Graham Plaster

culture + diplomacy + ethics + smart power + technology + humanities + entrepreneurship + philosophy

Ethnocentrism, Cultural Relativism, Clientitis, Human Rights & Core Values

This article from yesterday’s NY Times (U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies) highlights a point I have been making for a while about the limits of cultural relativism as a training objective.  Put bluntly, the core values or human rights standards of an organization should not be stripped away entirely in an effort to obtain academic objectivity.  In the long run, this runs counter to the mission of the organization.

When considering culture training for business or government employees, two distinct frameworks exist. The first, “cultural relativism”, is rooted in the academic ideals of Anthropology which seeks to study culture objectively as an end unto itself. By maintaining objectivity, the anthropologist aims to strip away “ethnocentrism” that would impede the unbiased study of other cultures. This is well and good as a methodology for academic exploration, but it has serious limitations as a framework for training towards specific job tasks.

The rebuttal to this is often that ethnocentrism and cultural relativism exist on opposite ends of a spectrum, and that a healthy way forward requires a balance.  Perhaps this is good enough for government work, as they say, but I think there are some other points to consider before we dust off our hands.

The State Department has done a number of studies on what has been called, in academic circles, “clientitis” and in more crude slang, “going native”.  An example of this might be an American FSO serving overseas who begins to view the officials of the host country government as the persons he is serving.  During the Nixon administration the State Department’s Global Outlook Program (GLOP) attempted to combat clientitis by periodically rotating FSOs outside their area of specialization.

If we attempt to place clientitis on the spectrum between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, we have a challenge.  It would seem that clientitis should be at the opposite end of the spectrum from ethnocentrism and cultural relativism could be in the middle of the line.  Or perhaps clientitis is just ethnocentrism through the looking glass. Whatever the case, the historical problem of clientitis sheds light on the fact that fighting ethnocentrism is not the only objective of culture training.  All training and education should be done with leadership and core values as underpinnings.  This means that the individual is given an opportunity to test and “affirm” his or her values as he or she reflects on differing perspectives (as opposed to stripping away or subjugating these values).

The second framework for training on culture, “universalism”, is rooted in a tradition of political philosophy affecting international laws and multilateral agreements. Clyde Kluckhohn, usually portrayed as a Universalist, concluded that true cultural relativism precluded moral criticism of any cultural practice, including slavery, cannibalism, Nazism, or communism. Universalism, by contrast, cherishes diversity among world cultures but also attempts to establish international standards through consensus, rejecting practices such as trafficking in persons, subjugation of people groups, genocide, torture, racial discrimination, and discrimination against women.

The academic ideal of cultural relativism becomes problematic in practice as governments grapple with how to regulate certain behaviors. One case in point is the UN stance on female genital mutilation (FGM). The UN has published documents with US support that state that FGM violates the human rights of girls when performed on them as infants. Cultural relativism, as a framework, might see FGM as neither good nor bad. Proponents of cultural relativism make the argument that nothing is universal and that it is ethnocentric to assert any cultural standards around the globe.

My last point is that words fail us at every turn.  Both “cultural relativism” and “universalism” have issues with what some linguists call their “dangerous sense” which is the overly simplified or misleading definition they could most easily fall into.  For those who live in ivory towers, it might be fun to debate definitions all day, but for practitioners, the more important part how the ideas perform in real life. So I only bring up the big words in order to get to the ideas behind them.

Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. swore to defend the US Constitution with his life.  He also recited and most likely memorized the Marine Corps values, which is perhaps why he struggled to ignore the young boys being raped in Afghanistan.  Here are the Marine Corps core values:


Further Reading:


Leave comments via LinkedIn

%d bloggers like this: