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  The idea that knowledge is produced and justified in terms of the social practices of the time and place in which it arises. As Protogoras, possibly the first reported relativist, said, \'man [sic] is the measure of all things\'. Note, though, that relativism is not equivalent to subjectivism, the idea that beliefs are mere personal opinion, taste or whim. The force of the relativist position lies precisely in its recognition that beliefs are socially and not merely individually variable. It further follows that because knowledge is dependent upon its social context, truth itself is relative. To put it in different terms, knowledge that we believe as true is accepted not because it is correct, or corresponds to rigorous, context-independent epistemological standards; it is deemed true because we believe it.

Opposed to relativism ever since Plato (who mocked Protogoras), is rationalism, which asserts that true knowledge is grounded in some foundation that transcends particular practices and contexts (cf. foundationalism). Rationalism guarantees that true knowledge really is true, and not just because we happen to believe it, and is characterized by four beliefs:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } that rationality provides a set of universal rules and procedures that if followed lead directly to the truth; {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } that those same rules and procedures are ineluctable in that they necessarily draw their users along like \'invisible rails which reach ahead … giving guidance\' (Bloor, 1988, p. 69); {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } that rationality is a final arbiter ensuring commensurability in cases where there are initial disagreements; and {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } that rationality is the only means to understand disciplinary or individual successes or failure.For example, while Newton\'s undiluted rationality brought him success as a physicist, his irrationality brought him failure as a closet alchemist. In every context, then, one can appeal to a set of non-locally specific, neutral rules and procedures — rationality — to resolve the issue at hand (cf. contextual approach).

In contrast, relativists argue it is never possible to know such rules and procedures because we can never stand outside of our particular local context — history, geography, gender, class, ethnic heritage, culture, and so on. That context forms the very basis of all our claims to knowledge: it enters into its very pores. For that reason rationality\'s claim to universality, to ineluctability, to commensurability, and to arbitrate success, is misplaced (or more precisely out of place; it is \'the view from nowhere\' as Haraway, 1991, p. 191, writes; see situated knowledge). If rationality is believed, it is only because the context of its espousal makes it seem credible.

There are a number of different forms of relativism, among which the most important are: perceptual (everyone experiences the world differently); moral (my good might be your evil); aesthetic (beauty is in the eye of the beholder); cultural (when in Rome, do as the Romans); and, the one already discussed, epistemological or cognitive (it is true for you but not necessarily for me). Of the five, the last has met the greatest resistance, at least within the academy. Portrayed as the view that there are no grounds for choosing among competing truth claims, it is then dismissed by critics on the basis of self-refutation; for any statement about the impossibility of truth claims is itself a truth claim. This form of relativism, called naive or radical, however, has \'except for the occasional freshman\' few adherents (Rorty, 1982, p. 166).

There exist, though, much more sophisticated versions of relativism that are not so easily dismissed, and are found in a number of disciplines. In the sociology of knowledge (\'a notorious black spot for fatal accidents\', Hesse, 1980, p. 30), there is Barnes and Bloor\'s (1982, p. 23) strong programme (see science, geography and): \'all beliefs are on par with one another with respect to the causes of their credibility\'. In anthropology Geertz (1984) has long practised a form of relativism (\'anti anti-relativism\' as he calls it), which he thinks must be the stock and trade of any ethnographer recording cultural difference — \'if we wanted home truths, we should have stayed at home\' (Geertz, 1984, p. 276). In philosophy there is the work of the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty (1982), who seeks to evade the standard objection to relativism by arguing that it is only a problem in the first place because of the traditional foundationalist vocabulary in which philosophy couches it. Change that vocabulary, and the difficulty evaporates. Finally, in science studies, there is the work of Woolgar (1988) and Ashmore (1989) who seek to develop a radical form of relativism by using the conception of reflexivity, in this case, the idea that a relativist perspective should be applied to the very belief in relativism.

