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TFS: Why we have to keep questioning what we 'understand'

The Power of Relativism

In the midst of the culture wars that seem ready to tear our world apart, I like to remember that some people value culture because they believe we have something to learn from each other.  Tq130201gd

The Guardian: Review of Jared Diamond book "The World Until Yesterday", 2013-Jan-9 by Wade Davis

Far ahead of his time, Franz Boas believed 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. He became the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. Boas insisted that his students conduct research in the language of place, and participate fully in the daily lives of the people they studied. Every effort should be made to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, the very nature of their thoughts. Such an approach demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one's own prejudices and preconceptions.

This ethnographic orientation, distilled in the concept of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein's theory of relativity in the field of physics. It became the central revelation of modern anthropology. Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before. The goal of the anthropologist is not just to decipher the exotic other, but also to embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, that we might enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia, the parochial tyranny that has haunted humanity since the birth of memory.

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