Cultural relativism

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Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual's own culture. This principle 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."[1] but did not actually coin the term "cultural relativism."

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.

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Epistemological origins

The epistemological claims that led to the development of cultural relativism have their origins in the German Enlightenment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that human beings are not capable of direct, unmediated knowledge of the world. All of our experiences of the world are mediated through the human mind, which universally structures perceptions according to a priori concepts of time and space.

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