Preliminary Meanderings on Cultural Relativity

The other night I had an interesting conversation with my dad, a doctor and professor at the University of Pennsylvania (soon moving to Johns Hopkins) and brother, a first year MD/PhD student at Temple University.  Buzzing out while my brother quizzed my father on first year medical school knowledge from some home-made flashcards, I ruminated on the conversation we had the previous evening about brain development, psychology as a discipline in the West trying to become more “scientific”, and how culture shapes people’s worldviews and understandings of the meaning of things.  We noted that the attempts of psychology and psychiatry to become more rigidly “scientific”, and insist that everything has a biological origin in the brain regardless of culture, has the potential to be highly problematic.  This is because it could shut out the possibility of examining the ways in which culture and environment might shape those very biological functions.  For me, this is an area of immense interest as I attempt in my intellectual and philosophical growth to wrestle with the creation of a conceptual model in which one may understand how to navigate and interpret cultural differences.

Little brother quizzes Dad

The concept of cultural relativity as it relates to areas such as human rights and “development” has been nearly constantly floating around in my mind for years now.  There seem to be a number of dots to connect, and I simply haven’t been able to articulate what the dots are, never mind try and connect them.  I have struggled with the concept of “development”, as it implies a ladder of progress akin to the one laid out in modernization theory where those living in “developing” countries, and their societies, are somehow inferior to those living in “developed” countries.  I’ve also struggled with the argument that the human rights framework is based largely on Western values and Western legal traditions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the UN General Assembly at a time when its membership consisted of just 57 countries, at the exclusion of non-members, colonies, and other territories. After the Declaration was passed, the American Anthropological Association criticized it as a “statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America.”  While I think it’s valid and important to point these things out, I also think the West can’t claim a monopoly on the idea of universal rights or the concept’s antecedents.

To take one example, one of the earliest instances of a regional set of protections that applied to all residents regardless of race, tribe, gender, or religion was the Constitution of Medina in medieval Arabia, circa 622 CE. The contributions of the Middle Eastern Muslim scholars to the European Enlightenment in terms of science, medicine, education, scholarship, and the preservation of classic Hindu, Greek, and other texts, inter alia, are often overlooked. Early Islam also helped lay the foundations for frameworks such as natural rights and human rights by virtue of its scripture-based humanism. Under the Constitution of Medina ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender equality were ardently legislated.[1]

In addition, my second graduate experience included courses that made me take a serious step back and question my assumptions. Professors challenged me to ask myself how I knew what I “knew”, and challenged me to question the received wisdom of Western culture.  Not in a superficial way, but in way that made me realize how I took my own culturally-shaped values and outlook for granted.  This was perhaps most astounding to me in terms of thinking differently about gender issues such as the practices of bridewealth exchange and female circumcision.  What I thought were clear and simple human rights battles turned out to be complex ethical and legal dilemmas saturated with cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations.  Less controversially, I also became elucidated as to the subtlety of lingual translations, and the way language and culture together, along with history and religion, shape meaning.

All of this makes it nearly impossible for me to untangle the concept of universal humanity.  So, what is it that’s the essence of “human”, and what is shaped by culture?  “I think I know what I’m trying to figure out,” I interrupted my dad and brother.  I explained my thoughts, ending with the assertion that what I want to do is try and determine what’s universally human and what’s culturally determined.  Simple.  Well, not a simple task, but simple as a concept.  My dad pointed out that Abraham Maslow already kind of did this with his hierarchy of needs model.  I said yes, but how do I know he was right?  What were his own cultural biases and did he take them into account? What are my own biases and how can I account for them in my own attempts to create a conceptual model?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

