Cultural relativism

In principle, truth is not objective, so it is not possible to apply an objective standard to all cultures. Good and evil are not determined by individuals or by society. No one can say whether another is right or wrong. Everything lies in a personal opinion and no one has the right to judge another. Precisely, cultural relativism sees nothing intrinsically bad or good in any cultural form. Cultural relativists believe that all cultures are equal in value and dignity. Likewise, they consider that all cultures are equally legitimate expressions of human existence.

What is cultural relativism?

Cultural relativism is the idea that all beliefs, customs and moral principles are related to a person's social context. In other words, good and evil vary according to cultures and what is considered moral in one society can be considered immoral in another. In that sense, since there is no universal moral standard, no one has the right to judge the cultural expressions of another society.

About cultural relativism

Cultural relativism refers to the idea that people’s values, knowledge and behaviour must be understood within their own cultural context.

This fundamental concept in the area of sociology was established by the German American anthropologist Franz Boas at the beginning of the 20th century.

Cultural relativism became a valuable tool at this time to combat the ethnocentrism that existed in epochal research and was carried out mostly by upper-class whites. Such research addressed issues related to blacks or indigenous people or people of a lower social class than the researchers.

Characteristics of cultural relativism

Among the characteristics of cultural relativism, these can be mentioned:


The thesis of cultural relativism, not much defended before the nineteenth century, can be found in the ideas of Herodotus, who described the traditions and customs of the peoples he visited without making an external judgement. Likewise, Plato, in his work Teeteto, described Protagoras in a controversial way and presented man as “the measure of all things”. Protagoras believes that each individual believes what is real to him. In that sense, it can be considered as a philosophical precursor of cultural relativism, for whom each individual perceives as real what his culture perceives as real.

Cultural relativism, and consequently moral relativism, developed in the West as a result of the encounter with other civilizations. The Europeans as the dominant group had the pretense of having moral values superior to those of the new cultures they encountered.

However, anthropology development progressively reduced this perception, especially at the end of the 19th century thanks to studies in which researchers set aside their own cultural values in order to immerse themselves in other cultures and be able to understand their nature. Thus, the western world discovered different perspectives from the traditional ones, something that Montesquieu tried to illustrate through his work “Persian Letters” s and Voltaire through his stories.


Franz Boas considered that all cultural forms have the same value and that the differences that exist between different societies lie in their historical, social or geographical characteristics. For Boas, it was not true that societies went through evolutionary stages as proposed by evolutionism.


Importance of cultural relativism

From a cultural relativism position, we can recognize our cultural forms, be they beautiful, ugly, virtuous or abominable. These are what determine what we consider good and bad. This differs not only in national cultures but also in terms of subcultures organized by class, race, gender, region, religion, among others.


Written by Gabriela Briceño V.

How to cite this article?

Briceño V., Gabriela. (2019). Cultural relativism. Recovered on 23 February, 2024, de Euston96:

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