The word relativism is used loosely to describe intellectual positions which reject absolute or universal standards or criteria. Thus, epistemological relativism is the view that there are no universal criteria of knowledge or truth. What counts as true is a function of criteria which are internal and so relative to local cultures, historical periods, or socio-political interests (the scientific community, the ruling class, revolutionary proletariat, and so forth). The critiques of positivism which were influential in the 1960s and 1970s often (mistakenly) advocated some form of relativism as the only alternative. The subsequent work of Michel Foucault , linking ‘regimes of truth’ with power relations, added to the currency of relativist perspectives in sociology and related disciplines. Moral relativism, likewise, is the view that there are no objective moral standards. This view, like epistemological relativism, has become especially influential through the popularization of the work of the German philosopher Nietzsche by Foucault and others. Though often welcomed by sociologists in a spirit of tolerance and respect for cross-cultural difference, it is often forgotten that these views have strong historical links with political irrationalism, and (in particular) with European Nazism. It should be remembered that, from the standpoint of a thoroughgoing moral relativism, the values of respect and tolerance themselves have no general validity, but are mere peculiarities of particular, localized moral traditions (for example liberalism).
One of the most forceful statements of a thoroughgoing relativism can be found in the works of Paul Feyerabend. In a series of controversial polemics against scientific objectivity, method, and rationality, Feyerabend refers to himself as a ‘flippant Dadaist’. In Against Method (1975) he uses historical studies of scientific change (as had Thomas Kuhn) to show that for each proclaimed methodological principle of science, an at least equally good case could be made for adopting its opposite. The purpose of the argument was to weaken faith in method as such. The only principle Feyerabend was prepared to support was, famously, ‘anything goes’. In subsequent writings (such as Science in a Free Society, 1978, and Farewell to Reason, 1987), Feyerabend has made clearer the moral and emotional basis of his relativism. He sees a world increasingly dominated by a Western industrial-scientific way of life, which eliminates cultural diversity, destroys the environment, and impoverishes life. The key culprits in this scenario are science and its associated claims to objectivity and reason. This trio are so corrupted by their incorporation into global monotonization that they should be abandoned in favour of a free-for-all in which magic, witchcraft, traditional medicine, and other alternatives have equal access to power and resources.
Against Feyerabend it has been argued that misuse of science by powerful interests is not a sufficient reason for abandoning all the actual or possible benefits which might flow from its detachment from those interests. It might also be argued that the abandonment of reason has been historically no less destructive than its misuse. See also cultural relativism ; methodological pluralism ; paradigm ; post-modernism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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