Searching for a middle ground: anthropologists and the debate on the universalism and the cultural relativism of human rights

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In the anthropological debate on human rights a new theoretical approach, a search for a middle ground, has been attempted to solve the dilemma of universalism versus cultural relativism. In the human rights discussion in general, and in the anthropological debate in particular, the dichotomy of universalism/relativism is seen as one major obstacle to the implementation. This article takes a critical outlook at this discussion in anthropology, arguing that there is no such middle ground between universalism and cultural relativism, neither in relation to the definition of the rights, nor the implementation. Instead, this article attempts, through an example from Borneo, to point the way to a human rights theory, called relative universalism of human rights. This is a theoretical approach integrating universalism and cultural relativism instead of trying to find some moral space in-between.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Social Anthropology


  • anthropology, Borneo, cultural relativism, Human rights, relative universalism, universalism
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)611-628
JournalInternational Journal of Human Rights
Issue number5
Early online date2017 Mar 3
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Jun 13
Publication categoryResearch