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Relativism vs. Development


Relativism is the idea that views are relative to differences in perception and consideration. There is no universal, objective truth according to relativism; rather each point of view has its own truth.

The major categories of relativism vary in their degree of scope and controversy. Moral relativism encompasses the differences in moral judgments among people and cultures. Truth relativism is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture (cultural relativism). Descriptive relativism seeks to describe the differences among cultures and people without evaluation, while normative relativism evaluates the morality or truthfulness of views within a given framework.

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.

It was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and later popularized by his students. Boas first articulated the idea in 1887: “civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes”.

The first use of the term recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary was by philosopher and social theorist Alain Locke in 1924 to describe Robert Lowie’s “extreme cultural relativism”, found in the latter’s 1917 book Culture and Ethnology. The term became common among anthropologists after Boas’ death in 1942, to express their synthesis of a number of ideas Boas had developed. Boas believed that the sweep of cultures, to be found in connection with any sub species, is so vast and pervasive that there cannot be a relationship between culture and race. Cultural relativism involves specific epistemological and methodological claims. Whether or not these claims necessitate a specific ethical stance is a matter of debate. This principle should not be confused with moral relativism.

Some people worry that the concept of culture can also be abused and misinterpreted. If one culture behaves one way, does that mean all cultures can behave that way as well? For example, many countries and international organizations oppose the act of whaling (the fishing of whales) for environmental reasons. These environmental organizations say that there are not many whales left and such fishing practices should be stopped. However, other countries argue that whaling is a cultural practice that has been around for thousands of years. Because it may be part of a country’s oceanic culture, this country may say that such a cultural practice should not be opposed based on cultural differences, say, by an inland country that does not understand. Who gets to define what a moral cultural behavior is? Is whaling immoral? Two different cultures may have very different answers, as we saw in the above example. Another more extreme instance would be female genital cutting in some parts of the world. Locally, it is argued that the practice has cultural roots, but such a practice has raised concerns among many international human rights organizations.

Anthropologists say that when we think about different cultures and societies, we should think about their customs in a way that helps us make sense of how their cultural practices fits with their overall cultural context. For example, having several wives perhaps makes economic sense among herders who move around frequently. Through such an understanding, polygamy makes cultural sense.


One of the challenges facing organisations today is creating a culture of learning that encourages employees to increase their knowledge, develop their skills and enhance their performance on a continuous basis, not just once or twice a year. Yet, organisational L&D programmes are falling short when it comes to creating a learning culture that reflects how people learn in today’s workplace.

More Features

  • The challenges of matrix management
  • Overcoming noisy communication​
  • The challenge of free will
  • Keeping abreast of change

It is becoming more apparent that HR and L&D professionals need to approach learning in new and different ways. There is no place now for forcing employees into an outdated model of what learning should look like – such as sitting in a classroom for days on end.

For a variety of reasons, economists have avoided getting too closely involved with the concept of culture and its relationship to economic development. There is a general acceptance that culture must have a role in guiding a population along a particular path, but, as Landes (1998) points out, a discomfort with what can be construed as implied criticism of a particular culture has discouraged broader public discourse.

The role of culture in economic development is not an easy subject to get a handle on. To start with, one faces issues of definition. The more all-encompassing the definition, the less helpful it tends to be in explaining patterns of development. Economists tend to narrowly define culture as “customary beliefs and values that ethnic, religious, and social groups transmit fairly unchanged from generation to generation” (Guiso, Sapienza and Zingales, 2006). This approach is largely dictated by the aim to identify causal relationships, by focusing on aspects of culture that are constant over time. Not surprisingly, some of the most insightful writing on the subject has been done by anthropologists. Murdock (1965) argues that a culture consists of habits that are shared by members of a society. It is the product of learning, not of heredity. Woolcock (2014) highlights how the sociologic scholarship has evolved to consider culture as “shaping a repertoire or ‘tool kit’ of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct ‘strategies of action” (Swidler, 1986).

A second complication is that even with a sensible definition, one would have to confront the fact that cultural identity is not fixed. Cultural change—anthropologists tell us—begins with processes of innovation, of which cultural borrowing or diffusion is by far the most common.  But it can also be precipitated by social acceptance, by selective elimination and by integration.

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