Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why scientists need cultural relativism

It can be easy to forget, as a scientist, that a great deal of our work does involve working with people. You may have a vision of spending all day in a lab coat or out in the field with your binoculars, but everyone has to interact with people at some stage or another. Any scientist who wants to work abroad is going to require a firm grasp of what anthropologists have termed "cultural relativism."

Just outside capital city of Madagascar, Antananarivo
Cultural relativism is the notion that our beliefs and thoughts on civilization are relative and are "true" only so far as our own culture goes. It's the idea that our culture makes the most sense, is the most civil, and is the least weird, because it is our culture.

How does this relate to traveling as a scientist? Well, it means that when we judge others, whether it's the locals who are hunting primates for food, communication styles that are less direct, or shamanistic practices we don't understand, we need to take a reflective step back. Had we been raised in these cultures, hunting primates for food would seem as "normal" as eating a hamburger. When comparing children to their parents, the phrase "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" is often used. Cultural relativism is a bit like an expansion of this idea: we need to keep in mind the context of the tree and not expect that tree to be exactly like our own.
Workers in rice paddy

I think cultural relativism gets easier the more you travel or the more you read. Take a few anthropology courses and you'll realize that the word "normal" is hard to apply to all cultural concepts. What may be common in North America may be very strange to Malagasy and vice versa.

Here in Madagascar, which is a developing country, things tend to run a little slower than I'm used to, getting a check for lunch for example. Children beg for money in the street and particularly target wealthy foreigners, who have a lot of money in comparison to many Malagasy people. Traffic is chaotic and seemingly without rules. Recycling is non-existent. Taxi drivers honk at you, assuming all foreigners need a ride everywhere. All of these things seem strange and different, but not when one stops and realizes that this is a different place. One of the best parts of traveling is seeing new things and meeting new people.

Which of the following is an example of cultural relativism?

A.  An American moves to Madagascar and attempts to educate local people about the benefits of modern medicine because shamanism is silly.
B. An American moves to Madagascar and becomes accustomed to the parasites found in local food.
C. An American moves to Madagascar and no longer gets annoyed at taxi drivers honking but sees this as normal.
D. All of the above
E. B and C

The answer: C. Parasites are not cultural and A is the opposite of cultural relativism.

Critical thinking: Does the idea of cultural relativism only apply when traveling abroad? Why or why not?

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