Relativism and the goal of anthro

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Fri, 26 Apr 1996 11:57:35 -0400

In message <> writes:

> This gets back to my question about why we should study anthropology at all.
> If we are
> truly relativists, there is no better or worse - only different. If there is
> no "truth" to be found (and I am not certain that there is). If anthropology
> is about sitting around, seeing what is different and just saying - "oh,
> that's interesting" (which is in itself a judgment - what is not
> interesting?), it's a leisure activity...

A couple of comments:

My conceptualization of "relativism" is not that "there is no better or worse"
but rather that evaluative judgement of any specific aspect of culture should be
suspended at least until the belief/practice under investigation is
understood/explained in context. The reason for doing this, I thought, is to
prevent ethnocentric judgements from clouding the desired understanding.

Relativism also means, to me at least, that we should not hold up a WHOLE
CULTURE and say "this culture is subhuman because they eat possums and bury
their dead in the ground ( as a Yanomami person might say of us). Each culture
is equally valuable AS AN EXAMPLE OF HUMAN CULTURE. We might (and probably can,
always) find particular beliefs and practices that we think are not "OK", and
once understanding/explanation in context is achieved, we might want to take a
stance. We can argue, for example, that selling daughters into prostitution in
India is not a good thing, while understanding the practice in its cultural
context. Perhaps we can use Goldschmitt's criteria for evaluating a culture, or
some other (of course, again, the trick here is to avoid ethnocentric notions of
what should or shouldn't be "valued" in a culture).

At this point I am not sure how much of this conceptualization of "relativism"
was learned in anthro classes and how much I constructed for myself; I do know
that I have had run-ins with philosophers over it. Am I alone?

One more point having to do with the "goal" of anthropology. Perhaps we should
take the goal of linguistics, which is "to develop a theory of language" and
broaden it to say that the goal of anthropology is "to develop a theory of homo
sapiens." What we want to work toward is an observationally, descriptively, and
explanatorily adequate model of ourselves. Ultimate truth, whatever that is,
has nothing to do with it and is probably best left to the philosophers.

Ronald Kephart
Dept of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, FL USA 32224-2645
Phone: (904) 646-2580