Problems with Cultural Relativism in Anthropology

2145 words 9 pages
Cultural Relativism and Problems Associated with This Approach

Cultural anthropology is the study of cultural variation among people. An essential concept that professional anthropologists apply in their fieldworks is - cultural relativism - an approach to study of the nature and role of values in a culture without judgment and comparison to their own. According to the Study Guide, Smillie and Kenny state that major contribution to the study of the concept of cultural relativism can be attributed to Boas and his students, who challenged a wide-spread idea that societies are staged along a line from the most undeveloped to most “civilized.” Rather, they suggested that each individual culture should be understood in terms of its unique
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Walley then questions whether there are sufficient grounds to either intervene with humanistic intention or ignore this issue, by challenging the nature of universal human rights.
According to Walley, these operations vary from removal of the tip of the clitoris, permanently ceasing sexual sensation, to removing labia minora and majora and sewing the rest together. In Western culture, even thinking about such procedures leaves most people horrified and morally outraged. In this case, the concept of cultural relativism would suggest to engage and consider new ways of doing things and putting judgment aside until a full understanding of what is going on within that cultural frame is reached. However, people who are against female genital mutilation perceive such practices as inhumane and unsafe; and account such operations for human rights violation and negative health consequences. This illustrates a situation when cultural relativism, where judgment and intervention should be hold on to, poses problem.
Nevertheless, Walley holds another point of view on this issue. She bases her argument on the question of who has the right to speak of this issue in the first place: those who underwent the procedure - “insiders” or “outsiders”? She also questions the