Manipulating cultural differences to divide and exploit people remains unfortunately widespread in our world today. Cultural difference reflects attempts to make sense of varied human experiences and circumstances, and therefore, different values, norms and traditions of people around the world should be appreciated rather than being feared.
Early attempts to grapple with culture, necessitated by colonial expansion, categorised cultural difference based on the idea of evolution. Cultural evolution ranked diverse cultures based on a problematic Eurocentric notion of civilisation. Soon thereafter, a new breed of anthropologists came to the fore, however, who criticised the evolutionary perspective, and instead began promoting the idea of cultural relativism.
The idea of thinking about culture relatively was championed by the Polish American migrant Franz Boas, who advocated the need to pay attention to specific histories of different peoples to understand cultural differences. Boas became a fierce critic of the notion of cultural evolution and its assumption that different cultures around the world can be simply ranked according to distinct and uniform stages of development (savagery, barbarism and civilisation).
Instead, Boas argued that different cultures were understandable only within specific cultural contexts. He also argued that understanding a specific culture requires learning about its unique history. He suggested that cultural values, norms and symbols all derived from the unique historical development of a given group of people. The anthropological approach used by Boas to understand world cultures thus became known as historical particularism.
Boas and his disciplines made important contributions to the growing field of anthropology in the early 20th century. Boas did research amongst Native Americans in Alaska and helped create a much deeper appreciation of their culture. His work also helped to achieve a measure of equality for Eastern European immigrants to the US.
In Boas’s time, individual races were still thought to have specific physical, mental and cultural properties. Besides being an early critic of Nazism, Boas attacked racist pseudoscientific studies linking race and intelligence. Anthropology’s primary task, according to Boas, is to help understand how individuals within a specific group create a distinct culture, and in turn how this specific of culture influences the individuals which ascribe to this culture.
Historical particularism encountered one major problem however. If a specific historical context is vital to understanding culture, then how can one make any generalisations about the phenomenon of culture and search for patterns of culture which extend individual cultures? Boas had many students who also became important thinkers and further developed his ideas on culture. Amongst them was Margaret Mead, who tried to look for patterns of culture beyond individual societies, by asserting that differences between people are usually cultural differences imparted in childhood. Her influential work Coming of Age in Samoa pointed out how adolescent girls in Samoan culture were treated quite differently then Western civilisations, due to which there was less angst associated with the process of growing up in societies such as Samoa. By implication, Mead also showed how gendered behaviour patterns are not universal truths but extremely malleable, and reflect different cultural values. While some of Mead’s descriptions of Samoan life were later criticised, she made the important contribution to highlighting the importance of culture in personality development, and she also became a leading voice for 20th century Western feminism.
Many later thinkers have debated and refined these ideas further, including those from the so-called ‘developing world’ itself. Yet, the above insights into culture have proven valuable in understanding what makes cultures unique and why, and in turn how cultural variations impact other aspects, such as the role of women and men within a given society. The notion of cultural relativism remains significant within the contemporary world, where cultural difference often provokes suspicion and