Cultural Relativism and Its Importance in Understanding Michael Vick

Dylan MacNamara@@DylanMacNamaraSenior Writer IAugust 13, 2009

RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 27:  NFL star Michael Vick (L) departs federal court August 27, 2007 in Richmond, Virginia. Vick pleaded guilty in court to federal dogfighting conspiracy charges.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Cultural Relativism—An anthropological term that can best be defined as follows: An individual's actions, behaviors and beliefs can be understood only in terms of the culture from which he or she derives.


In Horace Miner's famous ethnographic essay, "Body Rituals Among the Nacirema," the author describes in intricate detail the seemingly bizarre cultural practices of a society known as the Nacirema.

In describing the Nacirema's oral hygiene, Miner writes, "The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships.

"Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them."

Miner's article is mandatory reading for anthropology students for two reasons. First, the text is an outstanding example of the sort of detail cultural anthropologists must include when writing up their findings.

Second, and more famously, the piece is a jarring reminder of how our own cultural biases can skew our vision of societies that we see as "different," "exotic," or "primitive."

Without giving too much of the essay away, spell "Nacirema" backwards and see what you find. Miner has described our own dental hygiene rituals, yet it in the layered way an anthropologist might describe a West African tribe's rituals. And we are shocked to see ourselves through the lens of this "outsider."

Clifford Geertz, one of the modern fathers of Cultural Anthropology, spent a number of years living in Bali among the local tribespeople. In his most famous essay, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," Geertz writes with ethnographic perfection about one of the Balinese people's most sacred and important rituals: cock fighting.

Similar to dog fighting in the deep South of the U.S., cockfighting in Balinese culture was a practice undertaken almost entirely by the peasant class and shunned by the social elites.

"As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men."

As Geertz indicates in the quote above, the animals are merely an extension of the owner's manhood. The fairly meager winnings a successful cock's owner might receive carry little significance in comparison to the social honor and prestige the owner attains.

In the latter half of "Balinese Cockfight," Geertz begins to unwind the psyche of the combatants. Why do they continue to play after harassment by the upper class, police raids, and the loss of their (sometimes) quite beloved pets?

Here the notion of "Deep Play" becomes important. Geertz argues that the irrationality of the fights, the consequences of competition being exponentially greater than the rewards, give the fights their true meaning and are the sole reason that the cock owners partake at all.

"It is in large part because the marginal disutility of loss is so great at the higher levels of betting that to engage in such betting is to lay one's public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one's cock, on the line. And though this might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that much further, to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness of it all."

Geertz continues, "...the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence, that access of significance more than compensates for the costs involved."

In regard to Michael Vick, many people have asked, "Why would a man who had well over a hundred million dollars spend his time fighting dogs?" If we use the framework that Geertz lays out in the "Balinese Cockfight," an answer presents itself.

Is it possible that the true meaning in Vick's life, his ultimate sense of self-worth, beyond the money, cars, and women, could be found only in a game of "Deep Play?" The more irrational and high-risk the endeavor, the more momentous it became for Vick and his friends: enter dog fighting.

Is it possible to see dog fighting in poor, rural Southern America through the lens of cultural relativism? In other words, as soon as Nacirema becomes American, do we lose our sense of cultural relativism and pass sweeping judgments that we might not otherwise make?

This isn't to say Michael Vick deserves a free pass (which he most clearly hasn't received). As anthropology has become more of a tool for critical thinking in recent years, the aim of cultural relativism has changed: to inspire us to reflect critically on our own ways.

That is to say, we can't excuse the Holocaust as an exercise in German death rituals. In the Vick case, we can't excuse his actions as purely ritualistic practices of the Deep South that he had little or no control over.

The key is to find a middle ground, a basic understanding of the culture that Michael Vick was living in, the deeper motives he had for participating in something seen by so many as atrocious, while using his mistakes as an opportunity to self-reflect on our own cultural shortcomings.