Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Cultural relativism

core definition

The core thesis of cultural relativism is that there are no absolute standards of human cognition.

explanatory context

Cultural relativism is a specific orientation of the general notion of relativism. Different cultures have different standards. The implication of this is that social, political, ethical or indeed any cultural phenomena should be considered against the prevailing standards of the particular culture in which they occur.


Similarly, no judgements can be made that the institutions of one culture are superior or inferior to that of another culture. Cultural relativism counters intolerance and racism at the institutional and cultural levels by denying the legitimacy of cross-cultural evaluations.


Cultural relativism thus opposes ethnocentrism and evolutionism (which was popular in late 19th century anthropology).


There are serious philosophical, moral and political implications of cultural relativism, as for all forms of relativism.


Clearly, moral imperatives have to be seen as relative to cultures and subcultures.


Knowledge, hence notions of truth, are relative to cultures. More importantly, if epistemology is culturally specific, the possibility of intercultural understanding is limited.


Similarly there are implications for political action. A dilemma arises for revolutionary cultural relativists. On the one hand, there is no absolute criterion by which to judge culturally-specific acts. In effect cultures are to be treated as autonomous. However, cultures do change, often radically. If they are to be permitted autonomy then change must be the result of internal upheaval (usually against oppression). For the revolutionary, however, oppression is (conceptually) an absolute to be opposed. Must the revolutionary, opposed to oppression, tolerate oppression within a culture of which he or she is not a part?

analytical review

Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated):

The idea that a culture can only be truly elevated by its own standards and not by any common criteria. Thus, cultural relativism is a liberal and "liberalizing" concept in the social sciences, and is, of course, rejected by the old conservative line. What is interesting is that radicals also reject cultural relativism, at least to a degree, particularly its "radical" version. Radical cultural relativism holds that the beliefs, values, and modes and organization of behavior of one culture can never be objectively or validly judged superior to those of another culture. This is, of course, quite contrary to humanists and socialists of one kind or another (Marxian, Christian, etc.) who postulate a "human essence" that when violated by any social structure or cultural system results in injustice - an injustice that must be properly criticized.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Cultural relativism: The viewing of people's behavior from the perspective of their own culture.

associated issues


related areas



Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, page 'not found' 1 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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