Cultural relativism and academic freedom within the Universities of New Zealand
Gary Raumati Hook


This paper is an examination of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism and their significance for Māori. It is not a defence of cultural relativism nor an attack, but a critical look at what passes for academic freedom within our universities. It also examines what academic freedom has achieved for Māori culture, and poses questions about where it might be directed in the future. Recently, academic cultural relativists have been called to account for their apparent protectionistic tendencies towards Māori culture. It has been suggested that the academic freedoms of the universities in New Zealand are being constrained by Māori protectionism and political agendas and that “only science has a place in the work of a university”. From a Māori perspective, the arguments for cultural relativism and its opposite ethnocentrism, seem somewhat specious since both “isms” arise from the analytical approach of scientific reductionism. The holistic approach of Māori points to the theory of emergence to explain behaviours that arise from the fundamental principles of Māori society, and that neither cultural relativism nor ethnocentrism are sufficient to account for the complexities and realities of indigenous societies in the world today. Failure of some academics to understand the fundamental nature of Māori society has laid foundations of mistrust that are sometimes difficult to overcome in spite of recent improvements in sociological understanding and methodologies.

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