Bartholomew, Robert, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
DEVIANCE, PSYCHIATRY AND CULTURAL RELATIVISM
"MAN: MAKER OF TOOLS, RULES, AND MORAL JUDGMENTS."--PHILIP K. BOCK 
ADHERING TO SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES HAS REAPED enormous rewards for humanity. This is most evident in the physical and biological sciences that seek to uncover universal laws. The same experiment conducted under identical conditions should yield the same outcome regardless of historical or cultural context. But in the social sciences the outcome is often more social than science--it is difficult to discover laws because we are dealing with a subject that is less predictable and more difficult to measure--human behavior. When we throw in the mix normative values in assessing, for example, whether a behavior is normal or abnormal, we are faced with a daunting task if we wish to maintain that we are doing science.
At the heart of the matter is how to reconcile that what is considered right rational, healthy, moral and legal for one culture or time period may be viewed as wrong, irrational, sick, immoral and illegal in another. Are there universal norms and behavior standards, and if so, how do we determine them? If we use science we face another dilemma. Science is dominated by Western norms and values. What may seem unequivocally right or wrong when viewed through Western eyes is often a political product of the social and cultural Zeitgeist. The problem is compounded by the fact that when scientists classify certain behaviors as abnormal, this process itself lends credence to the designation of deviance. Science is not a value-neutral enterprise that dispassionately applies universal scientific principles to explain, diagnose and treat conduct deemed as abnormal. Classificatory taxonomies of abnormal behavior are not elements in nature awaiting description like species.
HUMAN DIVERSITY THE ETHNOGRAPHIC RECORD
We begin with the problem that scientific methods used to justify classifying behaviors into such dichotomies as normal and abnormal, moral and immoral, legal and illegal often reflect the evaluators' norms, values, and beliefs at a particular time and place.  The ethnographic record shows that across cultures and historical eras, the variation in norms, values, practices and beliefs is dynamic and extreme. Examples include cannibalism, head-hunting, and polyandry (having multiple husbands at one time) as established cultural traditions among certain peoples, while Western medicine has justified colonization, slavery, and blood-letting based on prevailing folk realities. This point is crucial because it often appears that no one in their "right mind" would engage in what seems to be obviously sick, disordered or immoral behavior, yet we do so regularly with behaviors deemed abnormal by our standards.
Normality is not an objective given from which simple assessments of behavior can be rendered independent of historical era, culture, or group. Not surprisingly, many of the earliest challenges to narrow universalist conceptions of normality were from cultural anthropologists familiar with an array of behavior patterns that were accepted within their respective settings. Edward Sapir noted the importance, especially for psychiatrists, of the wide variation and plasticity of normality across cultures as "personalities are not conditioned by a generalized process of adjustment to the 'normal' but by the necessity of adjustment to the greatest possible variety of idea and action patterns according to the accidents of birth and biography."  Ruth Benedict observed that normality "within a very wide range, is culturally defined," and therefore psychiatrists should resist using a set list of symptoms in determining abnormality, but should instead examine how a certain constellation of behaviors align with the de ep structural values, beliefs and mores of the culture. 
The ethnographic record of acceptable or institutionalized behaviors is …
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Publication information: Article title: Borderlands. Contributors: Bartholomew, Robert - Author. Magazine title: Skeptic (Altadena, CA). Volume: 8. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2000. Page number: 36. © 2009 Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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