Besides being an influential anthropologist in North America, he also inspired a generation of students to fight against racial science and promote the idea of cultural relativism, though they didn’t use that exact term.
His students were the first generation of scholars to teach this concept across academic institutions in US, UK, and Canada. He was a British anthropologist in the 1930s, and did field research on witchcraft and magic amongst the Azande group of North Central Africa.
But there is a difference in the way we now use cultural relativism as opposed to what Boas thought about. Here enters another figure in history of anthropology, his name was E. Evan-Pritchard, being a British and living in the heyday of empire, thought of this problem differently.
Boas’ theory was that there can’t be a morally sound yardstick for measuring the differences between cultures because of the incommensurable historical experience of a cultural group. He was trying to argue against his very well versed colleagues at Oxford, Cambridge and other British institutions, that the rise of the ‘west’ isn’t a unique phenomenon.
208 A History of Anthropological Theory [Fourth Edition]). Yes, this was quite the thing in academia back then and still remains one of the important over lapping set of ideas that scholars in arts, humanities, and social sciences often cite.
But over all of this cultural relativism has become the pet peeve of radical right-wing movements, cynics, new-age shouting matches on news channels, twitterti wars, and whomsoever is questioning our modernity at this point in time.The orange spikes overlap with college and university schedules in Euro-American countries: November, December, Feburary, and April-May is when it is spiking.These are also the months when the students are likely to be either writing their papers or preparing for their exams.This really reveals that how much the academic circles are invested in teaching the concept, but only during exams and paper writing sessions.The broader public remains rather unaware of what it really means!I would not be delving into the specifics of the phenomenon, but here I try to reference the criticism of cultural relativism on social media from across the world. Yes, the college students in America, Canada, and European countries!Here are some examples from twitter data: That last reference about ‘sophmoric’ interest is rather revealing. The orange bars point out to the spikes in google search for cultural relativism.Academics need to realize that this isn’t a local problem anymore, and its ideological swerves are being felt across the globe.One way to begin engaging with the problem is to write more openly and accessibly about the topic, and in a manner anyone can understand- no jargon!It basically means that the historical context of cultural experience is so specific that we can’t compare, and hence say that one is superior than the other. He stated that the witchcraft and magic Azande engaged in was rational in its own right- if seen from the Azande perspective.Therefore, Pritchard stated that the argument about these practices being a premodern adaptation was a eurocentric assumption.