CRITICS: relativism

Deborah Lupton dlupton at
Mon May 13 13:43:45 UTC 1996

I have just joined the list and have read the debate about relativism
with interest. I have noted that feminism has been little mentioned
in this debate. Yet that is a field of critique that has had to
confront relativism. For me, the relativist approach acknowledges
that no one position can be all encompassing. While, for example, it
is a fine thing to emphasise that women have traditionally been
socially and economically disadvantaged compared with men, not all
women are as disadvantaged as others. For some women, their
ethnicity, socio-economic position or sexual identity may be more
or equally as important to their life experiences and subjectivity
than their gender. What feminism has had to confront is this
diversity of experience. That does not mean that the feminist
critique has had to be abandoned, but that feminists have now begun
to acknowledge that they cannot necessarily speak for all women as
 they once so blithely did.

I have also noticed some books appearing of late addressing the issue
of principled or socialist postmodernism that attempt to deal with the
problematic of relativism and political action. This suggests to me
that postmodernism has not necessarily resulted in an unproductive
nihilism but is beginning to confront what it all means for
inequality, human rights and so on.

As for Brian's musings about mad cow disease, I have done some
research on what people (specifically Australians) make of the
confusion in the medical literature over whether cholesterol is bad
for you. This research reveals that peole are mostly highly aware
that science and medicine is subject to disputes over knowledges -
that is, they are relativist. Yet, as Brian suggests, we must all
proceed with everyday life in some way. What my interviewees did was
make judgements based not only on media reports of the debate but
also on their own bodily and life experiences and pre-established beliefs
 about `goodness' and `health' etc. It is here that the theoretical literature
 on `risk society' maybe combined with discourse analysis to come up with
 some interesting insights into how we construct and deal with `risk'.

Deborah Lupton

Dr Deborah Lupton
Associate Professor in Cultural Studies and Cultural Policy
and Deputy Director of the Centre for Cultural Risk Research
School of Social Sciences and Liberal Studies
Charles Sturt University
Panorama Avenue, Bathurst 2795, Australia
phone: 61 (063) 384 093
fax:   61 (063) 384 401
email: dlupton at

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