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A degree of popular appeal

In the abstract, the idea of a single culture for all the world’s people is one that has had a degree of popular appeal, in that it might offer fewer chances for the kinds of misunderstandings to develop that, so often in the past few hundred years, have led to wars. Some anthropologists question this in the face of evidence that traditional ways of thinking of oneself and the rest of the world may persist, even in the face of massive changes in other aspects of culture. One could argue that the chances for misunderstandings actually increase.

Some have argued that perhaps a generalized world culture would be desirable in the future, because certain cultures of today may be too specialized to survive in a changed environment. Examples of this situation are sometimes said to abound in modern anthropology. When a traditional culture that is highly adapted to a specific environment, such as the Indians of Brazil, who have adapted to life in the rain forest, meet European culture and the social environment changes suddenly and drastically, the traditional culture often collapses.

The reason for this is that its traditions and political and social organizations are not all adapted to modern ways. Here we have the ethnocentric notion that old cultures are destined to give way to the new. Since this is regarded as inevitable, actions are taken that by their very nature virtually guarantee that traditional cultures will not survive; it is a classic case of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Anthropologists are increasingly concerned about the rapid disappearance of the world’s remaining indigenous peoples for a number of reasons; foremost among them is the basic issue of human rights.

In the world today there is a rush to develop those parts of the planet that have so far escaped industrialization or to extract resources regarded as vital to the well-being of the developed economies. These efforts at development are planned, financed and carried out by governments and businesses as well as international lending institutions. Unfortunately, the rights of native peoples generally have not been incorporated into the programs and concerns of these organizations, even where laws exist that are supposed to protect the rights of such people.

In an attempt to do what they can to help indigenous people gain title to their lands and avoid exploitation by outsiders, anthropologists in various countries have formed advocacy groups (Zur, 1994). Some see cultural pluralism, in which more than one culture exists in a given society, as the future condition of humanity. Cultural pluralism is the social and political interaction within the same society, or multinational state, of people with different ways of living and thinking. Ideally, it implies the rejection of bigotry, bias and racism in favor of respect for the cultural traditions of other peoples.

In reality, it has rarely worked that way. North Americans often have difficulty adjusting to the fact that not everyone wants to be just like they are. As children, people in the United States are taught to believe that “the American way of life” is one to which all other peoples aspire. In the nineteenth century Europeans and Americans had no doubt about the answer and that was that they saw their civilization as the peak of human development. At the same time anthropologists were intrigued to find that all cultures with which they had any familiarity saw themselves as the best of all possible worlds.

Commonly, this was reflected in a name for the society, which roughly translated, meant we were human and they were sub-human (Marsella, 1982). Anthropologists have been actively engaged in the fight against ethnocentrism ever since they started to live among the “savage” people and discovered that they were just as human as anyone else. As a consequence, anthropologists began to examine each culture on its own terms, asking whether or not the culture satisfied the needs and expectations of the people of the people themselves.

If a person practiced human sacrifice, for example, they asked whether or not the taking of human life was acceptable according to native values. The idea that one must suspend judgment on other people’s practices in order to understand them in their own cultural terms is called cultural relativism. Only through this approach can one gain an undistorted view of another people’s ways, as well as insights into the practices of one’s own society. Take, for example, the Aztec practice of sacrificing humans for ritual purposes.

Few, if any, North Americans today would condone such practices, but by suspending judgment one can get beneath the surface and understand how it functions to reassure the population that the Aztec State was healthy and the sun would remain in the heavens. Beyond this, one can understand the death penalty functions in the same way in the United States today (Parades & Purdum, 1990). Essential though cultural relativism is as a research tool, it does not require suspension of judgment forever, or that we must defend the right of any people to engage in any practice, no matter how reprehensible.

All that is necessary is that we avoid premature judgments until we have proper understanding of the culture in which we are interested. Then may the anthropologist adapt a critical stance. If anthropologists avoid the “anything goes” position of cultural relativism pushed to absurdity, they must nonetheless avoid the pitfall of judging the practices of other cultures in terms of ethnocentric criteria. A still useful formula for this was created by the anthropologists Walter Goldschmidt. In his view the important question to ask is; how well does a given culture satisfy the physical and psychological needs of those whose behavior it guides?

