Although cultural relativism prior to the mid‐1950s was a construct employed by both Western anthropologists and indigenous peoples to resist European initiatives for cultural hegemony, since decolonization, the concept has been appropriated by third world bourgeois‐nationalist elites to undermine pre‐colonial rights of members of various non‐Western communities. Using the case study of homophobia in Zimbabwe, I investigate how political elites of postcolonial states are exploiting the constructive ethos of cultural relativism to persecute individuals who fall outside the socioreligious purview of “compulsory heterosexuality.” This article concludes by imploring for a critical negotiation of cultural relativism so that it transcends its current enabling relationship with oppression and once again returns to embodying a strategy for resistance to oppression, hegemony, and social injustice.
Posited at the crux of cross‐cultural feminist and international relations discourse is the question of cultural relativism. Since the conclusion of the Cold War, debates over cultural relativism have predominantly bifurcated scholars, practitioners, and policy makers into dichotomous schools of thought. Opponents of the concept, normally labeled universalists, unequivocally reject relativism and caution for its application in the construction of international norms and doctrines that endeavor to define categorical human rights. Universalists aver that there are inalienable rights affixed to every individual under all circumstances. Alternatively, there are those who espouse cultural relativism as being paramount to establishing optimal relationships among peoples and states that maintain dissimilar social creeds. Relativists assert that differences exist endemically between cultures and should be respected.
This essay amplifies the necessity of rethinking the traditional interpretation of cultural relativism. I argue that cultural relativism as a concept has been problematized by a series of postcolonial events. Unfortunately, its orthodox definition has remained unyielding. When the term first gained prominence in critical intellectual circles during the latter part of the colonial period, it was a term that embodied resistance to Western domination, and its primary agents—that is, anthropologists—acted as the medium through which indigenous narratives could be transmitted across cultures with the least risk of voice appropriation. Following the decolonization project, however, cultural relativism was utilized for purposes beyond its initial mandate. Those, then, have significant implications on a wide range of social justice concerns. This article explores some of the implications of cultural relativism through an engagement of contemporary sexual politics in a particular postcolonial state.
First, I describe how cultural relativism was conceived during Western imperialism. Here anthropologists' significant contributions to the development of the term are underscored. Then, I use a case study of homophobia in Zimbabwe to illustrate how cultural relativism has recently been employed by bourgeois‐nationalist elites as a means to sustain their privileged social positions. In sum, this analysis revisits the disputatious concept of cultural relativism and argues for defining the term within a critical framework that holistically considers questions of power and praxis.
Extending from the scholarly developments of Franz Boas and his graduate students at Columbia University in the in the late nineteenth‐ and early twentieth‐centuries, cultural relativism has gained currency as both a principle for academic field research and as the cornerstone of various social ideologies. Boas, alongside Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and other anthropologists, assisted in the cultivation of relativism's mainstream understanding, which asserts that all truths are subject to the norms and expectations of a specific culture, and that neither liberties nor value‐claims should be considered to be fundamentally inherent to human nature. As Melville Herskovits puts it, “judgments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his [or her] own enculturation.” When applied, this can certainly be a provocative assertion in debates over cultural domination and cultural superiority. Accordingly, the virtues of cultural relativism become especially salient when studying colonization.
As recognized by feminist postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak, colonization was dedicated to the shifting of parochial norms through which gender and racial paradigms were redefined so to make it coherent with the colonizer's ideology. Hence, colonization's social corollary was “interested in the seemingly permanent operation of altered normality.” Anthropologists who adhered to the ethos of cultural relativism, therein, became crucial mechanisms through which subaltern classes of this “altered normality”—or more simply, the victims of Western imperialism—could exercise limited agency and at least attempt to represent themselves in the discursive cultural dialogue transpiring within the realm of liminality; namely, the social interstices where negotiations between and among cultures manifest.
Perhaps more importantly, anthropologists have invoked the concept of cultural relativism to deconstruct myths of racial and cultural superiority. Resisting the axiological project that labels the West as norm and the Other as deviant, relativists conceived of cultures as being part of a greater global paradigm that cannot be ordered in any sort of hierarchy, but merely juxtaposed by their similarities and differences with one another. Thus, according to them, no culture should be considered better or worst than another; rather it should be understood that they each have their unique identity and that they should be equally acknowledged for their self‐worth.
Some of the best examples of cultural relativism appear in the works of Boas. While completing field research among the Central Eskimos and the Kwakiutl Aboriginal community of northern Vancouver, Boas developed some key philosophies for the social sciences. In his 1911 groundbreaking book, The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas discredits theories of racial superiority laid down by his predecessors arguing that racial—and phenotype—factors do not a priori determine the values of any society. Instead, he advocated for understanding cultures through a critical engagement with their history.
Boas was instrumental in humanizing those individuals who differed in creed with Westerners. Progressive in ideology and holding the belief that intellectual freedom advances democracy, Boas intricately carved the original perspective of cultural relativism, a perspective that was initially condemned by his colleagues, yet, has since become the cornerstone for ethnographic research. Anthropologists have indeed been crucial actors in generating cross‐cultural understanding. To fully appreciate anthropologists' contribution to relativism, it is useful to incorporate the writing of critical theorist Homi Bhabha into this discussion.
In his seminal postcolonial text, The Location of Culture, Bhabha argues that it is at sites of liminality that cultural value is negotiated. Anthropologists have been situated in these discursive liminal spaces and, in many cases, have employed their academic authority to serve as the voice of groups who they dedicate their careers to studying and who have usually been silenced in the hegemonic discourses of international affairs. That is, they have, for over a century, functioned as the mediator between the Western world and those groups that do not possess a significant presence within the global community.
As we entered the twenty‐first century, it became unequivocally clear that cultural relativism was no longer a construct to be exclusively applied as a way to comprehend human differences across global cultures. Instead, cultural relativism became a weapon in the arsenal of bourgeois‐nationalist elites that could be invoked in an effort to undercut the voice‐consciousness and degenerate the lived experiences of the masses residing in postcolonial states. This section uses the question of homosexuality in Zimbabwe as a case study to scrutinize how relativism has been usurped and misapplied.
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