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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsCultural relativism, in its most fundamental sense, is the idea that the source of ethics-- or morality, if you prefer-- is in a group, in a culture so that what is, in the end, right or wrong or good or bad, maybe what is virtuous and vicious, actually somehow derives from the culture itself. Contrast that with universalism. So universalism says that the source of what is good and bad, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious is not in any given culture. The source is outside of culture somehow. Human rights can be understood in a cultural relativist sense. But they are more commonly understood in a universalist sense.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 secondsSo the idea when people talk about human rights, what they usually mean is that every human being on the planet, young or old, and irrespective of what culture they come from, where they live, where they were born, has a set of rights-- a right, for example, to health or perhaps a right to health care, a right to education, things like that. And the idea is that these are universal rights, that they apply to all, and they apply to all irrespective of which culture they are from and where they live. Students will encounter different cultural environments, different professional environments. And they might find these very difficult to deal with.

Skip to 1 minute and 46 secondsAnd it really does speak to this grand debate about universalism and cultural relativism. So it might seem that cultural relativism and universalism are grand, rather abstract concepts, and it might not be immediately clear why they're relevant to health care students on an elective. But the reality is that students who are on an elective will experience different professional practice. They will experience patients who come from a very different cultural background. They will see forms of behavior amongst patients and professionals that they perhaps disagree with. They might well come to the conclusion that some of the things they see are flat-out wrong, unethical, unprofessional, maybe even illegal, at least from the perspective of their home country.

Relativism, rights and universalism

Many students return from electives reporting practices that they are not familiar with and some that they do not necessarily agree with. Their challenge is to understand the context by questioning it gently and appropriately. This can be difficult as a student and as an outsider.

We live in an increasingly globalised world, but different cultures continue to vary significantly from one another. Students who opt to complete an elective abroad will inevitably experience forms of professional cultural practice that they are unfamiliar with. Some of these different cultural practices can be challenging to witness and even more challenging to respond to. This is because some forms of professional practice will seem to be at odds with the ethical requirements, professional expectations and legal demands that an elective student is familiar with.

An understanding of the foundational concepts of cultural relativism, universalism and human rights, as described in the video above, will help elective students to frame their response when they encounter cultural practices that challenge their core beliefs.

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This video is from the free online course:

Preparing for an International Health Elective: Exploring Global Health, Ethics and Safety

St George's, University of London

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