, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 371-391

Cultural relativism and comparative criminology

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The recent spate of comparative studies of crime is long overdue as a potential palliative to the traditional ethnocentrism of American criminology. But their comparative method is uncritically taken from two incompatible propositions derived from Durkheimian empiricism. As such, the generalizations about criminal behavior that these studies advance should be treated more with caution than optimism. This essay discusses the alleged advances over Durkheimian empiricism made by two distinct forms of cultural relativism.

If what every man believes as a result of perception is indeed to be true for him; if, just as no one is to be a better judge of what another experiences, so no one is better entitled to consider what another thinks is true or false... then, my friend, where is the wisdom of Protagoras, to justify his setting up to teach others and to be handsomely paid for it?

Socrates, in Plato'sTheaetetus

A version of this paper was presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, New York City, 1980. Its graces are due to the helpful criticisms of Mark Abrahamson, and the uncommon sense of Susan Corrente; its sins are due largely to my friend Cliff Parker. Correspondence about this paper should be addressed to the author at: Department of Sociology, University of Southern Maine, 120 Bedford Street, Portland, Maine 04103, U.S.A.