Category Archives: Cultural Relativism


Culture shock is defined as the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes (, 2013).  It is what happens when one encounters people, or groups, that have a different set of values, norms, and even laws.  Culture shock can even happen within a certain country, if that country is diverse enough. For example, one might experience culture shock when going from northern Michigan to Texas. There are things such as the weather, food, and dialect that are different from what one considers normal if from northern Michigan. To better understand what culture shock is, one must better understand what a culture is.  Wherever one lives in the world, culture is comprised of norms, folkways, mores, laws, and even includes languages to name a few.

Have you sat in a movie theater and watched as everyone got quiet once the movie started?  Or how you just know how to act while you’re attending church?  What about how we raise our hands to ask a question in class?  These are norms of our society, or in other words, what people have decided is acceptable.  There are different types of norms for different societies.  For example,  folkways deal with norms within a particular society.  A folkway is a norm that when broken, it is not that big of a deal even if a norm is broken. You will still be made aware that what you did was wrong, but you will live to see another day.  A good example that comes to mind is for men in particular. When using the urinal, you are supposed to stand at least two urinals away from the next person. Where is this rule written?  It is not written, but if you were to go stand right next to another man at a urinal when there are other spaces available, you would be sanctioned.  For example, the man you stood next to might leave in a hurry, or give you a dirty look, because what you did is considered wrong.  Mores are norms that are taken more seriously and obedience to must be necessary for society.  Mores are usually made into laws. These laws are enforced with more serious sanctions, such as prison, to make sure our obedience is mandatory.

These patterns of society help create our culture. Society needs these patterns of behavior to survive.  Without these, we would easily fall into chaos caused by the lack of rules.  Think of a school room full of students without the teacher.  The children will go wild, pulling hair and running around, with no one to object. In doing so, they break the norms of the class room. Nothing would be able to be accomplished until the teacher returns to establish the norms.  Without those norms in place, the children were not able to learn and advance; staying in the same state until the norms were again in force.

Now that we better understand what culture is and consists of, we can talk about culture shock.  I experienced this when I went from Michigan to the country of Malawi. I was trading not only countries, but races as well.  As I went from the dreary parts of Michigan to the warm heart of Africa, I could not help but feel out-of-place.  The people talked different, transportation was odd to me, and do not get me started on the food.  As I immediately began comparing the two places, for a time, I began to think my home was better, simply because we did not eat caterpillars and all (for the most part) spoke the same language.  Although those thoughts passed as I spent more time there, I now realize that to be Ethnocentrism.  I feel bad holding what I was used to as being better than where I was, but that is a fairly common thing to do.  Looking back, I think that Ethnocentrism could even be the founder of racism.  It would not be very hard for those feelings of, “My culture is better than yours,” to lead to the idea that, “I am better than you.”

As time went on, I became more acceptable to the culture and the people around me. In turn, it became easier for me to practice cultural relativism, or the judging of peoples’ behaviors based on their own culture.  For instance, eating bugs as part of a meal.  In America, it is considered disgusting, however, in Malawi it would be considered normal.  So as I began to practice cultural relativism, I no longer deemed that as wrong and took part in such cultural activities.

While I was in Malawi, I went to some interesting places.  Once, we were invited into a very wealthy Indian man’s home.  I felt so strange because I was still in Malawi, but everything I had come to associate Malawi with was gone.  Instead of a dirt floor, he had tile.  He told us that he resented the dirtiness of most of the people there.  He almost lived to set himself apart from the dirtiness of the rest of the country.  As we left this man’s home, we looked around and realized that there was a whole group of people who felt the same way.  This counter-culture openly opposed the main culture of Malawi, but they could not get rid of the main culture entirely.

New Picture

As I moved from the warm heart of Africa to the neighboring country, Zambia, I noticed that because of the size of the country and number of different tribes, it was hard for them to be united under one culture.  In the north, you had the Bembas, in the south was the Tongas, and eastward was home of the Chewas.  These subcultures were still able to relate to most things, but you just knew that they were different.   They differed in their mores, folkways, and values of the larger society (Jon, 2011, 63). I believe that the shared main culture within all of the tribes of Zambia is what keeps it together. If a country lacks that main culture similarity and there are competing cultures fighting for dominance, the result may very well be civil war.  Looking at the civil war in the United States, the culture of the South was to have slaves while the culture in the North was anti-slavery.  The two different cultures were so close to each other, within the same country, the differences could only be solved by war.

Culture is very much a part of who we are.  Every day we are shaped by our culture and the rules that come with it.  We need our culture to hold us together and help society to continue to advance.  When we are placed into a culture that we do not relate with, we are shocked.

Works Cited

“Culture Shock”. OxfordUniversity Press. 2013 2/23/13 <

Witt, Jon. Soc 2012 Ed. Boedeker, Gina. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2011. Posted by: Fallon Burke, 2009  Titled Chaos in Classroom.


“He who Marches out of step hears another drum”

–Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

The easiest way to address the idea of cultural relativism is to consider the norms of the society that we are accustomed to. A norm is the behavior that we deem normal or acceptable. There are different types of norms including Folkways (everyday behavior), Mores (thought necessary in a society), Formal Norms (laws), and Informal Norms (things society sees as normal that are not written laws). Examples of these everyday norms are: dressing appropriately for work (Folkways), the act of adultery (Mores), paying taxes (Formal Norms), or how to react when entering a classroom (Informal norm). But norms change. Cultural relativism is the practice of looking at differences in society through that society’s eyes. This is an idea of objectively considering the acts, traditions, or behaviors of a culture different from your own. It is an unbiased process of analyzing a world that we are not accustom to, because it was not the culture we were socialized into. This act of socialization that occurs when we are young and continually occurs as we grow is the process that teaches us what to view as a norm and what to view as deviant.  The extreme opposite of Culture Relativism is Ethnocentrism. This is where a culture is analyzed for its differences in a negative manner. In other words, ethnocentrism is seeing traditions and beliefs that are different from your own, comparing the two, and favoring your own.

An example of these processes can be applied to the pictures above. On the left there is a girl who has scars on her face. These scars are purposeful and deemed as normal and positive in the society she was raised. The scars are a way to identify her with the village that she came from. The girl on the right has a tattoo on her shoulder. This is also a purposeful and positive symbol that she has decided to place upon her body. Both of these acts are similar, they have both scared their skin for life in order to identify with their culture or a value that they hold. Seeing this as it was previously stated, would be looking at these processes through a culturally relativistic view. Seeing only the girl with a primitive way of identifying with her village, or a girl who paid to mar her body with an insignificant picture would be an ethnocentric view of their cultural values and normative practices.


Works Cited

“One Few Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Quotes.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., n.d. Web. 25 Feb 2013.

“Cultural Relativism, Basic Concepts.” Sociology Gide. SEO Expert Chennai, n.d. Web. 25 Feb 2013.