Cultural Relativism 101
One of the things I like most about teaching anthropology is the way it can serve as a Bizarro mirror for Western culture--by looking through windows at other peoples, we get a reflection back that highlights our own experience in new ways (I explored a similar idea in my last post, Finds Them and Kills Them).
Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Horace Miner’s essay on the Nacerima. While it’s dated, its insight still holds up. At the most superficial level, it satires anthropology’s stereotypical tendency to view other peoples through a lens that emphasizes the exotic. Deeper, though, it shows how a fresh view of another way of life can highlight important dimensions of social behavior that participants take for granted and are analytically unaware of.
While I do my best to impress a culturally relative (one that takes “hard second looks” at internal cultural logic), one area that students often cannot suspend their ethnocentrism is when talking about other religious behaviors, particularly those that involve sacrifice of people and objects. It just seems to unreasonable--it violates common sense--to destroy perfectly good and valuable objects for the purposes of pleasing some ridiculous god or gods. Mound 72 at Cahokia or the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan seem hallmarks of primitive peoples not comprehending that they’re pursuing extraordinarily wasteful behavior.
Side Trip into Archaeological Method: Ritual Formation Processes
Speaking of wasteful behavior, there’s no better academic discipline to understand waste and garbage than archaeology. One of the first things that really turned me on to archaeology, was archaeological theory, in particular behavioral archaeology. When I got into this stuff, I realized I wanted to and could pursue a career in the field. My first orthodox professor in behavioral archaeology was Bill Walker who had recently published his chapter “Ceremonial Trash?” (1995). This paper explored pathways of discard that resulted from varying ritual behavior. His argument focused on ritual “trash,” or religious objects that could no longer serve their functional purposes because of wear or use. Usually, such objects had to follow unique discard pathways because of their symbolic and supernatural significance and thus, couldn’t be thrown away with “regular” trash.
To highlight the particular characteristics of ceremonial trash, he also discussed another, much more known type of ritual discard--sacrificial or kratophonous discard. I’ll stick with the latter adjective because I think it’s a cooler word that would not look out of place in a heavy metal band’s album cover. Kratophonous discard is the termination of artifacts and people with potentially usable future life histories for the purpose of demonstrating power. In other words, people break and throw away stuff to show that they can. Many recent and ancient societies engaged in kratophonous discard to create, reproduce and demonstrate their power.
A couple of years back, I indulged this interest in method and theory by assigning an honors section of an archaeology class a project in contemporary archaeological formation processes. I asked them to find some institution and investigate how objects moved through and out of the institution’s activities. These invariably turn out to be cool projects and the students and myself get a lot out of them. One project’s findings have stuck with me. The student’s project was looking at bakeries and delicatessens in a small town near my college. In particular, he was interested in the fate of unsold food at the end of the day. Out of the four establishments he surveyed, they all discarded the food. Additionally, they discarded the food in inaccessible, secure receptacles to prevent non-paying folks, bums or freegans from acquiring free food.
This isn’t unique to the restaurants he studied. The practice of discarding or destroying unsold food and merchandise--rather than recycling or redistributing to others who need, but cannot pay for the items--is widespread in our economy. For instance, many makers of high-end items, like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, are rumored to discard or even burn unsold bags.
I’ll admit I don’t know for certain and have never witnessed such behavior and am relying on relatively sketchy internet research here. However, such discard behavior makes sense (see below for a discussion of common sense) in our socioeconomic ideological context. Louis Vuitton and Chanel objects are ones that reproduce and broadcast privilege and status. Such items need to be in relatively low supply to be capable of such cultural functions. Allowing unsold items into the marketplace through less prestigious outlets would diminish the social capital of the objects. So, trashing and burning perfectly physically functional (i.e. they can hold a small about of other objects) objects seems practical because these objects primarily perform social, not physical functions.
Perhaps we could theorize the discard of unsold merchandise as a kind of kratophonous discard. When the profit motive drives decisions and actions, food and objects that could be put to use are instead destroyed. The objects are sacrificed to serve the greater good of keeping demand up and making money for and reproducing the power of elite interests (I won’t get into it here, but the destruction and ultimate discard of human beings at the hands of a health care system that is profit driven and rations care to the wealthy could be seen in a similar light).
Common Sense Isn’t So Common
In a later paper building on Sahlins’ Culture and Practical Reason, Walker argues that an archaeological focus on subsistence, economics and politics has marginalized studies of ancient religion and ritual, after all, many archaeologists have assumed we can understand the former as they’re structured by practical reason (i.e. common sense), while the former is built on irrational, culturally specific beliefs. In other words:
Sahlins stresses that where practical reason drives economic, ecological, or agency explanations, it oversimplifies human practice. Practical reason is a conceptual shorthand that asserts a universal logic to human actions 
Michael Herzfeld has called anthropology the “study of common sense,” emphasizing that what is common to one group of folks might not be so common to another. Practical reason is common sense and common sense is contingent on context.
While we don’t know exactly the common sense or practical reason that structured the discard behavior of Cahokians or Teotihuacanos, we can easily understand the common sense of businesses in a capitalist economy pursuing profits and that waste makes sense, we may not agree with it ethically, but it makes sense.
1956 Body Ritual Among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist 58:503-507.
1995 “Ceremonial Trash?” In Expanding Archaeology, University of Utah Press.
2002 Stratigraphy and Practical Reason. American Anthropologist 104:159-177.