Democracy and the problem of cultural relativism: normative issues for international politics

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This article is concerned with identifying certain problems associated with the concept of culture, especially as these relate to normative theory. The first section focuses initially on the universalist/relativist divide around which much relevant theorising has taken place. It then highlights particular problems associated with the marked heterogeneity that actually characterises many 'cultural' communities. This is relevant, too, to the deeper theoretical problem of deploying the concept of culture as the basis of a framework-dependent form of ethical relativism. the second part is concerned principally with developing an approach to understanding democracy that emphasises its normative basis, and the extent to which democratic practice may legitimately reflect cultural (or other) differences, especially in light of the problems identified in the preceding section. I then turn to the major conceptual divide that has been constructed between the 'West' and the 'Rest', for this has some important, but often neglected, implications for contemporary debates about democracy and the more general role of culture in politics. The concluding discussion highlights the problematic status of 'culture' as a satisfactory explanatory and analytic concept when dealing not only with questions of democracy, but a range of pressing issues in global politics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-270
Number of pages20
JournalGlobal Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1998


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