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Pioneers of Cultural Relativism

How a group of anthropologists set out to study other societies and reflected on their own.

Margaret Mead in her office at the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo by John Loengard / Time Life / Getty)

The core of Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, a complaint about the nature of higher education, is an argument against cultural relativism. “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of,” he wrote, “almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Bloom insisted that students at American elite universities had been so indoctrinated by their primary and secondary educations, under the influence of the culture of the 1960s, that they had come to prioritize an indefensible commitment to openness over universal natural rights and the pursuit of the good life. “When there are no shared goals or vision of the public good,” he asked, “is the social contract any longer possible?”

Doubleday, 448 pp., $30.00

Bloom wrote with an unabashed elitism but the book proved popular: It was the unexpected academic bestseller of the late Reagan years. Universities, he argued, controlled by educated elites, are failing the children, deconstructing cherished social norms, and undermining the basis for a coherent society. The supposed ubiquity of “cultural relativism” that Bloom decried remains a bugbear of our politics. The ever-present Dinesh D’Souza, who seems to have never met a fact that he couldn’t claim supports his view of the world, held cultural relativism responsible for the continuation of racism in a book in 1995, arguing that it made people afraid to make necessary critiques of African American culture. And though the exact phrase “cultural relativism” has faded somewhat from the discourse, an implicit critique remains embedded in right-wing attacks on multiculturalism and immigration. The law Professor Amy Wax, who featured prominently in the July 2019 conference on “national conservatism,” has written that “not all cultures are equal” and stated “I don’t shrink from the word ‘superior.’ Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”

The idea of “cultural relativism” serves as a cudgel, somewhat akin to “political correctness,” to impugn the values attributed to liberal elites in general and humanities professors in particular. This dangerous idea, it is said, makes them responsible for many social ills (more ills than their humble enrollments would suggest possible.) Charles King, author of the new book Gods of the Upper Air, is undeniably also a professor. His position, in International Affairs and Government, is suspended ambiguously between the humanities and social sciences to such a degree that I cannot be sure whether he too should be considered responsible for the supposed moral rot of cultural relativism that has wormed its way through our undergraduate population like the Very Hungry Caterpillar on a Saturday. But Gods of the Upper Air is a group biography and intellectual history of the anthropologists who created “cultural relativism,” and something of a defense of its core principles. What is especially welcome about this effort in the current environment is that it removes the idea of cultural relativism from its status as a punching bag for its enemies. Instead it shows the context from which cultural relativism emerged—a particular moment in the study of humanity, brought about by an age of European exploration, colonialism, and pseudoscientific racism that has more than a few unfortunate points of contact with our own era.

The pioneers of cultural relativism were working against centuries of racist ideas and prejudices. The racial theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries posited that humanity was divided into a set of distinct racial groups, which they took to represent different stages of civilization. These categories served a hierarchy that made European people and their colonists feel powerful and successful compared to the other humans they met as they moved about the globe. Colonialism, slavery, and restrictions on immigration went in search of justifications, and racial theorists provided them. 

This racial theorizing was based on absurd logic. Writing in 1775, for example, German anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, decided to divide the people of the world into five races. After “Ethiopians,” “Americans,” “Mongolians” and “Malay,” Blumenbach original’s contribution was to describe the light-skinned residents of Europe as “Caucasian.” The ostensible reason was that Blumenbach had access to a private collection of skulls, and decided that a young girl’s cranium from the country of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains was particularly attractive. Since this was also close to the location that some scholars posited for the location of the Garden of Eden, Blumenbach reasoned that “Caucasian” people were those designed by God for their superior beauty, and that other races, more distant from the sources of creation, were degenerated forms of humans.

More than a century later, in the United States, the eugenicist Madison Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race in 1916, arguing that the best way to improve humanity was to encourage the breeding of the most positive human characteristics: energy, innovation, intelligence, and adventurousness. Those were qualities that Grant believed were best exemplified by Northern Europeans—and justification not only for racism but also for restricting the immigration of Southern Europeans whose admission based on “altruistic values” he thought were “sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss.”

