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Cultural Relativity

by on June 29, 2021

Cultural Relativity

by Marco M. Pardi

The degree of tolerance attainable at any moment depends on the strain under which the society is maintaining its cohesion.” George Bernard Shaw.

We are none of us tolerant in what concerns us deeply and entirely.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Comments are welcome and will receive a reply. All previous posts are open to comment.


One of the most common misconceptions about Anthropologists is that they are open and accepting of all forms of human behavior, especially if these behaviors can be subsumed under “culture”. I have encountered this mistaken attitude in the general public as well as in college classrooms. Typical statements have been, “I would have liked to be an Anthropologist but I have certain ideas of right and wrong and I would not be able to keep my mouth shut.”

Well, readers of this site must have by now gained the impression that I, too, have certain ideas of right and wrong. The issue is not whether I have principles, it is whether I can keep those principles from influencing my observations of and conclusions about others. Certainly there have been times when I wanted to intervene and stop some culturally approved behavior. And I have always held strong opinions about certain practices. But an Anthropologist must always be mindful that he or she is almost always a guest of the population being studied. Being openly critical of practices may result in failure to gain cooperation, at best, and expulsion, at worst.

Readers know my feelings about how humans interact with and treat non-human animals. But just to balance the score sheet somewhat, I would also take strong measures against FGM, Female Genital Mutilation. But before going into a village and cutting throats among the practitioners it’s always wise to ask what’s going on. Who are the women who are cutting the clitoris and sometimes the clitoral hood out of young girls, and why are they doing it. It turns out most of the cutting is being done by the mother of the girl, a woman who has had the procedure done to her. When asked why they would do this to their own child the universal answer is, “Without it they would never be accepted in marriage.”

Now we might think freedom from being bartered into a marriage is not a bad thing. But in the majority of societies wherein this is practiced there simply is no culturally accepted status for an unmarried girl over a certain age. Her options would be: domestic slavery (not much different from marriage), if that is even possible, or leaving the society to become an eventually diseased prostitute in a large city or a rural truck hub. In other words, it’s not just mothers wanting to do to their daughters what was done to them. It’s the men in the society who think that a woman deprived of her ability to enjoy sex will not wander and thereby get pregnant with another man’s child. A female is often viewed as a domestic servant and as a brood mare, not a romantic partner. Changing this behavior, then, would take more than just forcing the women to stop; it would require a major change throughout the culture.

Although there is a branch of Anthropology called Applied Anthropology, traditional Anthropology seeks to observe, learn and understand, not seek change. Practitioners of Applied Anthropology face stiff ethical examination when presenting their rationale for “social or cultural engineering”.

Of course, the potential for change is inherent in every interaction Anthropologists have, especially with societies relatively or completely untouched by outsiders before. They are as curious about the Anthropologist as the Anthropologist is curious about them. And, there have been occasions when Anthropologists took direct action to effect or to curtail change, such as in war. During WWII several highly ranked and established Anthropologists joined the OSS, parachuting deep into enemy held territory to organize and empower local resistance. They may have set the example for President John F. Kennedy when, anticipating the wars of the future, he designed and chartered a small organization of elite soldiers, specially trained in basic field medicine, linguistics, observation and analysis, and particular cultural negotiation – about half the Master of Arts in Anthropology curriculum at an upper tier graduate school. Instead of caps and gowns they were issued Green Berets and full survival gear, to be known from then on as “Armed Anthropologists”. Their mandate was to win “hearts and minds”, not take scalps; they were the OSS reborn.

This development was complicated by another organization developing in parallel: the Peace Corps. While both organizations ran counter to the traditional Army model of bomb everything and roll tanks over the remains, the Peace Corps was frankly dedicated to cultural change, to showing people a “better way”.

Although I met some Peace Corps veterans the only active members I met were in a contingent that was granted permission to speak to the Doctoral program in which I was enrolled at the time. We were polite to them. Most of the time. In fact, among our small number of Doctoral candidates at an upper tier university we had two young, freshly minted Jesuit priests. Mistakenly thinking they would learn useful tactics to employ in their upcoming missionary work they had transferred from the nearby Catholic university to ready themselves for saving exotic people from the errors of their ways. They lasted less than one semester.

But in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a perfect storm was upon us. Military and civilian personnel returning from Korea brought with them their exposure to and subsequent interest “Eastern religions”, the Puritanical repression of 1950’s America was weakening, the Draft was draining American blood into SouthEast Asia and many were coming back addicted to opiates, Civil Rights were being forcefully asserted, hallucinogens were commonplace and four English kids led a British re-invasion of the United States. I got fewer questions such as, “You want to study dead Indians!?”

This storm brought a surge of interest in Anthropology. University classes filled and expanded with young people wanting to explore other cultures, travel the world, and maybe find themselves. Institutions became more aware of the relevance of and potential uses for Anthropology. Not to be left out, the Intelligence Community absorbed many as analysts, case officers, and NOCs (Non-Official Cover). NOCs were embedded across the spectrum of public and private institutions, businesses, colleges and universities, and medical and other science institutions especially where sudden and unexpected travel was not unusual. Very specialized NOCs, such as those with an established Anthropology legend, could respond and resolve matters anywhere on an ad hoc basis; they were “just doing research” as they moved about on Tourist papers.

