Hello, I am a 2nd year Cultural Studies student... Is relativism just a problem of our intellectual inheritance?  (writes F from the UK)

I assume your interest lies in the social origins and consequences of relativism as well as the intellectual ones per se? There seem to be several factors:

1. The increase in social differentiation -- the multiplying of possible way of life. This is enhanced by the sorts of factors mentioned by Durkheim or Parsons -- an increasing social division of labour so that people do not do the same sorts of jobs nor live the same sorts of lives. Another factor is contacts with other social systems -- through trade or immigration/emigration. As a result of all these, we come to see that our own ways of life are not the only ways to live, that others exist and seem perfectly viable. This makes us open to relativism. Considerable social change in our own lifetimes, including social mobility, might have the same result. 

2. A marxist twist to the argument sees the modern economy as so dynamic and innovative that traditional values a re weakened and the pace of change prevents new ones from crystallising -- at least until the end of the capitalist era.

3.  There is an increase in plausible philosophies or moral or political systems, and also an increase in critical techniques to enable us to see through the claims to truth of the usual philosophies (including the growth of specialist marxist techniques of ideology-critique,or, more recently, the acutely perceptive and sceptical techniques of 'de-construction'). Mannheim's classic work in the 50s and 60s foresaw a lot of this. I suppose it is often discussed as a consequence of secularisation too. One dominant moral ethical and political system declines (such as the close network of religious and political ideas associated with feudalism), but no single dominant alternative arises to replace it. Instead, several equally plausible sets of ideas arise, each with their own definitions of truth and validity. For Mannheim, this led to a radical 'relationism' -- ideas only made sense when traced to the very different ways of life that had spawned them.

4. Postmodernist ideas express another dimension. In social sciences at least, there did seem to be a manageable number of scientific approaches that seemed promising -- such as marxism, freudianism, keynesian economics, feminism, 'scientific' versions of  town planning or architecture and the like. Then faith in these 'metanarratives' began to weaken, partly because  social life seemed to get complex, as above, especially with the rise of the mass media, which constantly brought us new knowledge about social differences. The other factor was that social science and philosophy became very self-critical and sceptical, and began to find problems with the claims made by these modernist metanarratives -- after years of trying to make marxism , freudianism and all the other isms work, the French especially were forced to the conclusion that they were flawed and unworkable. As a result, it was time to celebrate other narratives, lots more narratives, lots more alternatives. I suppose this might be closest of all to a flaw with the intellectual heritage especially -- modernism was just tested to destruction?

5. If this is the source of the philosophical or intellectual roots of relativism, there are solid commercial factors too. Consumer-based industries especially like frequent changes and alterations, new fashions and trends, breaking down barriers and distinctions, and opening up markets. Why stick to the old values in matters like musical choice or holiday destinations, or places to live? -- change round and make us money!! The tremendous drive towards celebrating difference, especially in terms of individual identity weakens shared values. If Baudrillard is right, massive differentiation will lead to a kind of apathetic de-differentiation, where no-one knows or cares who is right, better, happier etc.

6. As a variant on this argument, Bourdieu has argued that a particular class (or fragment of one)  also has a vested interest in relativism. The cultural petit-bourgeois, who have made a living from possessing cultural capital, are a restless group who relish lots of social change and cultural relativism, because they come into their own then as old 'conservative' groups and their ideas (both in the aristocracy and in the working class) are seen as redundant. Tony Blair's politics might fit well here?

7. Finally, don't forget that there may be some forces which oppose relativism. Sociologists in particular are suspicious about relativism as a whole way of life for all members of our society. If functionalists are right, a relativist society is impossible -- we would end as a mass of anomic individuals. People need values to hang on to. And what of laws, or thopse 'disciplinary apparatuses' which maintain social order (the academy is a good example -- we discuss relativism but do we actually DO relativism, especially when it copmes to assessment? For marxists, class divisions and class solidarities persist and must do. Has patriarchy gone away just because cultural differneces between males and females might be lessening? For critics like Habermas, the danger is that relativism will lead to a new set of certainties as people find them selves unable to cope without strong values and as disorder mounts -- these new values might be nasty fundamentalist ones or even fascist ones.

Icidentally, my own wonderful 1996 book approaches these issues (even if it doesn't exactly resolve them) -- try the Introduction especially?

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