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Relativism Vs. Universal Taboos

Warning: Please do not use my work and submit it as your own. Students have been caught plagiarizing from this site, and at least one university knows about this site due to that issue. This blog is not peer-reviewed, and thus is also not acceptable for scholarly research. Feel free to read the articles and papers here, but do your own research for your own schoolwork. Thank you!

Relativism Versus Universal Taboo

            In America, nobody cares how you cross your legs when speaking to another person, but in the Middle East, it is a sign of great disrespect to point the sole of your shoe towards another.  This is a tame example of relativism, the idea that each culture is different, and what may be “wrong” or unacceptable in one culture is not considered to be so in another. Lenn Goodman believes that despite relativism, there are certain acts that are, in fact, “wrong” no matter which culture looks at them.  He puts his views forward in “Some Moral Minima,” stating that genocide, terrorism, and rape, to name a few, are specific examples of immoral acts.  In this way, what he is talking about are human universals (Goodman, 2010).  Universals are common traits in all humanity, such as kinship systems, myths, wariness or fear of snakes, and incest (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  In this context, relativism still exists, but these are constant through all human cultures.  In regard to Goodman’s specific claims, each of the examples would need to be looked at to determine if they truly are universals, or if relativism and ethnocentrism color his views.  Specifically, are genocide, terrorism, polygamy, and clitoridectomy ever “right” in any culture?  If they can be shown in any culture to be moral, the issue is subject to relativism, whereas if it cannot, it may be said to be a universal taboo.

First to be discussed is genocide, the act of mass murdering people based on a specific trait, whether race, religion, or lifestyle.  Initial emotivist response to genocide is definitely negative for most, but if it was negative for all, it would not exist.  Take, for example, the tiny island of Tikopia.  The Tikopia have continuously inhabited their tiny island for over three thousand years (Diamond, 2011).  During that time, to prevent overpopulation and famine, they have had to resort to methods of population control that, as Americans, we would find distasteful.  In one example, after a particularly strong storm, one tribe of the Tikopia destroyed another tribe and forced the other into the sea, effectively killing everyone on the island that was not part of their tribe (Diamond, 2011).  In this case, the tribes that were destroyed may think their genocide was immoral, but the tribesmen that then had enough food to continue their society would have thought they were acceptable losses to sustain their kingdom for another millennium.

Another example Professor Goodman cites is terrorism.  What culture could possibly think terrorism is a morally acceptable method of warfare?  Depending on how you define terrorism, a surprising number of cultures.  A broad method of definition could include the guerilla tactics the colonists used against the British in the American Revolution.  Those pesky traitors to the crown would not stand up and fight like true gentlemen, instead hiding in bushes to take pot shots.  The underdog frequently has to resort to unconventional methods of warfare to make their point.  After all, the true purpose of war is to break the enemy’s will to fight, whether by causing unsustainable losses to their soldiers, destroying the economy or war production facilities, or through propaganda.  What better way to break the enemy’s will than by making them make decisions to do immoral acts, like shooting human shields to prevent further loss of life?  When a small group, say Al Qaeda, wants to pick a fight with the most powerful country in the world, like America, they do not go toe to toe in a brawl, but choose more unconventional methods.  We may see killing civilians as immoral, but to those who see America itself as immoral, terrorism is the most effective tool they have at their disposal.

Next on this abbreviated list is polygamy.  Goodman argues that polygamy reduces women to a show of wealth, and makes their happiness and lives completely dependent on whether their husband is fair or not.  Many cultures in this world are polygamous, but the one that is most familiar to Americans is that of the Fundamentalist Mormon religion.  The world has recently been introduced further into this lifestyle through TLC’s hit show “Sister Wives.”  It is not hard to see that while their life may have just as much drama and intrigue as the average monogamous marriage, their problems often seem tame compared to the family problems on other TV shows.  People who believe in polygamy are not likely to think it is immoral, so it is also not a universal truth to humanity.

Finally, we have clitoridectomy, female circumcision, or as many in the West call it, female genital mutilation.  Many criticize this procedure, which prevents female sexual pleasure as a method of preventing women from being unfaithful to their husbands, as a tool to oppress women (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  Women are the ones who perform the procedure, not because they agree with it, but because they know that men will not marry a girl who is uncircumcised, because they are considered wild, uninhibited, and dirty (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  However, there are some women who, perhaps finding the silver lining, say that the clitoris is a male organ, and unclean, so removing it enhances their femininity, cleanliness, and beauty, empowering them (Nowak & Laird, 2010).

In conclusion, if a practice can be shown to be a moral decision in any culture, it is not a true human universal, so relativism still has some credibility. In these examples, genocide, terrorism, polygamy, and clitoridectomy, we have seen that there is at least one culture, if not more, that values these practices.  Outsiders often find them repugnant, and for good reason, but what is immoral to one is not necessarily immoral to another.


Diamond, Jared (2011). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 5402-5406). Penguin. Kindle Edition.

Goodman, Lenn E.. (2010). Some moral minima. The Good Society 19(1), 87-94. Retrieved January 22, 2011, from Project MUSE database.

Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology (S. Wainwright & D. Moneypenny, Eds.).      Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/AUANT101.10.2/sections/ch00


06/06/2011 Posted by | College Papers, Thinking | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We, the Tikopia: Isolated Island Chiefdom

Warning: Please do not use my work and submit it as your own. Students have been caught plagiarizing from this site, and at least one university knows about this site due to that issue. This blog is not peer-reviewed, and thus is also not acceptable for scholarly research. Feel free to read the articles and papers here, but do your own research for your own schoolwork. Thank you!

We, the Tikopia: Isolated Island Chiefdom


As Americans, we are always looking for a way to grow, get better, and increase our lot in life.  The horticulturalists of Tikopia, on the other hand, are perfectly content to live by a Zero Growth policy.  Horticulture has influenced the people of Tikopia a great deal, increasing the yield of the land as much as they can, while minimizing their own consumption.  This is seen through their belief in their manipulation of their small island’s goods, the ideal of zero population growth, and the social changes they have enacted to ensure their survivability.


This paper was compiled using secondary sources, retrieved from Ashford Online Library sources, and the Internet using the Google and Google Scholar search engines.  A large majority of the information found comes from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse.  Most of the sources cited Raymond Firth’s authoritative work We, The Tikopia, which Professor Firth wrote after living on Tikopia in 1928 and 1929.  One of his protégés, Judith Macdonald is also represented briefly in this paper.


Social Organization

There are four chiefs, each ruler of a different clan of kinsmen (Diamond, 2011), but where some chiefdoms elevate their rulers above the status of mortals, chiefs of Tikopia work their own land to feed their families, and actually have the largest gardens to fulfill their ritual responsibilities (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  Tikopia have a patrilineal society, with land ownership and power being passed from father to son (Diamond, 2011).  As is common in patrilineal cultures, women are not afforded much prestige.  Women have to enter the home on hands and knees by a separate entrance, and are not permitted to stand inside their own hut (Aikman, 2006).  Whenever a man walks by, women are expected to drop to their knees (Aikman, 2006).  Division of labor is primarily by sex: men fish in canoes and do woodwork, while women do domestic work (Tikopia, n.d.).  Both men and women tend to cooking in the earth ovens, fishing on the reef, and planting the gardens, but men do the more strenuous work of breaking the earth while women are the weeders (Tikopia, n.d.).