It was into these waters that the anthropologists who would pioneer the ideas of cultural relativism stepped. This group, often called the “Boasians” after Franz Boas, challenged many of the ideas widely held about race at the time. Boas, known as Papa Franz to his students, was born in Prussia. He earned a Ph.D. in physics in 1881 without particular distinction, and, bored with that line of inquiry, looked for a new challenge. Having grown up with tales of Arctic adventure, he embarked for Baffin Island in Canada, where he spent months living among the Inuit. He watched them collect food, coexist with their spouses and children, play games, and get sick.

To his surprise, he found that these were not people outside of time, but individuals with personal histories. One of his main informants, a man named Signa, had been born elsewhere and moved to the village of Kekerten as a child. When an outbreak of diphtheria struck, the locals were disappointed that “Herr Doktor” Boas was of no help. He realized the limitations of his own knowledge, and the appropriateness of the education that Inuit children received for the way of life they were living. Most of all, he came to see his research subjects as real, complete people. “I often ask myself what advantages our ‘good society’ possess over that of the ‘savages’ and the more I see of their customs, I find that we really have no right to look down upon them contemptuously,” he wrote. “We should not censure them for their conventions and superstitions, since we ‘highly educated’ people are relatively much worse.”

For Boas, however, there was no smooth path to academic employment. He worked for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (which featured both the first Ferris Wheel as well as displays of living “natives” from around the world up and down the Midway), designing an Anthropology Building. Visitors could have their cranial measurements taken on the spot, in keeping with the voguish interest in phrenology. But the findings inside the building didn’t really conform to what the phrenologists thought they would: mulattoes in the United States, it was found, were the same height as white people; the fingerprints of North American Indians were all unique; head shapes within community groups varied widely, and even changed over the course of a lifetime. Boas began to conclude that scientists were making mistakes because of their own cultural prejudices, and adopting theories even though they did not conform to observable data.            

In 1897, Boas at last joined the faculty at Columbia, his salary underwritten by a wealthy uncle. His first popular book, The Mind of Primitive Man of 1911, argued against the view of human history as a great contest between races. Races even in the present were unstable, and therefore could not have existed in the past in any well-defined way. Nor were race and civilizational level linked—how could they be, if the very idea of race was unreliable? Besides, at different times in history different “races” had been more advanced than Europeans. History, in other words, mattered.

Boas, writes King, “was asking Americans and western Europeans to suspend their belief in their own greatness.” His ideas were ignored by many, and deemed threatening by others. The president of Columbia canceled his undergraduate program, to protect students from such radical thinking. But Boas’s introductory lectures still appealed, especially to women. Though they would struggle against the obdurate sexism of academic institutions, many of his most important students, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston, would follow Boas’s path, seeking to write broad and important works that would use anthropology as a way of encouraging people to reflect on themselves and society.

A relatively small community, the Boasian anthropologists seem to have prefigured the idea that the personal was political. Gods of the Upper Air features love triangles and even more ambitious polygons, beginning with the affair between Mead and Benedict. Whether the reader finds this compelling will probably be a matter of taste—I was often waiting for the next judiciously economical summary of a published work—but the relationships do drive the story forward nicely, and they did matter to the work that was done. Benedict’s work among the Zuñi in New Mexico, for example, where she observed gender-crossing—with men adopting the dress and social role of women—made her realize that many that were held to be “deviant” by the standards of her society would have been accepted as normal, if unusual, in others. It was not only race, but other social categories such as sex, that the cultural relativists sought to trouble.