Specific indicators are to be found in the nutritional status and general physical and mental health of its population, the incidence of crime and delinquency, the demographic structure, stability and tranquility of domestic life, and the group’s relationship to its resource base (Bodley, 1990). The culture of a people who experience high rates of malnutrition, crime, delinquency, suicide, emotional disorders and despair and environmental degregation may be said to be operating less well than that of another people who exhibit few such problems.

In a well working culture people can be proud, jealous and pugnacious, and live a very satisfactory life without feeling any persuasive ills of our own inhuman and civilized way of living. It is when people feel helpless to affect their own lives in their own societies, when traditional ways of coping no longer seem to work, that the symptoms of cultural breakdown become prominent. A culture is essentially a system to ensure the continued well-being of a group of people. Therefore, it may be termed successful so long as it secures the survival of a society in a way that its members find reasonably fulfilling.

What complicates matters is that any society is made up of groups with different interests, raising the possibility that some peoples may be served better than others. So a culture that is quite fulfilling for one group within a society may be less so for another. For this reason, the anthropologists must always ask; whose needs and whose survival, is best served by the culture in question? Only by looking at the overall situation can a reasonably objective judgment be made as to well a culture is working (Fox, 1968).

All field anthropologists, both applied and theoretical, find themselves in social situations that are both varied and complex because they work with people in a number of different role relationships. They are involved with and have responsibilities to their subjects, their discipline. Their colleagues both in and outside anthropology, their host governments, their own governments and their sponsoring agencies. Applied anthropologists must operate in an even more complex situation, for their work frequently is aimed at facilitating some type of change in the culture or social structure of the local population.

Under such socially complex conditions, it is likely that the anthropologist will have to choose between conflicting values and will be faced with a number of ethical dilemmas. While recognizing that anthropologists continually face such ethical decisions the profession has made it clear that each member of the profession ultimately is responsible for his or her own ethical conduct (Appell, 1978). A concern for professional ethics is hardly a recent phenomenon among anthropologists. As early as 1919 Franz Boas, spoke out against the practice of anthropologists engaging in spying activities while allegedly conducting scientific research.

While anthropologists have been aware of the ethical dilemmas they face since the beginning, the profession did not adopt a comprehensive code of behavioral standards until 1970’s. In 1971 the American Anthropological Association adopted it Principles of Professional Responsibility and established its Committee on Ethics, while the Society for applied Anthropology published its Statement on Professional Ethical Responsibilities in 1975. Cultural anthropologists face a number of ethical problems when conducting their research.

One very important ethical issue to which anthropologists must be sensitive is whether or not the people being studied will benefit from the proposed changes (Angeloni, 2002). Incidents of ethnocentrism are extensive. For example, we can see ethnocentrism operating in the historical accounts of the American Revolutionary War by both British and Americans. No society has a monopoly on ethnocentrism, for it is a deeply ingrained attitude found in all known societies. It should be quite obvious why ethnocentrism is so pervasive throughout the world.

Since most people are raised in a single culture and never leave that culture during their lifetime it is only logical that their won way of life, their values, attitudes, ideas and ways of behaving, would appear to them to be the most natural. Even though ethnocentrism to some degree is present in all people and all cultures, it still serves as a major obstacle to the understanding of other cultures. According to Franz Boas the way anthropologists are to strive for the level of detachment is through the practice of cultural relativism viewing the cultural from its proper perspective or context rather than from the observer’s culture.

An example of cultural relativity would be the number of cultural practices from around the world that would appear to be morally reprehensible to most Westerners. For example genital mutilation, infanticide or even brideprice. For Boas, cultural relativism was an ethical mandate as well as a strategic methodology for understanding other cultures.


Angeloni, E. (2002). Anthropology. Conn. : McGraw-Hill/Dushkin. Appell, G. N. (1978). Perspectives in Cultural Anthropology. Mass. : Crossroads Press.

Bodley, J. H. (1990). Victims of progress, 3rd. Ed. Calif. : Mayfield. Fox, R. (1968). Encounter with anthropology. New York: Dell Marsella, J. (1982). Pulling it together: Discussion and comments. In S. Pastner & W. A. Haviland (Eds. ), Confronting the creationists (pp. 79-80). Northeastern Anthropological Association, Occasional Proceeding, 1. Parades, J. A. ,& Purdum, E. D. (1990). Bye, bye Ted… Anthropology Today, 6 (2), 9. Zur, J. (1994). The psychological impact of impunity. Anthropology Today, 10 (3), 16.

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