ARTICLE 67: Research Methods for P. Hd. and Master’s Degree Studies: Relativism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I discuss relativism in this article, but I have some questions about the concept.

To me it seems like anything that is relatively one thing is also relatively the opposite.

A relatively near destination is also relatively far.

Relatively healthy food is also relatively unhealthy.

Relatively happy is also relatively unhappy.

Relatively strong is also relatively weak.

How can this be the philosophical foundation for scientific research?

Let’s discuss the paradigm.

Relativism asserts that intangible concepts such as moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, meaning, etc. are individually relative to a particular framework or point of view. Relativists, furthermore, deny that any point of view can be the only truth in terms of objectivity, accuracy, validity, reliability, etc. over any other points of view.

The most basic form of relativism, i.e. focusing exclusively on the truth (or not) is often called alethic relativism. Because of this flexible approach to research, some researchers regard it as incoherent.

A standard way of defining and distinguishing between different types of relativism is to begin with the claim that one phenomenon is dependent on and co-varies with some underlying, independent other variable.  Justice, for example, can be relative to local norms. Driving on the right side of the road might be legal in Germany, but not in England. Keep in mind that co-variation relates to quantitative analysis, specifically statistical analysis. A quantitative change in one variable is accompanied by a positive or negative change in a second variable.

Perhaps I should point out that co-variance indicates the direction of a linear relationship between two variables. Natural scientists mostly use correlation, which measures both the strength and direction of the linear relationship between two variables.

Despite being flexible in terms of judgement, relativist arguments always apply to a certain context, often excluding other contexts. Such arguments, consequently, always need to be qualified, either overtly or covertly. When an argument needs to be qualified and justified, we are dealing with epistemic relativism.

Different cultures often have different values, tastes, beliefs, etc. For example, if a political leader claims that bribery is an invention of Western civilisation, his argument might be true in his country and culture, but probably not in many other countries. In some countries it is regarded as bad manners to eat noisily while in others it is regarded as a compliment to the host or chef. These are examples of cultural relativism.

Relativism is often claimed to be the paradigm of the tolerant. In this respect all ways of life, values and points of view are regarded as worthy of respect. No point of view can possibly be objectively superior to any other. This is often called moral relativism and is characterised by tolerance, open-mindedness and anti-authoritarianism.

Moral relativism can be a risky and, perhaps, irresponsible point of view because of the circular nature of relativistic reasoning. It is, for example, doubtful if a society will flourish, or at least survive, in an environment where “everything goes”, i.e. where everyone does as they please, where the situation determines moral truth, and where lying and cheating is acceptable as long as you don’t get caught.

In the spirit of moral relativism abortion may be judged to be good or bad, depending on the point of view and reasoning of the evaluator. Even so, one cannot deny that truth applies to a particular context and value system, or culture.

The result of the circular argument about relativism being relative is that different people can argue different points of view, with each participant in the discussion offering sound and seemingly valid explanations and proof that their respective arguments are true. Consequently, some researchers are of the opinion that there can, indeed, be more than one truth about a particular issue while others regard this as incompatible with the science and the purpose of academic research.

Relativism is associated with constructivism in the sense that both believe that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world. However, relativism uses subjective reasoning without experiential evidence for this, while constructivism leans strongly on such evidence.

Relativism clashes with the technicist paradigms because of the tolerant and laissez-faire way in which the former deals with evidence of truth.

There are those who feel that the lack of accuracy, consistency and validity means that the results of research based on a relativistic approach cannot have essential endurance.

Ironically, relativism is a beast that devours itself by labelling those who believe in absolute truth as intolerant bigots. Relativist might claim that you are wrong if you judge anybody or anything, thereby labelling their point of view as the only valid one.

If everything is relative, then relativism is also relative. This is countered by arguing that relativist claims only apply in a particular context and, often, scope. It is when we try to superimpose the truth of one context or culture on another that relativism becomes a questionable paradigm.


According to relativism, no one point of view is the only truth.

Intangible concepts are relevant as data for research.

Relativist arguments always apply to a certain context.

Relativism can be cultural, moral, alethic or epistemic.

The type of relativism can be identified by determining the interrelationship between different variables.

There can be more than one truth about an issue.

Truth often depends on how well an argument can be motivated.

Relativism is associated with constructivism and opposed to scientism, positivism and modernism.

Points of criticism against relativism include that the paradigm has no essential endurance, that it contradicts itself and that relativist claims only apply in a particular context and scope.

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