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Cultural Relativism and Alternative Unions

azambetti's picture

Adult union and the consequent development of a family, exists throughout many world cultures.  Unlike the United States, where serial monogamy is the prevailing relationship category, many other cultures support a variety of adult unions, which would be illegal or socially unacceptable in the United States.  These alternative adult unions can be as diverse as the cultures themselves, confirming that there is no “universal system of ethics” (Dennett 494).  Taking a closer look at the “culturally strange” relationship arrangements in other countries, will help to increase Americans’ appreciation for and understanding of the social dynamics within those cultures, which ultimately leads to better cross-cultural communication. I think this communication must occur to prevent “ethics [from settling] into an … equilibrium” (Dennett 494).  I believe that the United States should encourage educational programs that discuss and appreciate the diverse cultural traditions such as those of the Na of China, the Tibetans of Nepal and the Indians of India.  Cultural relativism is the view that all cultures and beliefs are as equally legitimate as the next.  I am convinced that cultural relativism, and not ethnocentrism, needs to be the prime focus of all learning institutions to further encourage the understanding that alternative and seemingly “strange” relationship categories are often adapted by different social groups as a mechanism to cope with economic, religious and culture pressures. 

It is a common misconception that marriage exists in every society.  The Na people of China, interestingly enough, do not incorporate marriage into their culture.  “Mothers exist, as do children, but there are no dads” (Geertz 202).  Sexual encounters occur between the sexes through “visits” by the man to the home of a female member of the Na “in the middle of the night as impulse and opportunity appear, which they do with great regularity” (Geertz 202).  Once involved in this type of a relationship, there is “complete equality” between the man and women, “either of them can make that first advance and either may accept or refuse” (Geertz 205) the invitation to have a midnight visit. 

While the Na engage in relationships that are similar to “lovers” in American society, they are extremely sensitive to an incest taboo that provides structure to their type of relationships.  “Not only may one not sleep with opposite sex members of one’s own household, one cannot even allude to sexual matters in their presence” (Geertz 203).  Having an incest taboo allows for the development of “networks of alliances [that] engender all social organizations” (Geertz 203).  When I reduced the Na culture into its elementary pieces, I noticed that it was not very different than my own, since both cultures have specific regulations that must be followed.  “Human culture… is a repository of ethical precepts, ranging… all manner of specific commands and prohibitions, taboos, and rituals” (Dennett 494).  I believe that if others use my tactic of examining other cultures, they too will look more at the similarities and less at the differences, which I prefer to call alternatives.

When I recognized that the sexual customs and behaviors of the Na exist as legitimate alternatives to the typical Western monogamous marriage, I concluded that  “marriage can no longer be considered the only possible institutionalized mode of sexual behavior” (Geertz 204).  Studying and understanding these relevant concepts demonstrates that conventional models of adult union are not necessarily universal.  While to many nations marriage is culturally familiar, to others, marriage is culturally strange; the same is true with fraternal polyandry.

Economic pressure is often a major factor in determining acceptable family structure within a culture.  In Nepal, Tibetans consistently choose fraternal polyandry for economic reasons.  In this cultural structure, which is extremely rare outside of Tibet, “two, three, four or more brothers jointly take a wife” (Podolefsky 197) in order to avoid parceling the family farm between the brothers.  Keeping the farm undivided is more profitable and efficient for the extended/unified family, essentially because the brothers can work on the farm together.  While the household is mainly run by the eldest brother, the children of the household “consider all of the brothers as their fathers,” treating each brother equally, even if they know which of the brothers is their biological father (Podolefsky 197). 

To Tibetans, the concept of having laws barring their unique type of marital custom would be absurd.  Fraternal polyandry is a cultural necessity which allows Tibetans to thrive in a country where a large majority of the land is not arable, and where large sections of land require countless hours of work to counteract severe weather fluctuations of the region. 

Although I would not participate in fraternal polyandry, I do not presume to think that since some Tibetans are not monogamous they have any lesser of a society.  Without such a system in Tibet, many would be left without land to farm from generations of dividing the land among offspring.  I do not think that Western society has accepted other union types, demonstrated by the fact that we have a law against polyandry, and I advise our society to observe other societies by the cause of the alternatives (economic stability) in culture and not just the effect itself (fraternal polyandry).  Like Tibetans, Indians often practice a non-westernized marital system.