We then got onto the subject of education, and schools, and for a moment there was a bit of friction over the concept.  My dad said, “I’ll tell you what has been shown.  Where girls are educated, there are fewer health problems and lower fertility rates.”  I temporarily set aside my discomfort with the idea that lower fertility rates were unquestionably a “good” thing.  I noted that there is a fixation with both the physical and metaphysical structures of “schools” and an assumption that without them, or without the students-gather-in-one-place-and-teacher-teaches structure, there is no education.  I said my point is that people talk about poor, “developing”, places or places affected by disaster or conflict as though they’re blank slates, with no politics or history.  My point is that there are educational systems that make sense in the local context already there, or at least concepts that are organic to particular places.  Our concept of school is not even that old, and came from the Prussian attempt at social organization for the purposes of ensuring a complacent and obedient citizenry, as John Taylor Gatto explains in his excellent article “Against School.”  I said you can’t just take your idea of what education is and try and force it on people who already have their own idea of what education is.  My dad said, “of course.”  So what do health and fertility look like in places where girls are educated, but not schooled?  Can there even be an objective definition of what it is to be “educated”?

I declared that there can be no moral absolutes, no pristine right and wrong with no exceptions, and that everything is nuanced and context-driven.  But this is essentially esoteric and philosophical—there has to be right and wrong in real life, even if it is context-driven. There has to be a set of attributes, needs, and functions that make human beings human beings.  It follows, then, that—despite the fact that the idea of individual “rights” as we think of them are the product of particular historical and cultural experiences—a truly universal rights framework could be established.  (This also putting aside momentarily the Western legal tradition that shapes the current framework.)  While in philosophy and even academically you can certainly argue about these things forever from safe, inconsequential places, there comes a point when there are real life consequences and implications, and sometimes people’s lives are at stake.  If there is such a thing as being human, then there must be something that makes us human; something universal.  There then has to be concrete human needs, and potentially a foundation with which to work with to better assess when something is unjust or “wrong” even taking into account cultural relativity, even if such a set of principles was highly context-specific.  My dad laughed and said I should be glad that Wittgenstein wasn’t there or he’d be waving a red hot poker at me.  Ha!

I should have taken notes during this conversation, because I can’t seem to remember much else.  After we brought the discussion to a slow, I said to my brother, “I should have live-tweeted that conversation!”  My plan is to take the questions I’m still left with—what are the dots and how can I describe them, then connect them—and continue posting bits and pieces of the puzzle.  I welcome comments, arguments, disagreements, thoughts, criticisms, etc., as the more I can broaden the discussion the more I might come to new and different conclusions through ideas and discussions I might not otherwise have had.  I hope, in the near future, to post a clearer outline of what I’d like to accomplish—just for my own intellectual clarity and, as my brother would attest to the importance of, to establish my own internal conceptual framework.  Right now that’s something I’m lacking, mostly because I have yet to explore some of these complex issues.  These initial meandering thoughts are just a drop in the ocean.

[1] Amyn B. Sajoo, “The Islamic Ethos and the Spirit of Humanism,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 8 No. 4, Summer 1995, p. 582.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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7 Responses to Preliminary Meanderings on Cultural Relativity

  1. Pingback: We Are Red Macaws « Usalama

  2. Emily Cavan says:

    Hi Carol,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog! Just finished reading your post and it brings up all kinds of interesting points and questions for me, too. I have to admit (and I realize this probably wasn’t the real point here) but I loved the photo of your little brother and Dad in your living room having this discussion. I loved it as much as I loved any of the other parts of the post, primarily because it alone summarizes so much about the culture that you (maybe? I’m assuming) and I, too, grew up in. Traveling has made me question so many things about how I understand the world – to as simply a degree as what did the types of material things that were around me while I was growing up do to shape what I think of and know of the world, of its plasticity? of its durability? of its responsiveness to my impulses? If you haven’t already looked at it, you’d probably be interested in the post I wrote about development (Who Are We Developing in Development Aid). Something that has struck me about development aid is how so few of the people working in it know anything of the most basic parameters of the lives of their beneficiaries – like, extreme poverty, for example. I mean, forget ‘culture,’ just talk about the basics of how we understand security (and here comes Maslow again) and our ability to influence it in our lives. After the earthquake in Haiti there were so many hands-on, ‘rougher’ people down here working – people who actually knew how to build houses and operate heavy machinery and install water drainage systems: totally unsexy work that was totally required. And they totally did not get along with the majority of long-termers in most of the NGOs because they represented far more than a different skill set – they represented a different social class and all that comes with that. It was fascinating to watch the tension and crackling interactions and arguments about whether getting data to put in the report to send to the donor was more important or getting out and constructing more things, data or no, was.

