New Horizons in Institutional and Evolutionary Economics series
Chapter 7: Relativism and Realism
Cultural thought, with its comparative and historical temper, has the reputation of being relativist. If academic work must always be casespecific and fitted to local circumstances, then absolute knowledge seems to recede. Limits or qualifications in theorising are often perceived as faults, and relativism has pejorative connotations among scientists. The apparent relativism of cultural thought has made it seem imprecise, loose and subjective by contrast with the exact, rigorous and objective natural sciences. Repeated allusion to problems caused by relativities can easily be interpreted as denying the possibility of science. To label cultural thought as relativist is an oversimplification, given the many and varied guises that relativism can take. Cultural ideas are not relativistic in every sense of the word, and one should be careful about the relativities in question. The mere act of comparing or qualifying does not yield a nihilism that threatens scientific study. Relativism may be essential for successful research, especially in social sciences; attempts to find absolute theories may be inappropriate and hinder scientific progress. Long discussed in philosophy, relativism and realism have frequently been ignored or obscured by natural and social scientists. Orthodox economists have dealt in absolutes and said little about the specificity of their theories and models. The present chapter considers how cultural thought can sponsor relativistic but not anti-realist economic theory. While some writers within the cultural tradition have been anti-realist, this is not inevitable and derives largely from postmodernism. Many cultural writers were clear that human societies formed a real but...
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