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Towards the development of objective, universal criteria of cultural evaluation: the challenges posed by anti-foundationalism, culturalism and romanticism

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>06/2011
<mark>Journal</mark>Social Indicators Research
Issue number2
Number of pages20
Pages (from-to)275-296
Publication statusPublished
Original languageEnglish


Over the course of the last century, it has become increasingly unfashionable in the social sciences to make cross-cultural evaluations. The advance of cultural relativism has ensured that criticisms of other cultures are regarded as subjective and ethnocentric. There remain, however, cultural beliefs, practices and traditions which appear, prima facie, to contradict people’s interests. Are there any means of evaluating such practices or cultures according to objective, universal criteria? If there are, these need to withstand a series of challenges posed by ‘relativist’ critics of objectivity and universality. This article categorises these challenges, detailing anti-foundationalist belief in a conflation of perception and truth, culturalist belief in the overwhelming importance to wellbeing of living according to one’s group’s traditions, and a romantic challenge, which invokes anti-universalism only instrumentally, to particular aspects of Western culture. In order to overcome these challenges, a theory of cultural evaluation must demonstrate the existence of certain goods which are intrinsic to human beings, can be affected by cultural activity and are of greater importance than the culturalist good of living according to one’s group’s traditions. I put forward three plausible conceptual candidates—needs, capabilities and flourishing—discussing briefly the possible merits of each. Finally, I argue that, if we are to measure culture, rather than quality of life, we must consider the influence of circumstance on the nature of cultures and the level of wellbeing. This article is an attempt to identify the parameters for more detailed research into this contentious, but potentially valuable, field of study.