Economic Organization

Tikopia is a small, isolated chiefdom that, over thousands of years, has micromanaged its environment to best suit their lives.  The people of Tikopia grow food for their own families, they have cultivated a land where every plant is edible or useful, and they have contingency plans for disaster.  Chiefs “own” all the land, and give parcels to each family (Nowak & Laird, 2010), but sale of land is an unknown idea, and no land is owned by any outsider (Tikopia, n.d.).  There are communal orchards, which anyone can harvest, and each family has its own garden to feed the household (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  While the gardens are allotted to each family, if one is not being used, another person can plant their crops in it, without asking permission, and the reefs are free for anyone’s use, even when they are right outside another person’s home (Diamond, 2011).  Because the island of Tikopia is so isolated, trade journeys are long and performed in small canoes, so imports and exports are very limited, thus importing food is not a valid option.  The most significant imports are unmarried young people and stone to make tools (Diamond, 2011).

Every plant on Tikopia has a purpose, leading some to call their technique “permaculture” rather than “horticulture.”  The trees in the artificial rainforest all have edible fruits or nuts, like the almond, coconut, breadfruit, sago palm, Burckella ovovata, chestnut, betelnut, and vi-apple, and the bark of the Antiaris toxicara tree is used for clothing (Diamond, 2011).  The people of Tikopia not only grow giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) in their swamps, but have specifically adapted a genetic clone to grow on the dry hillsides (Diamond, 2011).

To keep their food sources continuous and sustainable, they turn away from slash-and-burn farming, and impose taboos on fishing- the chief’s permission is required to catch or eat fish (Diamond, 2011).  For protein, the islanders used to raise pigs, but, as will be discussed later, they have since shifted to seafood and ducks (Diamond, 2011).

The islanders control every bit of their environment that they can, but they cannot control the weather.  Tikopia sits in a very active cyclone zone, with about 20 cyclones each decade (Diamond, 2011).  These storms destroy gardens regularly, and combined with the two-three month dry seasons each year, the Tikopia have to find ways to survive, so they put breadfruit into pits, fermenting them to make a starchy paste that lasts two to three years, as well as eating the wild fruits and nuts from the wild trees on the island (Diamond, 2011).

Values and Beliefs: Zero Population Growth

Horticulture is less intensive than agriculture, and provides less produce for the same amount of land.  Since the Tikopia are horticulturalists, the carrying capacity of the island is fairly low, at around 1200 people (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  Rather than developing the land more, and shifting to agriculture to increase the carrying capacity, they believe in “zero population growth” (Diamond, 2011).  Every year, the chiefs perform a ritual that instills the ideal of zero population growth in their people (Diamond, 2011).

There have been many methods used in the past to maintain the population at a sustainable level.  Parents will typically stop giving birth once their eldest son has reached an age where he can marry, or if they have a certain number of children, which may be four, one of each sex, or one boy and two girls (Diamond, 2011).  Celibacy on Tikopia does not mean abstinence, but not having children (Diamond, 2011).  Many people, whether parents of children who can continue the line, younger male siblings, and unmarried women who do not want to enter polygamous marriages, practice celibacy (Diamond, 2011, Nowak & Laird, 2010).  The easiest method is coitus interruptus, followed by abortion or infanticide if it is unsuccessful (Diamond, 2011, Nowak & Laird, 2010).  Abortions were performed by pressing on the belly, or placing hot stones on the belly of a pregnant woman near term, and if the baby is born alive, infanticide was executed by smothering, turning the child on his face, or burying him alive (Diamond, 2011).  During lean times, some people will resort to committing suicide rather than causing strain on resources, whether by hanging or swimming out to sea to drown (Diamond, 2011).  Others may volunteer for risky sea voyages with no hope of return, called “virtual suicide” (Diamond, 2011).

The last method of population regulation is war.  This method has happened twice in Tikopia history, in the 17th or 18th century (Diamond, 2011).  The salt-water bay was closed off with a sandbar to create a brackish lake, which killed off a lot of seafood, and the result was starvation in the Nga Ariki clan (Diamond, 2011).  To acquire more coastline, the Nga Ariki attacked and annihilated the Nga Ravenga clan (Diamond, 2011).  A generation or two later, the Nga Ariki chased the Nga Faea clan into the ocean, resulting in the virtual suicide of the only competition on the island (Diamond, 2011).

