On Travel, Cultural Relativism, and Ethnography

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

"Being White - Stories of Race and Racism" by bell hooks

A friend on facebook writes:
"I have realised that anyone who tries seriously to understand and communicate another culture, is bound to come across as relativistic."

Here are my thoughts on travel, ethnography, and relativism:

Some of the best travelers nonetheless love their home more than anywhere else and want to share it and understand foreign cultures in order to share their own better... I find my Irish friends have this quality.

I think it was Bell Hooks that wrote about western/male/privileged touristic travel versus other kinds of 'travel' like being a refugee, diaspora member or unwelcome guest.. she was writing about a black person visiting the caucasus region or somewhere.. but could also be applied to any american minority in japan who runs across racist things.... relativism in a sense is a privilege.. which is perhaps why it and cultural/moral relativism are used as epithets sometimes, as if: 'how smug to assume you can adopt whatever culture you choose' .... anthropology is full of this reflexive self-criticism about projecting your values on others, but sometimes misses the self-criticism of how your own pseudoscientific 'relativism' is a privileged position. Some of the best ethnographers acknowledged their biases and the limits of their position as participant observers.. for instance being a male or female and not having access to gender-exclusive rituals.. better to accept these sorts of limits and dwell in your own identity than to go crashing over boundaries and try to be all-seeing.. sometimes you actually learn more this way it seems..


 totally agree. as a laowai/gaijin, I get benefit of freedom from some social constraints in target culture.

 outsiders can ask questions about things so ordinary and commonplace they are taken for granted and not discussed explicitly.

Joyman Lee via Facebook:
"yeah, i'm not too familiar with this but have heard some of the basic criticisms against anthropology before. it's simply too difficult for a human being to become completely immersed in a different culture, in addition to being presumptuous. you're also very right that resources such as foreign languages, for example, can only be acquired at great expense of time and money, and hence why it's a privilege. but having acquired such (basic) skills what do we do? i personally find it most meaningful to try as best as possible to see what users of that language think, and esp in a well set -out case(for example a major industrialized country such as Japan with a massive literature) this isn't particularly difficult once you overcome the initial language barrier and given the right attitude. the distinction you made referring to Hooks is also interesting. At the end of the day I do believe that we're just ourselves, at the same time as remembering that the basic goal of most humanities/social sciences disciplines is to understand a society that is different from ours, be it the past, or a theme taken from the world as a whole but nonetheless one that is way beyond our immediate everyday and personal experience and hence 'foreign'"

Nick Kaufmann via Facebook:
yeah like the original fantasy of the internet was it was the place where you could be anyone, and change identities or have multiple identities.. go in all doors... but now so much of the internet is tied to one identity with social media... and it actually makes a lot of things possible or easier than were before.  similarly, anyone who plays RPGs would tell you it's no fun to have all the attributes for your character... the fun comes from limiting yourself and picking a 'class'

Joyman Lee via Facebook: 
the prob of course remains how much we can understand something/play the hand of someone who we are not. although of course with more benkyou we generally get closer