Cultural relativism and cultural anthropology

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Cultural relativism involves several distinctive examples of a particular society dependent on its customs and indigenous philosophy. I'd like to attempt to analyze my society from many perspectives in order to explain it from a metaphysical standpoint rather than a logical or empirical framework. I'd like to recommend Anne Fadiman's book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which discusses cultural distinctions between Hmong and Americans.
Any questions emerge here, such as what part ritual plays in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. What do we learn from the book about the relationship between ritual, faith, and medical practice? Hmong who are aborigines of Lao and have settled in American since few decades but still continue their life with Laotian culture and have not let themselves been affected by Americanized society. In the helm of cultural clashes, Lia suffers most and eventually loses her life. The book address the cultural differences which arise between Hmong family and the Health care center of the state of California. Lia, a Hmong girl child who was diagnosed with severe Epilepsy, was stuck in contradictory ways of handling the same disease with different perspectives. Lia’s doctors were against the Lia’s Parents approach towards her illness, which creates misunderstandings and misinterpretations towards her treatment.

One of the important arguments of the author is that there existed a hollow space between the two diverse cultures that disturbs mature and empirical understanding of the two distinct notions of the nations. It clearly denotes the practice and exercise of Cultural relativism. The cultural and language barriers become the impediment in Lia’s treatment. The clash of Cultures broods over so much that Lees start being skeptical about the treatment prescribed by doctors for severe Epilepsy. The doctors give scientific reasons for Lia’s illness as neurological disorder when neurons go out of control that eventually leads to multiple organ failure. While as, Lee’s parents consider reason of illness as more of spiritual and less of scientific.

Cultural relativism and the reality

There are many events in the culture which are classified as rituals which traverse from the sacrificial ceremonies of animals to different practices of worship which directly are related to cultural relativism. Sartorial attitudes, difference in attires depict the deep seated essence of ritualism. Amulets over medicines also marks the ritual practices in Lees.

I will look at parallel operation of ritualistic, religious and medical practice attitudes to address Lia’s waning situation. There are many instances where the beliefs strike a stark difference in rituals, religion and medical practices (Dumont, 1970). The thematic approach of the principles and formalities of the culture is not against the rituals and religion but gives a fair idea of how few rituals annihilate the very nature of medical practices. Another aspect exudes that religion and rituals are interconnected and shapes up medical practices as well.

Both the two approaches operated parallel to each other in order to address a deliberate and steadfast account to make Lia better. But, unfortunately, both of them misunderstood her apt need, which eventually turned Lia into vegetative state forever. Hmong’s customarily philosophies revolve round their religion and rituals to counter the problematic state that their acquired; they completely opposed the medical practice but, the doctors also tried better. Lees splurged a lot of money to address the worsening health conditions of their family members. “Lees spent $1000 on amulets filled with sacred herbs from Thailand, which Lia wore constantly around her neck” (Fadiman, 1998). The strict religious connotations associated with the Hmong people describe their rigid concern about it.

One of the important implications of a traditional approach is that it emanates cultural etiquettes, governing ethnic and aesthetic aspirations of the concerned people. These rituals laden cultures weigh down the new world (developed) approach and leave an imprint of ambiguity within the spheres of Medical practices.

There are many events in the culture which are classified as rituals which traverse from the sacrificial ceremonies of animals to different practices of worship. Sartorial attitudes, difference in attires depict the deep seated essence of ritualism. Amulets over medicines also marks the ritual practices in Lees (Dumont, 1998).


Lia was made scape goat by these rituals and even overmedication which leaves her brain dead. “The souls of sacrificed animals are precious and vitally connected to human souls. Animals are not considered to be far removed from human species as they are in our world view… Since the bonding between the life-souls between the patient and the sacrificed animal is so intimate, it is likened to souls being wedded together” (Fadiman, 1998). It infers from above quote that the Hmong links ‘souls’ with health and happiness. They have a staunch faith in soul and on their ancestors who could make or break Hmong prosperity. They can go to any extent to please a soul (Bishop, 1998). And as per the rituals Hmong need to pay offerings to their ancestors for their well beings. The ritual of soul searching has been acknowledged by Hmong all through. They believe rituals have holistic approach and can cure any diseases.

“Sometimes the soul goes away but the doctors don’t believe in it. I would like to tell the doctors to believe in our neeb. The doctors can fix some sickness that involves the body and blood, but for us Hmong, some people get sick because of their soul, so they need spiritual things” (Fadiman, 1998). Lia was reeling in the cusp of medicinal practices and spiritual remedies but her health deteriorated and made both the procedures irrelevant. Lees were ardent in their traditional ways of handling the diseases and strictly speaking they wanted to heal their daughter by mere performing rituals. They hardly had concrete trust on the medical practices which the doctors were following. Even, Lees developed a notion against the medical approach and felt that the doctors are responsible for the deteriorated condition of their child. “According to May lee, Lia had once been able to count in English and Hmong and knew all the tunes and lyrics of the traditional Hmong New Year’s song” (Fadiman, 1998). The statement evokes that the Hmong family pursue the medical practice as futile, and they perceive the conception of medical practice as strictly oppositional to their customs and rituals. The religious aspects of the Hmong tribe also interfere with the implementation of the medicinal slant towards their worsening girl. However, at times, there exists a firm link between their religion and the rituals, like they offer sacrifices (like animals) that have both religious and ritualistic connotations associated with it.


Laotian culture is very much interesting but it does not give a fair understanding of the basic cultural relativities. It makes reader to have sneak peek into Hmong culture. She makes one strong point by saying that the doctors are too rigid in understanding the nuisances of Hmong and hence leaves a doubt on Medical practitioners of modern world. Cultural biases sometimes lead to more complexities and ruin the social fabric of a society. However, it seems that there establishes a firm link between the rituals and religion with the medical approach operating at the periphery of the whole Hmong ideology. Both the tactics try to understand the pros and cons of Lia’s problem with different realms of the two contradicting thoughts. Nevertheless, both of the approaches occupy a firm faith to address Lia’s worsening problem but, unfortunately, there remained a vast gap in understanding the actualities of the illness that led Lia to waning situation. The cultural perspective along with the scientific perspective failed to determine the stratagem that they should implement in order to consider Lia’s deteriorating condition. Unfortunately, both of them try to reveal their own aspirations without having an in-depth understanding of the illness.

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Bishop, N. (1998). Himalayan Herders. Fort Worth; London: Harcourt Brace CollegePublishers. ISBN 9780534440602.

Dumont, L. (1970). For a Sociology of India. In Religion, Politics, and History in India: Collected Papers in Indian Sociology. Pp. 2-18.

Fadiman, A. (1998). The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Fricke E. T. (1993). Himalayan Households, Tamang Demography and Domestic Process, Book Faith India,

September 21, 2021


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