Although Tamil families of India are monogamous, married couples observe unique customs regarding how they conduct themselves in public and how they demonstrate their affection towards people.  Tamil families practice mutual avoidance, where the spouses avoid each other in public, and apply reference avoidance, where spouses only refer to each other using reference through another person, for example “the father of so-and-so” (Trawick 95).  When in public, the Tamil practice “the convention of mutual avoidance …. Between spouses” (Trawick 94), although “adult males and females who are not spouses can show loving affection for one another with a casual freedom” (Trawick 94).  This practice is “strange” to Westerners, who practice essentially the complete opposite.  Western society has historically banned certain affectionate behaviors between unmarried adults, particularly between a married adult and a non-spousal opposite-gender adult.  In addition, Western society allows for public displays of affection between spouses.  Although mutual avoidance and reference avoidance might make “the exterior of the relationship among spouses [seem] almost universally mute, where it was not harsh, the interior of this relationship had an almost exactly opposite quality” (Trawick 96-97). 

While the customs common between Tamil people exist today and will most likely exist in the future, the same cannot be said for the Na or the Tibetans.  The Na have for many years been pressured to marry by the government of China.  This external pressure has greatly diminished the population of seemingly “fatherless” children in the Na community.  Also, the custom of fraternal polyandry in Nepal is not going to be present in future years.  With the success of tourism, the Nepalese have successfully gained financial stability without having to own a farm.  Therefore, there is less pressure in the society and in the family to stay on family land. 

Unfortunately, many non-western societal customs are being eradicated with the constant pressures of westernization effecting countries around the world.  Americans need to overcome their apparent fear of or need to exterminate all other non-western cultures with their ethnocentric ideals, and start to think of the diversity of cultures as being imperative to allowing all on this world to be comfortable with whom they are.  I believe that “the existence of an ethical ideal in the judging mind” (Dennett 295), as we have now in western society, will eventually ruin the world’s chances as a diverse cultural environment.  Without people learning about cultural relativism, there will be a universal culture that will be the most extreme of ethnocentrism, not accepting all who do not conform.  I conclude that conformity is the absolute worst direction for the cultures of the world, since without an assortment of cultures our world would be full of distressed people participating in an unfamiliar culture. 

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 

Podolefsky, Aaron, and Peter J. Brown. “Applying Cultural Anthropology: An Introductory Reader 4th.”  When Brothers Share a Wife.  California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999.

Trawick, Margaret. Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. California: University of California Press, 1990.


gabe's picture

Invalid argument

Moving from premises about beliefs to a conclusion about reality is invalid:
Premise 1- John believes the Red Sox play in Boston
Premise 2- Mike believes the Red Sox play in Pawtucket.
Conclusion- There is no objective truth about where the Red Sox play.

Of course it looks silly there, but it is the same invalid argument here:

Premise 1: In the United States serial monogamy is the prevailing relationship category.
Premise 2: Many other cultures support a variety of adult unions, which would be illegal or socially unacceptable in the United States.
Conclusion: There is no objective truth regarding the morality of relationships.

The further conclusion, there is no “universal system of ethics”, is also not demonstrated from the premises.

Anne Dalke's picture

cultural relativism --> moral relativism?


What I’m coming to admire about your work is your ability to take the very specific content of our course and use it to raise large (and cataclysmic!) questions. Last month you looked at the history of mass extinctions; this time ‘round you are predicting/warning against the dangers of the end of a diverse cultural environment.

Your essay is filled with good examples of diversity—alternative unions in societies other than the U.S. Are these from an anthropology course? Might you reference the course along w/ the texts you use? You say that your tactic involves examining other cultures; that is of course anthropology’s tactic, and you could do more to highlight this dimension of the paper: you are adding to the toolbox of this course (biological and literary ways of exploring the world) those made available by the social sciences.

Where I get a little lost/would like a little more guidance from you is in the claim to which your good examples are intended as evidence: the need for cultural relativism—which you seem to equate with moral relativism. I’m unclear about this move (am also unclear why ethical equilibrium would be a bad thing). Cultural relativism, you say, is the view that all cultures are equally legitimate; is moral relativism the view that all belief systems are equally legitimate? All? No standards for judgment? Your tactic, you say, looks more at the similarities among cultures, and less at the differences/alternatives. Is it not important to recognize—to value, even to preserve—difference?

Your explanation of how economic pressure can drive family structure was an intriguing new concept for me; thanks. I quibble with your calling any arrangement a “cultural necessity,” though—cultural constructions, surely, occur in response to environmental pressures, but I’m not sure that any construction is either “essential” or “necessary.” I’ve also got some questions about what it’s like for the mom in the fraternal polyandric arrangements you describe (does your own disinclination to participate indicate similar qualms?) Your description of how mutual avoidance and reference avoidance might seem “mute” to us in the West is a great example of ethnocentrism, akin to our class discussion of so-called “altruism” in Edwardian England.

I end with a few more questions (always a good thing, for which again thanks):

  • wherefrom the need to exterminate cultures different from our own? What motivates that impulse?
  • Is comfort the universal imperative? (is this opposite to the refusal of equilibrium w/ which you begin?)
  • the danger of idealism: a very important observation, and one I’d like to talk further w/ you about—