    Anyway, I’m getting on a soapbox now so I’ll stop! 🙂

    Thanks for this post and will look forward to reading your other writing!



    • Carol says:

      Thanks so much Emily, for some truly excellent comments! You raise some really great points, and bring up some things that had never even occurred to me. For example I never thought to consider the social tensions between the longer term expat aid worker and the skilled manual labor worker.

      What I really liked about your post ( was this framework of different versions of reality– that really resonated with me (and yes, I think our realities growing up were probably very very similar).

      I also was a bit shaken up, the more I studied development work and humanitarian aid, to learn just how spoiled a lot of expat workers are, insisting on nice hotels and the like when the people they were supposed to be there to help were living in camps. It was really disillusioning, just because I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “But how can you help someone if you don’t understand their reality?” I mean maybe that’s kind of a naive question because one can’t ever *totally* understand another person’s reality; but I thought you can at least make an effort. It’s one reason Alpha Konare inspires me; he went undercover to spend a few days in a refugee camp in Darfur just to get a sense of what they were going through.

      Anyway, I look forward to more back and forth with you– I think you and I are on the same page on this idea that it’s critical to keep in mind that there are different versions of reality and that your own version of it– whoever you may be– colors the way you see others and the places they live.

      I’ll definitely check out Who Are We Developing in Development Aid (I can already tell by the title I will enjoy it) and look forward to reading more of your blog as well.


  3. Dana Hall says:

    Reading your blog made me think of something that has had me stumped for weeks now. Baby Monroe started biting. Like if he doesn’t get his way, or Big Monroe or I do something he doesn’t like, he comes at us totally preparing to bite the shit out of us. I have NO idea where he learned this. He doesn’t hang around with other children his age often, and the ones he does see don’t bite, and Monroe and I certainly don’t go around biting each other or him. It seems like it just came naturally to him.
    Now because it is incredibly unacceptable, we have been teaching him not to bite and have pretty much nipped it in the bud (phew!). It is still so crazy to me how we had to un-teach him how to do something kinda violent that we never taught him to do. I always assumed that stuff like that was learned. You know, that humans weren’t born with actions like that in their instincts. Interesting.
    Also, my bachelors degree major is instructional design, so my last couple of courses have focused alot on what learning is and how adults and children learn (similarities and differences) so I enjoyed reading your thoughts on education and learning. There are so many ways to learn. I think the way whether or not you have learned something is measured in what you do or say after you have received the information. If you change your behavior or language, then you have learned something. To what extent will be different but that is pretty much the idea. So if one kid learns how to say no to drugs by acting out a scenario in which he does so, and another kid learns how to say no by being told to do that by his teacher in front of the classroom, and another kid learns to say no to drugs because a member of their family was addicted to drugs-they have all learned the same thing in a totally different way and they have all been educated on it too.
    Very excited to see your conceptual model in completion!

  4. ansel says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for this blogging this line of thought – good material to ruminate on as we begin another year.

  5. Jacob Clere says:

    Development is unquestionably a value-loaded term. Personally, I take solace in Amartya Sen’s notion of “development as freedom.” Expanding human capabilities seems a rational, laudable objective. Cultural relativism is a concept constructive for contemplation but dangerous for those seeking absolutes. Perhaps, this is obvious, but I know from years of studying anthropology that the temptation to succumb to relativist arguments has a tendency to render impotent actual action. After enough internal contemplation, all courses of action seem to be wrong. And, they all are. Action helps and hinders – our choice about how and what to value will ultimately be the inescapable product of our own cultural background and biases. Biology – sure, I think certain primal truisms can be taken as fact. Ultimately, I still wrestle with all of these questions, as you seem to. However, I have decided that the quest for absolute answers on questions of cultural relativity is necessarily Sisyphean. Anyhow, kudos to you for a well-written, immensely thoughtful rumination. It certainly got me thinking.

    • Carol says:

      Thanks Jacob, for a really thoughtful comment and kind words. I totally agree and hope to keep exploring these issues here!

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