consistently argued for the importance of the comparative method and the appreciation of universal cultural and psychological processes.

Spiro received his B.A. from the University of Minnesota, where he majored in philosophy, following which he studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Having developed an interest in culture theory, he explored this interest by enrolling in the anthropology department at Northwestern University, where he worked with Melville Herskovits and A. Irving Hallowell, and received his PhD in 1950. He taught at Washington University (St Louis), University of Connecticut, University of Washington, and University of Chicago before moving In 1968 to the University of California, San Diego where he was invited to found the department of anthropology. He has been professor emeritus there since 1990. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was one of the founders of ETHOS and was president of the American Ethnological Society and the Society for Psychological Anthropology.

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