Wednesday, September 22, 2004

it's not all good, but is all relative

I have come to understand cultural relativism differently in the last ten years or so. Here are some of my thoughts and how I am currently approaching it with students.

First, I think the notion of there being distinct cultures is inaccurate. To me, cultural, cultural items, etc., are fluid, especially now with the ubiquity of cultural information exchange through different media. In other words the "boundaries" between "cultures" are illusory to a great extent -- where does one stop and the other begin? I don't think one can say this with any real degree of precision; certainly not with "scientific" precision. Furthermore, I believe that certainly arguments can be made that even the possession of one cultural item from "another" culture has an influence on the possessor and that possessor's "culture." In sum, I just don't see the argument for distinct cultures being tenable any longer.

Second, I think that one could argue that the logical extension of the soc imagination is that each person is a culture unto her/himself. Why? Precisely because of how we as individuals intersect with our own personal biography and the social contexts we find ourselves in. Yes, we have "cultural" similarities based on classic sociological variables like education, ethnicity, gender, etc., but the combination of those factors, along with our personal experiences with those factors leaves us unique in many respects. I am an upper-middle class, well-educated, Anglo male. Are there some things that I share with others that share those characteristics? Yes. But, I also have distinct differences with many of them, too. Not the least of which are the enactment of my values, which I am sure many of them would claim to share with me, but the actual behavior which, IMO, is reflective of those values would differ greatly, i.e., I certainly don't plan to re-elect the President.

I think that feminists have done an incredible (and typically
underappreciated) job at pointing out to us the merit of taking into consideration our own social and personal places in the structure and how these influence our outlook on things -- our own personal "culture" if you will. To me, this kind of analysis is very much in keeping with the soc imagination and is, in fact, what constitutes great sociology, IMO.

All of that said, I do think it is critical for students to pay attention to their ethnocentrism. Despite what Fox News and all of the other pundits declare about the seeming divine "rightness" of all things American, I think it is disrespectful to approach any other human being with a sense of knowledge about him or her, even, if not especially, other Americans. I try and instill a sense of wonder with students in their encounters with others
-- whomever they might be. I think that is what social inquiry is all about
-- perhaps one of the reasons I highly value verstehen as a method of inquiry. I really don't "know" about any one person's experience of "culture" until I speak with her/him about it -- even then, my knowledge of it is going to be mediated by MY soc imagination

Lastly, I heard a debate on Democracy Now last year between a human rights atty from the US and representatives from a women's rights group from a country in which FGM is practiced -- it was fascinating. The HR atty was saying that FGM was a violation of universal human rights and the reps were saying, yes, but let us handle who we change it. It was a great debate because it exposed the HR atty's ethnocentrism -- she could not hear what the reps were saying because she was so intent on promoting human rights for them! I wish I had bookmarked it.


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