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William Graham Sumner: Cultural Relativism and the Savage

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Chapter Summary

Within the discipline of sociology, William Graham Sumner is credited with originating the fundamental concepts of folkways, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism, although, as Brown (2008) observes, the saga of cultural relativism within anthropology is of varying, more contested provenance, while the concept can be located in the work of some earlier thinkers, including Auguste Comte. This chapter explores Sumner conceptualization of the Forgotten Man and of ethnocentrism, the dissonance between Sumner's writings and the role that is attributed to him in contemporary sociological scholarship, and the current debate about cultural relativism. Cultural relativism was probably the right strategy for the multicultural age, so that human beings could overcome much of their ethnocentrism. It is suggested that increasing globalization and standardization of societal forms in the twenty-first century may necessitate reconsidering both multiculturalism and Sumner. Sumner also attempted to address the fate of "savages" in the modern world.

Keywords: contemporary sociological scholarship; cultural relativism; ethnocentrism; multiculturalism; savages; William Graham Sumner



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