Mead, for her part, grew famous for Coming of Age in Samoa, a work that attempted to denaturalize the angst of adolescence. On the island of Manus, Mead spent nine months living and observing a different way of life: one that, she argued, de-emphasized attachments and therefore reduced jealousy. Spending most of her time with women and girls, Mead concluded that Samoan adolescence was less fraught, in part because sexuality in general was less fraught. Affairs could be noted and punished, but they could also be easily forgiven. It wasn’t that the society did well by all of its members, but simply that it was different. 

Coming of Age in Samoa, like many works in the Boasian orbit, is in many ways a book about its author and her own society as much as anything, both beginning and ending with reflections on the United States. “Our children are faced with half a dozen standards of morality,” Mead argued, but “the Samoan child faces no such dilemma. Sex is a natural, pleasurable thing; the freedom with which it may be indulged in is limited by just one consideration, social status.” The point was not that Samoan society was superior, simply that it was different. “Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, good manners, and ethical standards is not universal,” wrote Boas in the book’s foreword. “Much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.”

Zora Neale Hurston studied under Franz Boas in the 1920s and ’30s.
Library of Congress

The Boasians were not free from error. Sometimes their informants contradicted each other, and as anthropologists they were prone to overgeneralization. Mead’s interpretation of the sexual behavior of adolescents in Samoa has been challenged as overly broad. Nor were the Boasians always free from prejudice. Boas himself sometimes suggested there was something deficient about African Americans. His student Zora Neale Hurston disagreed: Her studies of black communities in Florida (the basis for her since-canonized novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) are recognized for granting the full humanity of her subjects and characters. Even so, she found that her work was often interpreted as being about the particularities and pathologies of “Negroes,” while more remote and supposedly “primitive” people like the Samoans could supposedly hold lessons for all of humanity.

Their work sold impressively well, and began to influence popular consciousness. In the materialistic 1920s, some were attracted to the idea that so-called primitive cultures possessed wisdom that modern society lacked. To the dismay of Ella Cara Deloria, a Boas student of Yankton Dakota ancestry, there was a revival of faux-“Indian” practices for white American youth, from the camp customs and crafts of the Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls to the appearance of Native American mascots for sports teams in the 1920s. “Only a few decades beyond the conquest of the West, white American parents now found it entirely normal to invest time and energy toward disguising their children as the very people their forebears had worked hard to obliterate,” writes King.

In the 1961 preface to a reissue of Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead clarified that she had not been advocating “a return to the primitive.” She did not want to live in Samoa, she added: “I wanted to live in New York and make something of what I had learned in Samoa.” Cultural relativism, a term that had been introduced to the public with Benedict’s Patterns of Culture in 1934, was supposed to be a way of thinking about the world. Different ways of living were different ways of solving the problems of being human, and, as Benedict put it, the anthropologist “is bound to avoid any weighting of one in favor of another.” It was a professional obligation to be able to take the perspectives of others.

King asserts, in the beginning of Gods of the Upper Air, that his book “is not a lesson in tolerance.” It is true that the book has nothing of the didacticism of an after-school special. But its protagonists are its heroes, however flawed, and they repeatedly call for tolerance: acceptance of human difference, based on their studies of ways of living that led them to conclude that within the realm of human possibility, it was not required by nature to be sexist, racist, or homophobic. “Cultural relativism was a theory of human society, but it was also a user’s manual for life,” King concludes. “It was meant to enliven our moral sensibility, not extinguish it.”

For the Boasians, cultural relativism was a way of thinking about and pursuing the good life. By making clear a variety of ways of being human, and not taking for granted the superiority of one over the other, Benedict hoped that the world could then arrive at “a more realistic social faith.” Though they made mistakes in their research, it was the Boasians who believed that a view of the world ought to be built around facts and observations, rather than cultural prejudices. The core idea—one that is probably fair to ascribe to the majority of humanities professors—was to reject ethnocentrism and to recognize the essential humanity of all people. It counsels humility and self-reflection rather than hubris. It is ironic that cultural relativism today has so few defenders and so many opponents, and that no one is in more need of its central insight than those who rail against it.