How should culture be studied?
This post is by Jessica Reynolds. She is a graduate anthropologist, but now works as a freelance writer with special interests in science, anthropology and archeology. She writes for http://www.postersession.com.
As globalization becomes increasingly prominent in our everyday lives, cultural research becomes the cornerstone of social advancement. Many problems between countries and even individuals stem from a misunderstanding of culture and cultural differences. Cultural research aims to create an understanding of the mechanics and implications of various cultures across the globe to help remedy misunderstandings and intolerance.
The biggest obstacle cultural research faces is the question of how it should be observed, recorded, and interpreted. How do we study culture? First, we must define what culture is. Culture has many definitions, but they all synonymously denote culture as the accumulation of systems of knowledge shared by a group of people. Although the definition of culture is easy enough to understand, how to study culture has created debates among the social sciences.
Emic and Etic views
Culture must not only be observed but be understood to be studied. There are two approaches to understand culture: 1. An inside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in its own terms and 2. An outside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in terms of general standards. These views are often referred to as emic and etic. Emic views are employed to understand a culture from a native’s point of view while etic views are employed to identify universal truths.
Relativism is the study of a culture from the culture itself which arguably relies on solely emic viewpoints. Cultural Relativism can be broken down into many different categories but there are three major categories that are consistently used in the social sciences: descriptive relativism, normative relativism, and epistemological relativism.
Descriptive relativism is based on the theory of cultural determinism (the theory that human social and psychological characteristic are determined by culture). It thereby assumes that different cultures have different thoughts and ways of understanding the world than other cultures do.
Normative relativism is the idea that there is no way to judge a culture on a scale of merit or worth in terms of good vs. bad because all standards are culturally constituted.
Epistemological relativism is similar to descriptive relativism except for the idea that culture not only dictates what we think about our lives but how we feel about our lives, providing a limitless view of cultural diversity (Spiro 1986).
The three categories of cultural relativism have not been supported by all social scientists, with some supporting one and others supporting the other or a combination of the three. It was with American anthropologists Franz Boas and the rise of the American Historical School that they all began to be used in conjunction with one another. Boas and his followers rejected the idea of cultural progress and cultural evolution because that suggests that one culture is superior over another and is a result of ethnocentric views.
A long term debate has been going on in the field of anthropology over cultural relativism and psychic unity. Are cultures incommensurable and is it impossible to make generalizations about cultures because every person perceives the world differently depending on the culture they are a part of? If this is so, then how can ethnographers even begin to describe a different culture’s kinship systems, rituals, and other cultural aspects?
The cultural materialist perspective was a response to cultural relativism and is really thought to have originated with Karl Marx. Karl Marx explains that societies and culture are systemic and his major interest was how those systems both maintain and destroy themselves. To Marx, this sort of change does not happen because of the ideology and social organization of a culture. It instead happens due to a chance in the surrounding environment (Marx 1970). In this way, ideology and social organization are considered to be adaptations to environmental change making cultures not only predictable but comparable to one another.
Cultural Research as a science
Viewpoints other than relativism and materialism are used when conducting research but they all beg the question of whether or not cultural research can be done scientifically. Science is arguably quantifiable so if cultural research cannot be quantified, it is likely that it cannot be considered a science. What is quantifiable can be replicated and the very scientific method is focused on replication. Franz Boas and his followers reject the idea of culture being quantifiable because quantification suggests cultural progress and the idea of progress between cultures is a result of ethnocentrism. Thus there are those who have determined that cultural research can in no way, shape, or form be considered a science nor should it be.
Many cultural relativists argue that cultural studies cannot be a science because generalizations cannot be made cross culturally. Therefore researchers should focus their studies on Western Cultures and try to compare them to non-Western cultures. Studying non-Western cultures would not produce results that Westerners would be able to accurately perceive nor discuss.
The idea that relativism doesn’t seem to have a place in the field of anthropology or any other cultural studies is perpetuated by the fact that ethnographers have been able to achieve such understandings of other cultures. In order for cultural research to be quantifiable, comparisons must be able to be made cross-culturally as a materialist perspective would inevitably allow. This does not mean that all qualitative work or relativist perspectives in the social sciences are meaningless, but that when used in conjunction with a quantifiable materialist perspective, they would be able to produce invaluable information concerning our own culture as well as cross cultural studies. Cultural relativism needs to be seen as a methodological position that explains the practices and ideas of other cultures within the terms of their own cosmologies as opposed to the only way to study and observe culture. When conducted from both a relativist and materialist perspective, cultural research provides the framework by which to understand variation among and across cultures.
Marx, K., Engels, F., In Arthur, C. J., Marx, K., & Marx, K. (1970). The German ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Spiro, M. (1986) ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’ American Anthropological Association No. 3 pp. 259-286