Hans Peter Hahn

On the Changeful History of Franz Boas’s Concept of Cultural Relativism

Published: 2023-04-24 | DOI: 10.54799/ISBF2790


Cultural relativism has its roots in an era long before the emergence of anthropology. Anthropologists, and Franz Boas in particular, took up this concept in order to establish the paradigm of a holistic description of cultures. This concept refrains from any kind of judgements about cultures or comparisons between them. According to cultural relativism there is no objective parameter to adequately describe the value of a culture. Only the subjective perspective of a culture’s members can inform about its particularities. The emphasis on differences and the idea that each part of a culture stands for a coherent whole are other closely related features of descriptions in the framework of cultural relativism.

Boas’s innovative method and therewith the cultural relativist perspective has been so successful that today it can be considered one of the principles of the appreciation of multicultural societies. At the same time, however, it became clear that the renunciation of any critical assessment can also be a handicap for ethnographic description. The rejection of universal norms, such as human rights, and the rejection of criteria applied to a culture from the outside make ethnologists blind to cultural conflicts and power asymmetries. Cultural relativism is thus both an extremely successful concept and a problem for the future shape of anthropology.

How to Cite

Hahn, Hans Peter. 2023. “On the Changeful History of Franz Boas’s Concept of Cultural Relativism”. EAZ – Ethnographisch-Archaeologische Zeitschrift 57 (1). https://doi.org/10.54799/ISBF2790.
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