Category Archives: Sociology of Knowledge

Cultural Relativism


If you want to understand Indigenous People you should know something about anthropology. Sadly, I know little about anthropology. Of course, as faithful readers of my blog know, absence of knowledge has never stopped me from offering my opinions. Today is no exception.

I have said that to understand the relationship of the invaders of the western hemisphere to the Indigenous people cannot be understood without realizing the arrogance and superiority they felt to indigenous people.

Franz Boas, sometimes called the father of modern Anthropology was perhaps the first anthropologist to poke holes into the false sense of superiority of the west. He was interested in how beliefs and convictions coalesced into something he referred to as culture. He thought this was a valid organizing principle. So does Wade Davis another eminent anthropologist. Boas, appreciated, as very few of his fellows did, that cultures of the west had a lot to learn from indigenous cultures.  As Davis said of Boas, “Far ahead of his time, he sensed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise.”

Each culture provided an opportunity that every one who contacted it would be well advised to pay attention to it and learn from it. Ideological blinkers are never helpful. Boas is seen by many as the originator of modern cultural anthropology and for good reason.  He looked at cultures without bias and without suffocating feelings of superiority. Boas wanted to learn from people he met. He was not there to teach them. He was not there to save them, he wanted to benefit from their stored ancient wisdom. That attitude was extremely unusual in its time. Boas worked among many people including the Inuit of Baffin Island, the indigenous people of the west coast of North America and in every case made sure that his students kept an open mind. Boas ensured that his students communicated with the indigenous people they met in the language of those people. He asked them to participate as much as possible in the lives of those people they studied.  As Davis said of Boas,

“Every effort should be made, he argued, to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts. This demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one’s own prejudices and preconceptions. This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against the orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

That does not mean we have to abdicate from making judgments. That does not mean we can’t cherish the good from our society too. Lets cherry pick the best from each world. Lets just not be blind to the good fruit from our kin. When we make judgments, lets make sure that they are informed, based on reasoning not wishful thinking, or worse, no-thinking, and free from bias. In other words we should always try to be ideal observers.  We owe that not only to them, but to ourselves.

One day Boas in the cold winter of 1883 was caught in a dreadful snowstorm in northern North America. It was the mother of all blizzards. Temperatures dipped to minus 46º C. That would even impress people from the prairies of Canada like me. Boas and his group understandably became disoriented in the storm. For 26 hours in the freezing cold there was nothing he could do to help his men. He left himself and his entire crew to the care and custody of the local Inuk companion and their dogs. Eventually the Inuk guide led them to safety and the men survived, though half dead when they arrived. They were nearly frozen to death and nearly starved. The next day Boas wrote this in his diary,

“I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over that of ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down on them…We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We highly educated people are much worse, relatively speaking.”

Boas opened the eyes of anthropologists, but many more. Many people came to realize we have a lot to learn from others. Our hubris must be put on the shelf.

Boas  explored the idea that random beliefs could coalesce into what he called “culture.” Boas was among the first to promote the idea of culture as an organizing principle of anthropology.

Boas became the leader of modern cultural anthropology. He studied with an open and unprejudiced manner how human social perceptions are formed and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. I would say Boas was the father of modern cultural anthropology and also the father of the sociology of knowledge.

Boas insisted that his students learn and conduct their research in the language of the place and even participate in the lives of the people that they studied. These were revolutionary ideas at the time.  Davis said of him, “Every effort should be made, he argued, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts.”

Of course this required his students to set aside their preconceptions and actually look at, and listen to, the people they were studying. Prejudice had no place in their science. One had to look skeptically at one’s own cultural preconceptions in order to avoid being enslaved by them.

This led Boas to his revolutionary idea of cultural relativism. According to Davis, “This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

This does not mean that all cultures are equal. It does mean that all cultures merit respect. It does mean that all cultures have something to teach us. It does mean that cultural arrogance is misplaced. As Davis said,  “In truth, no serious anthropologist advocates the elimination of judgment. Anthropology merely calls for tis suspension, so that the judgments were are all ethically obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones.”

Boas wanted to see the world through the eyes of his subjects. He wanted to walk in their moccasins. He practiced radical empathy, not arrogance. That is the attitude we need to understand Indigenous issues. Not arrogance. Not a sense of superiority. Empathy is much more helpful.

Sociology of Knowledge & the “Discovery” of the Americas

The story of exploration, “discovery,” conquest, and colonization of the western hemisphere By Europeans is incredibly important and incredibly interesting. The explorers were astonishingly brave. They sailed towards what many people thought was the edge of the world where they would fall off. Yet they did it. They plowed ahead no matter what the dangers. They were brilliant in their adaptions. Yet, also importantly, there was a dark side to the impact of conquest and colonization. That dark side, in my view, grew out of the soil of the Original Sin. Often it showed the utter brutality of the conquerors. The Christians, for examples, seemed profoundly barbarian.

We must always remember that all “knowledge” is coloured by ideology. This is what the sociology of knowledge is all about.  We see the world through the invisible lens of our own beliefs and presumptions. It is very difficult to avoid this. As Wade Davis in his brilliant book The Wayfarers, said “Knowledge is rarely completely divorced from power, and interpretation is too often an expression of convenience.”

The study of anthropology was born out of a deep attitude of superiority, as did so much of “knowledge.”  People believed in an evolutionary model in which 19thcentury men like Herbert Spencer saw that societies developed in a linear progression from savagery to barbarism to civilization.

In time anthropologists learned a lot more and abandoned the error of their earlier ways. As Davis, reported,

“Such transparently simplistic and biased interpretation of human history, though long repudiated by anthropologists as an intellectual artifact of the nineteenth century, as relevant today as the convictions of Victorian clergy who dated the earth at a mere 6,000 years, has nevertheless proved to be remarkably persistent, even among contemporary scholars.’

Davis gave a powerful example of this in a  Canadian book, Disrobing the Aboriginal History: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, that ridiculed the very idea that the original inhabitants of the Americas had anything useful to offer to the Europeans they encountered. Here is what that book said, “Never in history has the cultural gap between two people’s coming into contact with each other been wider.” The profundity of this ignorance is astounding, and I will have a lot to say about how wrong this idea was as we meander through this issue. That does not mean the idea is not common and deeply pervasive.

It is pervasive because it is deeply embedded in the ideology of supremacy that grew out of the fundamental sin–White Male Human Supremacy has been the implicit underlying ideology of the west for centuries. It cascaded through the generations. It blinds everyone under its influence, both the alleged superiors and the presumed inferiors. Everyone has been infected. It makes the privilege invisible.

For generations indigenous peoples have been taught they are inferior. For generations white people have been taught they are superiors. And likewise, men are superior, and women inferior. Or that Christians are superior to all others. And finally, and still largely underappreciated, that humans are superior and animals and nature inferior. These attitudes are so pervasive that it is almost impossible to dissent. These assumptions are invisible. They imbue nearly everything that happens in the west. Any dissent from the predominant ideology is automatically seen as irrational if not insane. As Herbert Marcuse noted, dominant groups rarely acknowledge anything that undermines their dominance. They just don’t see it.

Members of the dominant group do not even see their privilege. This is just who they are.  Only those who relentlessly try to act like ideal impartial observers with fellow feeling and are armed with critical thinking skills are able to extract themselves from the influence of the dominant ideology and even then, only with great difficulty.