But while the dons of academia retained much of their reticence toward such “extra-curricular” activities, they also offered little comfort to Anthropologists having second thoughts about their activities and who were the ultimate winners and losers. Of course, most activities entail the gathering of information (Intelligence), but there are those cases which call for direct action. Still, even something like “outing” Valerie Plame, a covert operations officer, has consequences. Hostile powers are quick to review every one of her contacts, no matter how seemingly innocuous, and subject them to harsh interrogation or worse. And this can extend to their families as well through something as simple as cutting off all their financial support and chances for future employment. Should the children inherit the sins of the father?

In 1976 President Gerald Ford issued a prohibition of any U.S. government employee engaging in a political assassination (Executive Order 11905). Every President since has reaffirmed the order (for example, Reagan: Executive Order 12333). It therefore remains unclear whether Reagan (1986) or Clinton (1998) got around it by a policy only later articulated openly by George W. Bush. George W. Bush issued a Presidential Finding which declared certain targets to be military or terrorist targets, not political. Open season.

Most Anthropologists gravitate into more mundane careers, usually connected with some form of trans-national business. With the increasing sensitivity to diversity in the workforce they may be key players in Personnel departments, ensuring friction free accommodation to cultural differences among employees. They may be analysts and/or negotiators of trans-national interactions. Or, they may be advisers to the company advertising and public relations departments. But here, too, the best intentions can meet obstacles. While women in the workforce, including senior executive positions, may be “normal” in the home society of the company, this may not be easily acceptable in some cultures especially when women have supervisory power over men. Even in the most developed nations we still hear, “She slept her way to the top.”

The Western World is now aflame with controversy over “Critical Race Theory”. Okay, I will keep silent over the use of the word race; that’s another story. For that matter, at this point I cannot support the use of the word theory either. But that is what happens when concepts drift into or arise from poorly educated minds.

Cultural relativity is usually thought of in contemporary terms, what those other people are doing now. But a slight shift in perspective enables us to see how people look back to previous eras, even to recent times, and try to explain and excuse beliefs and practices that would be anathema now. I suggest the far more uncomfortable perspective is that from which we view our current actions and ask how our descendants, even the next generation will view us and our beliefs and actions as we forcefully attack science on every front in our self-absorbed voracious lust for “the good life”. Will we have set the stage for them to enjoy this dream world we cling to? Will there be apologists who try to explain that we were just acting according to our culture? Or will they spit on our graves. Those of you who have read this far have made a statement, albeit within you. Please accept my request to voice this statement and write a comment.

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  1. I remember learning about and absorbing the concept of observing other cultures without judgement. It seems such a simple concept; it is what it is. There will always be people with whom we do not agree, cultures which embrace beliefs and behaviors anathema to our own. What makes us right and them wrong? Nothing! What we are is different, neither better or worse. I suspect there will always behaviors which no amount of study will be sufficient to allow for understanding in the Western mind. I suspect there are things in our own culture which challenge understanding in the minds of others.

    I think back now on my own life and the cultural changes which have become normal which would have been totally acceptable by society as a whole even a few decades ago. I can remember being startled when first in the company of a biracial couple; it was not so very long ago that this loving couple would have been refused the right to marry, their children ostracized by both races as neither one or the other. Same sex marriages, while now legal, are facing the same societal rejection. Haters gonna hate, I guess, but when are we going to accept that being different is just following an alternate path to our own truth.

    If the peoples of this world are different, it is only their cultures which make them so. Let’s learn about each other, gain from one another, and see if we can’t make this a better world in the doing.


  2. Thank you, Rose. Your extensive overseas experiences lend weight to your comments. We can hope your vision of a more studious and considerate world comes about, but I share your realism as well.

    I had been two years into an integrated military when, returning to the U.S. after a 48 hour journey, we landed at a Naval Air Station in the SouthEast. I went off base to get a train to another state and in the station I saw two water fountains, each with signs: White Only and Colored. I was confused and turned on the Colored water to see what color it was. It looked like any other kind of water to me.


    • I had a similar experience as a child at our local health department. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now.


  3. Dana permalink

    Marco, this is a terrific post and reminds me of aspects of anthropology I hadn’t thought about for several years. This also reminded of the now defunct Human Terrain System. Seems that wasn’t such a good idea after all, especially with all of the ethical issues surrounding it.


    • Thank you, Dana. Yes, the HTS program attempted to build on previous, less formal involvements of social scientists, particularly Anthropologists, in warfare. Of course, the guiding principle was that meeting civilian populations on their terms could greatly reduce the population’s willingness to cooperate with military and paramilitary forces who claimed to represent them but did not have their interests at heart. Mao Tze Dong famously compared guerrilla forces to fish who swim in waters (the civilian population) that support them. So, the thinking was to turn the water away from the fish.

      The debate on other embedded posts continues, partly because of its secrecy. For example, James Jesus Angleton – former OSS and prime developer of CIA – rose to a very high rank in CIA (DDCI, Deputy Director for Counter Intelligence) during some of the worst decades in Agency history. Yet, his wife, a very pleasant woman, did not know for whom he worked until the CIA held a memorial for him after his death and she was invited. She thought he worked for the State Department. Obviously, people would be surprised to discover who the social scientists are and who they work for while appearing to be in other jobs or government agencies.


      • Dana permalink

        Marco, what an interesting response. Those who would debate the idea of embedded posts are probably some of those who would take safety and liberty for granted.


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