Relativism since the early 1970s while \'beg[inning] as a trickle, has swelled … into a roaring torrent\' (Bernstein, 1983, p. 13). A lot of that popularity is due to the success of anti-foundationalist and anti-essentialist approaches associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism. There remain, however, energetic and committed critics of relativism who span traditional political and intellectual divides. For them the idea that there is nothing more fundamental anchoring our beliefs than a set of contingent social practices is akin to intellectual nihilism and moral irresponsibility. As Geertz (1984, p. 264) describes it, \'to suggest that “hard rock” foundations for cognitive, aesthetic, or moral judgements may, in fact, not be available … is to find oneself accused of disbelieving in the physical world, thinking pushpin as good as poetry, regarding Hitler as a fellow with unstandard tastes, or having … no politics at all\'. Here critics, from the far Left, such as the physicist Alan Sokal (1996) who criticizes the relativism of science studies (see science, geography and), to those on the far Right, such as US Senator Jesse Helms\'s interventions in various projects funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities, are equally convinced that relativism heralds the beginning of the end, that, as Yeats put it, \'mere anarchy is loosed upon the world\'.

Even writers who seemingly align themselves with a post-structural sensibility are not always comfortable with relativism, for example, in feminism, post-Marxism or post-colonialism. This is because writers in those traditions, while recognizing the importance of social context, also want to hold to progressive and critical political views that are seemingly undermined by strict forms of relativism (e.g. upholding the constants of patriarchy or class oppression or racism). In such cases, a third way is sought, as in Haraway\'s (1991) idea of situated knowledge, or Gibson-Graham\'s (1996) use of overdetermination, or Said\'s \'imaginative geography\' (Gregory, 1995).

Given geography\'s historical concern of understanding different places in the same way that anthropologists study different cultures, it is remarkable that relativism has not been more widely discussed in the discipline. When theory began entering the discipline from the 1960s onwards, it tended toward foundationalism and essentialism, such as found in rationalism, Marxism, phenomenology or Humanism. As a result, relativism was a non-starter. With recent interest in post-structuralism, postmodernism and social constructionism, and associated with some types of feminism, cultural geography, and even economic geography, there have been tentative explorations of relativism. Given the politicized nature of current human geography, however, there is a reluctance to push relativism very far (Jones, Natter et al., 1994). To do so would blunt the discipline\'s critical edge (an issue that is raised explicitly by Harvey, 1987, in his critiques of the \'formless relativism\' sometimes found in postmodernism and even realism, and also central to the debate between Barnes 1993, 1994, and Bassett, 1994, 1995). (TJB)

References Ashmore, M. 1989: The reflexive thesis: wrighting sociology of scientific knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Barnes, B. and Bloor, D. 1982: Relativism, rationality and the sociology of knowledge. In M. Hollis and S. Lukes, eds, Rationality and relativism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 21-47. Barnes, T.J. 1993: Whatever happened to the philosophy of science? Environment and Planning A 25: 301-4. Barnes, T.J. 1994: Five ways to leave your critic: a sociological scientific experiment in replying. Environment and Planning A 26: 1653-8. Bassett, K. 1994: Whatever happened to the philosophy of science? Some comments on Barnes. Environment and Planning A 26: 337-42. Bassett, K. 1995: On reflexivity: further comments on Barnes and the sociology of science. Environment and Planning A 27: 1527-31. Bernstein, R.J. 1983: Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics and practice. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Bloor, D. 1988: Rationalism, supernaturalism, and the sociology of knowledge. In I. Hronsky, M. Feher and B. Dajka, eds, Scientific knowledge socialised. Budapest: Akedemiai Kiado, 55-74. Geertz, C. 1984: Anti anti-relativism. American Anthropologist 86: 263-78. Gibson-Graham, J.-K. 1996: The end of capitalism (as we knew it). Oxford: Blackwell. Gregory, D. 1995: Imaginative geographies. Progress in Human Geography 14: 447-85. Haraway, D.J. 1991: Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge. Harvey, D. 1987: Three myths in search of a reality in urban studies. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 5: 367-76. Hesse, M.B. 1980: Revolutions and reconstructions in the philosophy of science. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Jones, J.P., Natter, W. and Schatzki, T., eds, 1994: Postmodern contentions: epochs, politics and space. New York: Guilford. Rorty, R. 1982: The consequences of pragmatism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Sokal, A.D. 1996: Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Social Text 46/47: 217-52. Woolgar, S. 1988: Science: the very idea. London: Tavistock.

Suggested Reading Barnes and Bloor (1982). Jones et al. (1994).



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