When an ordinary individual thinks about the term cultural relativism, he or she might not think too deeply on the topic, or furthermore, not even know what it means. However, to an anthropologist, cultural relativism is a very important theme in an area of study known as cultural anthropology. Understanding cultural relativism from the average persons perspective is crucial in being able to identify what makes other cultures unique and recognizing the beliefs and behaviors that make those cultures differ from the norm.
First of all, what is the “norm” in terms of culture? Is the norm considered whatever type of culture you come from and have known your whole life? Richard Robbins states in his textbook that “Relativism…holds that no behavior or belief can be judged to be odd or wrong simply because it is different from out own” (Robbins 9). Simply stated, there is no norm. Think about all the hundreds of countries around the world. Some are similar in relation to culture, but many have quite different ways of doing things and living their everyday lives. Therefore, there are potentially hundreds upon hundreds of unique cultures that exist on this planet. To delve even deeper, consider the tribes of village people inhabiting unexplored terrain and rainforests. This provides nearly an uncountable number of unique cultures around the world. After considering this aspect on the view of culture, there cannot be a norm to how a particular set of people should go about their daily lives. There is no right and wrong way of doing things when looking at another culture. As a result, one cannot judge another group of people on their beliefs and behaviors just because they are different his or her own. This is the essence of cultural relativism.
However, cultural relativism brings up controversy. If there seems to be no norm to culture, then how do we define what is right and wrong? For example, if it is a tradition in a secluded tribal village to sacrifice members of the community to the gods by executing them, can we judge that particular culture and say that it is wrong? Judging a particular culture based on your own beliefs, known as ethnocentrism, may bring up the question of an ethnocentric fallacy. An ethnocentric fallacy is “…the idea that our beliefs and behaviors are right and true, whereas those of other peoples are wrong and misguided” (Robbins 8). Basically, it means that were right and you tribal people are wrong. However, it is the tribes religious beliefs that a human sacrifice must be made to please the gods. If we consider this we might be exploring the opposite end of the spectrum known as a relativistic fallacy. A relativistic fallacy is “…the idea that it is impossible to make moral judgments about the beliefs and behaviors of others” (Robbins 10). This leads to an ethical dilemma.