Anthropology between Europe and the Pacific: Values and Prospects for a Relationship Beyond Relativism

by Laura Bennett, MA Human Rights

As part of the School of Global Studies Anthropology seminar series, I recently went along to hear Joel Robbins, a Social Anthropology professor at Cambridge, discuss his research entitled ‘Anthropology between Europe and the Pacific: Values and Prospects for a Relationship Beyond Relativism’. The general focus of the seminar was values, how they are used and what meaning they have to different people from different places. This discussion was encapsulated in the larger idea of the role of anthropology in communications and understandings of sameness and differences between places.

Joel explained these ideas with an ethnographic example of the Urapmin, a remote group in Papua New Guinea. The Urapmin were living on land which had the potential to become a mine due to the amount of copper and gold underneath it. In order to renew the license to keep looking for this copper and gold there was to be a meeting. In preparation for the meeting, the group prepared a performance with the central message of it being that they were simple bush people who needed developing.

Although the group could have been seen to be portraying themselves as backward and in need of help, what they were actually doing was attempting to form a relationship with the town and government. This is because in the Urapmin mind-set building and maintaining relationships is highly important. Their way of asking for something was in this way framed through ‘sorry talk’ and ‘hard talk’, both of which emphasised the value of gift giving and reciprocation in these relationships. Although the group did not get to perform they had built relationships and continued their reciprocation with the government.

With this example, Joel was conveying the following things. Perhaps most evident was the Urapmin’s focus on the value of relationships. Through a focus on this value it displays the differences in how business ventures are shaped in Europe and the Pacific and what is viewed as more or less valuable in each culture. The fact that the government and board did not stay to watch the performance displays their lesser attribution of value to the relationship between them and the Urapmin in contrast to their high level of effort. As formerly noted, what Joel was trying to show overall was the emphasis anthropology should be putting on values as a way of understanding difference and sameness between societies.

It was argued that the now somewhat unappealing notion of cultural relativism should be replaced with ‘value pluralism’. This is due to the fact that cultural relativism is something that has been ‘ill-defined’ and thus is something that anthropologists have never been able to make real sense out of. However, as a result of the abandonment of it anthropology has lost its critical lens. With values, it may be easier to understand as there is a mainly consensual idea of what they can mean and what they are. They therefore make societies easier to understand themselves and thus compare and critique to one another.

My own personal opinion of the seminar was that it brought forward many interesting and intriguing ideas. I believe that values do have more of an impact in understanding commonalities and differences among places than they are perhaps given and maybe there should be a shift in the way we think about these things. Some of the questions asked at the end are quite pertinent and are where I will leave this overview. I think that leading on from this discussion we need to ask if anthropology will be able to accommodate such a large shift and how the values of the anthropologist themselves factor in. I would also ask, as a student who has now spent the last four years of learning with cultural relativism being at the forefront of many of this, whether the ‘sun has (truly) set’ for good on the concept.


Laura Bennett is an MA student in Human Rights at Sussex, where she also completed her BA in Anthropology . She has a special interest in minority groups and how their inequality can be analysed from both a societal level and a personal one.

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Posted in Ethnography, Rights

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