The Value Of Cultural Relativism: Comparing Peace Corp Volunteer Floyd Sandford’s African Odyssey And Anthropologist Richard Lee’s Dobe Ju/’hoansi

1844 words - 7 pages

Even a student that has been educated for only four weeks in anthropology can admit that their viewpoint has changed since acquiring their knowledge. Studying a foreign way of life and unfamiliar customs sheds light on the impact that one’s own culture has on their thoughts. Anthropology is valuable because has the ability to remove the shock and misunderstanding that occurs when examining an alien worldview. The value of cultural relativism, the principle that one culture should not be judged by the standard of another culture, is illustrated in the comparison of Peace Corp volunteer Floyd Sandford’s African Odyssey and anthropologist Richard Lee’s Dobe Ju/’hoansi. A trained anthropologist speaks primarily in the voices of the people and quantitative data, while a relatively untrained Peace Corp worker enters a new culture and colors his account with his own emotional reactions and voice.
The main difficulties that arose during Sandford’s field situation was the result of a lack of relevant education and exposure to integral aspects of Nigerian culture. The Peace Corp training inadequately prepared him for the realities of African life; he was trained to deal with venomous snake bites and communist propaganda that never were an issue (Sandford 2007: 15). Sandford’s difficulties could similarly arise from the fact that he excitedly embraces all novel aspects of the local culture. He insists on visiting an African barber, who was inexperienced cutting Caucasian hair, because he wants his money to fuel the local economy. Sandford reacts to his disastrous haircut with, “Surprise, horror. The mirror didn’t lie. The entire one-third front of my head had been scalped. I looked like a Hare Krishna” (Sandford 2007:49). Time and again, Sandford acts as a sort of extended-stay tourist who deliberately rejects all newly Americanized aspects of Africa’s culture. Unlike Lee, he views the Nigerians from a traditionalist point of view. The traditionalist school of thought ignores the rapid changes that result from Africa’s new place in the world system, and prefer to see native people “as they once were” (Lee 2003:193).
Sandford contends that he could not fully embrace the native “emic” perspective during his short stay in Nigeria, but he experiences significant culture shock on his Western homecoming. After his return to America he states, “Living in the midst of such depressing, distressing, unredeeming manscapes, and burdened with an unhealthy baggage of complacency, gulliability, and apparent inability to recognize the word magic when they hear it, most Americans, accepting of mindless growth and manmade monotony, seem oblivious to the growing uglification around them” (Sandford 2007: 153). Sandford does not fully understand the value of cultural relativism; he succeeds more in overcoming his own ethnocentrism. In other words, he consistently uses value judgements to evaluate both cultures, but he begins to see that Western ideals are...

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