The word has two meanings, the first moral and political, the second methodological. Methodologically, cultural relativism means that while the anthropologist is in the field, he or she temporarily suspends ("brackets") their own esthetic and moral judgements. The aim is to obtain a certain degree of "understanding" or "empathy" with the foreign norms and tastes. Morally and politically, cultural relativism means that we respect other cultures and treat them as "as good as" one's own. During fieldwork one frequently discovers that this is not as easy as it may sound.
Like any idea, cultural relativism as a moral project may be caricatured, as it often is in critical accounts. These tend to spring from one of two points of view: (1) From an e.g. nationalist viewpoint, cultural relativism may be perceived as a threat - as an acid that dissolves one's nation, culture, identity, safety. Like most anthropologists, I do not share this view, and I will not pursue it further at present. (2) In contrast, from a universalistic viewpoint, e.g. from the point of view of the Declaration of Human Rights, cultural relativism amounts to a kind of non-intervention pact with all other cultures, which denies us the right to criticize even blatant human rights violations, in the name of respect for the lifeworld of others.
In my own view, such objections may perhaps be valid critiques of moral cultural relativism, but they miss the point as far as methodological - and hence practical - cultural relativism is concerned. During fieldwork, it is essential to bracket one's own values and control one's spontaneous reactions to a number of exotic phenomena. If one does not, one will simply not learn to understand the people under study. Without such understanding, it will be impossible to establish mutual trust, which is the precondition of entering into dialogue with them. Only through such dialogue may change be attempted. Without dialogue, change is impossible. What is true of fieldwork is, in this case, also true of normal, practical life, where respect and trust form the basis of all productive relations.
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