Social Change

Finally, there have been two major changes in Tikopia society, both from within and from without.  Previously, the chiefs of Tikopia raised pigs for protein, and to raise pigs was a status symbol (Diamond, 2011, Drolet, 2006).  Essentially, these pigs were a luxury item.  However, around 1600 A.D., the ancestors determined that pigs were unsustainable (Diamond, 2011).  Pigs competed with humans for food, often destroyed gardens, and were inefficient as food supplies, since it takes about ten pounds of vegetation to produce one pound of pork (Diamond, 2011, Drolet, 2006).  Every pig was killed, and the bay was turned into a brackish lake to facilitate a more seafood-rich diet (Diamond, 2011).

The other major change was the introduction of Christianity to the island.  As can be expected, there was often friction between the new believers and the traditionalists, but by the mid-1950s, everyone on Tikopia was Christian (Nowak & Laird, 2010).  The remaining pagan chiefs of the Tikopia decided to convert to Christianity because so many commoners had converted, and they recognized that to maintain unity throughout the island, they had to have the same beliefs (Macdonald, 2000).  With a new religion came new taboos.  Abortion, infanticide, and suicide were no longer acceptable, and the British government, which had colonized the Solomon Islands, which included Tikopia, banned sea voyages and warfare, which reduced population control to one method- coitus interruptus (Diamond, 2011).  Previously, younger male siblings often did not marry, and unmarried younger people had a relatively carefree sexual life, but were expected to not have children, whether through coitus interruptus, abortion, or infanticide (Diamond, 2011).  With the Christian missionaries insisting people marry before sex, younger siblings were marrying, and thus also having their own children (Aikman, 2006).  As can be expected, population on Tikopia boomed, but when a cyclone came through and destroyed crops, hundreds died in famine (Aikman, 2006).  Now the government transfers some of the “excess” population to less inhabited islands nearby, and the chiefs limit the number of Tikopia to 1,115, much closer to their ancestral population, and the island’s carrying capacity (Diamond, 2011).


Many societies have fallen into what Professor Diamond called “progress traps,” where people feel the need to continue growing, expanding, and consuming, even to its own detriment (Peacock, 2006).  The people of Tikopia, for three thousand years, have lived in a careful balance between what they can provide for themselves from horticulture and how much they consume.  Through manipulation of the environment, the ideal of zero population growth, and the changes is Tikopia society, we can see how horticulture has shaped their lives.  In the recent past, Tikopia has been influenced by well-meaning outsiders who indirectly caused disaster among the people.  Now we look to the future to see how the changes in their religion, and thus their population control, will truly affect their lives and sustainability.  Will the islanders be able to maintain their tiny island’s economy, or will they too turn to the Western ideals of consumerism?


Aikman, T. (2006, August 12). Life's a jungle for anthropologist. Waikato Times, p. A14. Retrieved from ProQuest database.

Diamond, J. (2011). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed [Kindle version] (2011 ed.). (Original work published 2005)

Drolet, D. (2006, October 19). Tiny Pacific outpost can teach us about limits to growth. The Ottawa Citizen, pg. A. 16. Retrieved from ProQuest database.

Macdonald, J. (2000). The Tikopia and “What Raymond Said. In S. R Jaarsma & M. A. Rohatynskyj (ed/s), Ethnographic Artifacts: Challenges to a Reflexive Anthropology (pp. 107-123). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. Retrieved from http://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/bitstream/10289/3340/1/the%20tikopia.pdf

Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology (S. Wainwright & D. Moneypenny, Eds.). Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/AUANT101.10.2/sections/ch00

Peacock, K. (2006). Progress traps. Alternatives Journal, 32(3), 38-42. 
   Retrieved from ProQuest database.

Tikopia. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2011 from http://www.everyculture.com/Oceania/Tikopia.html

05/23/2011 Posted by | College Papers, Learning, Thinking | , | 2 Comments