Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism maintains the view that all cultures are equal in value and therefore should not be judged on the basis of another cultural perspective. The cultural values and beliefs connected to religious, ethical, normative behaviors, customs, and political tenets are specific to the individuals within a given human society.

Culture is considered to be the collective knowledge and experiences of any given human society that is passed on from generation to generation. This collective knowledge often helps organize language, emotional expression, and norms of behavior within the group and thus provides members with a sense of group cohesion. Cultural relativism maintains the view that the values and beliefs of one culture have specific meaning and importance from the particular worldview of the individuals within that cultural group, community, or both. Hence, people who live outside of a particular culture may or may not perceive another cultural group’s worldview acceptable and consistent with their own.

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The emergence of multiculturalism within the field of psychology has raised several questions and challenges regarding the universality of the human experience. The history of psychology is rooted in Western European ideology and doctrines. Historically, theoretical constructs and concepts have developed from a Eurocentric perspective, which has permeated all aspects of psychology: diagnosis, treatment, and research of human functioning and psychological disorders. Scientific literature is replete with comparative studies using a “normative” group with a minority group. The “normative” group is often composed of cultural beliefs, customs, and values consistent with a majority-group worldview, thus leading researchers and clinicians to conclude that one group is more deficient or pathological than another group. This perspective, by definition, perpetuates a deficiency model of behavior and ignores the role and importance of cultural contexts in the ways that people think, behave, and define their experiences.

Psychological research that employs a multicultural context has given voice to the importance of understanding human functioning and behavior from both etic (culturally universal) and emic (culturally specific) contexts. This form of research provides an awareness of the importance of internal and external validity, that is, how behavior is consistent within and across cultures and societies.

According to cultural relativism, patterns of behavior are not universally normal or deviant but must be under-stood relative to a specified cultural context. Individuals define their experiences and behave in ways that are consistent within their own cultural community. Cultural relativism supports the belief that mental health should be understood through the context of normative behavior within a specific culture. Therefore, when counselors are working with individuals from a specific culture, they should examine the worldviews of that cultural perspective, so that behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions can be viewed from within the context of that culture. For example, for many individuals within Asian cultures, filial piety defines patterns of behaviors that denote respect and devotion for one’s parents. Therefore, behaviors and attitudes that fall within the confines of filial piety should be considered “normal” within that cultural frame. Counseling interventions and treatment modalities need to embrace cultural patterns that are consistent with the worldview of filial piety so that they can be more effective with the members of that cultural group. In this way, therapeutic strategies that are consistent with cultural worldviews will provide individuals within that group with sensitivity and empathy that are congruent with their cognitive, emotional, and psychological experience.


  1. Headland, T. N., Pike, K. L., & Harris, M. (Eds.). (1990). Emics and etics: The insider/outsider debate. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  2. Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (5th ed.). New York: Wiley.

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