Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 24 May, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Relativism denies the possibility of objective knowledge independent of the knower.

explanatory context

Relativism is a concept with several layers of meaning. The term can be used at the level of 'relatively speaking that was a large fish'. Or, at the other extreme, 'all knowledge is relative'.

In the first instance, the use of relative implies a set of 'objective' criteria against which relative statements can be measured. This, in effect, is not real relativism.

In essence, relativism relates to a more fundamental thesis that denies the possibility of objective knowledge independent of the knower, of the social environment and of ethical/values that impinge upon the knower.

One implication of relativism is the denial of any universal ethical judgements (see cultural relativism)

analytical review

Bérubé (2005, p. 304) in New Keywords writes:

In general usage, relativism and its relatives have from the C16 forward involved various senses of being in relation to something else, in a grammatical (relative pronoun), biological (distant relative), or philosophical sense. The notion that relativism requires the understanding of relations and relative positions is evident in modern scientific senses of relativity as well, according to which it has been axiomatic since the lC19 that observations of the physical universe are relative to the motions of the observer and the observed (‘‘Our whole progress up to this point may be described as a gradual development of the doctrine of relativity of all physical phenomena’’: Maxwell, 1876). A weak form of the scientific and/or philosophical senses of relativity is also at play in many current colloquial uses of the term, as when people say with a shrug, it’s all relative, as a C20 update of the ancient truism, de gustibus non disputandum est.

Philosophical relativism comes in many forms, but it is usually understood to entail some version of the position that there are no absolutes that hold for all times, places, andcultures, and that all moral assertions about the good and the just, together with all epistemological assertions with respect to the true and the knowable, must therefore be judged with respect to the context in which they are made and the goals they seek to achieve. Whenever we argue that one cannot understand the peoples of the ancient world by the standards of the modern, or that the practices of the Maori must be understood from the reference point of the Maori themselves, or that it is not always wrong to lie or to kill, we are employing some kind of historical, cultural, or moral relativism. The term has increasingly generated controversy from the mC20 onward, just as the general awareness of global differences – and global atrocities – has increased during that time. For instance, the discipline of anthropology is founded in part on a methodology in which field researchers are expected to cultivate ‘‘the scientific habit of looking at each people’s standards and values objectively, seeing them as ‘relative’ to the particular view of life fostered within the culture concerned’’ (Keesing, 1958). It is diagnostic of the difficulties attendant upon relativism that what anthropologists consider ‘‘objective’’ in this way, other observers – with, no doubt, relatively different value systems and terminologies– would consider ‘‘subjective,’’ insofar as it involves a description of cultural practices that would be comprehensible within those cultural practices themselves, and not with regard to some external standard.

It is commonly charged that relativists have no way of adjudicating among truthclaims, and no way of forming judgments on cultural practices ranging from clitoridectomy to genocide. When, for example, the fundamentalist Islamist cleric Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 (allegedly for blaspheming against the Prophet in his novel The satanic verses [Rushdie, 1994; original publication 1988]), some Western intellectuals debated whether they could in good conscience condemn the death sentence, or whether doing so would amount to imposing Western notions of secularism and free speech on another culture – whereupon other Western intellectuals condemned them for their flaccid relativism. Conversely, advocates of relativism have countercharged that their critics seek to advance a spurious universalism that really represents the values of one group as if they were universal, and that this pseudouniversalism is more accurately described as cultural imperialism. The Western Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy, founded upon the operation of reason, thus might seem to its proponents to be so self-evident as to be universally applicable across the globe, but in practice may turn out to be fundamentally at odds with the ideals of cultures whose highest values concern the proper fulfillment of duties to religious or worldly authorities.

In one respect relativism is uncontroversial: ittorture of slaves, and yet, if all values are to be understood relative to the goals they seek and the societies they sustain, it could be said that in a society in which cruelty and hierarchy were virtues, the public torture of slaves would be understandable. Most relativists would reply that such a society can nevertheless legitimately be condemned by reference to values external to that society. This is the position of prominent ‘‘relativists’’ such as Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1988), who argue that all values must be understood in relation to the goals they seek but that this does not prevent the relativist from discriminating between virtues and vices. The argument is that the relativist does not, in fact, believe that all value systems are ‘‘equal’’ (for at an absurd extreme, this would commit the relativist to an agnostic position on the question of whether relativism itself is wrong), and that the relativist can make value judgments even though these are not grounded in a belief system that could potentially be shared by everyone. The problem in this dispute, however, is that relativists deny the premise of their anti-relativist interlocutors, namely, that moral judgments are meaningless unless they can be so grounded. As a result, the relativist sees the universalist as a potential tyrant, and the universalist sees the relativist as morally unserious. To suggest that the claims of each should be weighed with respect to the goals each seeks to advance would, of course, effectively award the palm to the relativist; to suggest that the claims of each should be weighed ‘‘objectively’’ is to give the game to the universalist. The impasse produced here thus involves a fundamental incommensurability between competing justifications for belief – an appropriate conclusion, perhaps, suggesting that positions on relativism are themselves relative.


New World Encyclopedia contributors (2015):

Relativism is the view or claim that there is no absolute referent for human beliefs, human behaviors, and ethics. Relativists claim that humans understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of, for example, their historical or cultural context. Ethical or valuational or axiological relativism is the view or claim that there do not exist any absolute values or absolute standards for ethics.

Descriptive or observational relativism is the view or observation that different people, groups, societies, and cultures do in fact have differing views about right and wrong, good and bad, truth or falsity—it is the observation that the actual views that people have or hold about good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, do in fact vary from person to person, group to group, and society to society. In other words, observational relativism holds that, as an observable fact, the views about good and bad, right and wrong, truth or falsity are relative to the person, group, society, or culture that is being investigated or considered. No reasonable or sane person can deny the truth of at least some degree of observational relativism.


associated issues


related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section 1.7


Bérubé, M., 2005, 'Relativism' in Bennett, T., Grossberg, L. and Morris, M (Eds.), New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London, Blackwell.

New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2015, 'Relativism', New World Encyclopedia, last updated 8 July 2015, available at:, accessed 21 May 2017.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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