DEFINITION AND EXPLANATION
Ethnocentrism can be define as the tendency to evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of one’s own ethnic group, especially with the conviction that one’s own ethnic group is superior to the other groups. It can be seen as judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture. Ethnocentric individuals judge other groups relative to their own ethnic group or culture, especially with concern for language, behavior, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and subdivisions serve to define each ethnicity‘s unique cultural identity. Ethnocentrism may be overt or subtle, and while it is considered a natural proclivity of human psychology, it has developed a generally negative connotation.
ORIGIN, INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND OF ETHNOCENTRISM
William G. Sumner coined the term “ethnocentrism” upon observing the tendency for people to differentiate between the in-group and others, disseminating it in his 1906 work Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. He defined it as “the technical name for the view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.” He further characterized it as often leading to pride, vanity, beliefs of one’s own group’s superiority, and contempt of outsiders. Robert K. Merton comments that Sumner’s additional characterization robbed the concept of some analytical power because, Merton argues, centrality and superiority are often correlated, but need to be kept analytically distinct.
Anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski argued that any human science had to transcend the ethnocentrism of the scientist. Both urged anthropologists to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in order to overcome their ethnocentrism. Boas developed the principle of cultural relativism and Malinowski developed the theory of functionalism as guides for producing non-ethnocentric studies of different cultures. Classic examples of anti-ethnocentric anthropology include Margaret Mead‘s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929), and Ruth Benedict‘s Patterns of Culture (1934). (Mead and Benedict were two of Boas’s students.)
“Ethnocentrism” is a commonly used word in circles where ethnicity, inter-ethnic relations, and similar social issues are of concern. The usual definition of the term is “thinking one’s own group’s ways are superior to others” or “judging other groups as inferior to one’s own”. “Ethnic” refers to cultural heritage, and “centrism” refers to the central starting point… so “ethnocentrism” basically refers to judging other groups from our own cultural point of view. But even this does not address the underlying issue of why people do this. Most people, thinking of the shallow definition, believe that they are not ethnocentric, but are rather “open minded” and “tolerant.” However, as explained below, everyone is ethnocentric, and there is no way not to be ethnocentric… it cannot be avoided, nor can it be willed away by a positive or well-meaning attitude.
To address the deeper issues involved in ethnocentrism calls for a more explicit definition. In this sense, ethnocentrism can be defined as: making false assumptions about others’ ways based on our own limited experience. The key word is assumptions, because we are not even aware that we are being ethnocentric… we don’t understand that we don’t understand.
One example of ethnocentrism is seen in the above comments on the Inuit snowshoe race. I assumed that I had “lost” the race, but it turns out the Inuit saw the same situation very differently than I did. Westerners have a binary conflict view of life (right or wrong, liberal versus conservative, etc.), and I had imposed my “win or lose” perspective of life on the situation. As a result, I did not understand how they experience life, that trying is a basic element of life. This did not necessarily involve thinking that my ways were superior, but rather that I assumed my experience was operational in another group’s circumstances.
Another example illustrates how basic ethnocentrism is. If we go to a store and ask for a green coat and the sales clerk gives us a blue one, we would think the person was color blind at the best or stupid at the worst. However, “colors” are not so simple. The Inuit lump shades of what AngloAmericans call “blue” and “green” into one color category, tungortuk, which can only be translated as “bluegreen.” Does this mean that they cannot see the difference? Just as we can distinguish between different shades (such as “sky blue” and “navy blue,” and “kelly green” and “forest green”), so can the Inuit. If they want to refer to what we would call “green,” they would say tungUYortuk, which can be translated something like “that bluegreen that looks like the color of a [conifer] tree.” The point is that something so “simple” as colors has very different meanings to us and to the Inuit. How could an Inuk “feel blue”? Colors, after all, are only different wavelengths of light, and the rainbow can be divided in many different ways.
There are many, many examples of such differences in meanings that make life experience so unique for all the human groups around the world. For example, English has tenses built into our verb forms, so we automatically think in terms of time (being “punctual,” “time is money,” “make the time,” etc.). But Algonquian Indian languages do not have tenses (not that they cannot express time if they wish), but rather have “animate” and “inanimate” verb forms, so they automatically think in terms of whether things around them have a life essence or not. So when Chippewa Indians do not show up for a medical appointment, Anglo health care workers may explain this as being “present oriented,” since we normally cannot think except in terms of time frames. But this is the essence of ethnocentrism, since we may be imposing a time frame where none exists.
The assumptions we make about others’ experience can involve false negative judgments, reflected in the common definition of ethnocentrism. For example, Anglos may observe Cree Indians sitting around a camp not doing obvious work that is needed and see Crees as “lazy”. Westerners generally value “being busy” (industriousness), and so may not appreciate the Cree capacity to relax and not be compelled to pursue some activities of a temporary nature… nor realize how much effort is put into other activities like hunting. Assumptions can also reflect false positive attitudes about others’ ways. For example, we in urban industrial society frequently think of Cree Indians as being “free of the stresses of modern society,” but this view fails to recognize that there are many stresses in their way of life, including the threat of starvation if injured while checking a trap line a hundred miles from base camp or when game cycles hit low ebbs. False positive assumptions are just as misleading as false negative assumptions.
MANIFESTATION OF THE PROBLEM
Ethnocentrism leads to misunderstanding others. We falsely distort what is meaningful and functional to other peoples through our own tinted glasses. We see their ways in terms of our life experience, not their context. We do not understand that their ways have their own meanings and functions in life, just as our ways have for us.
The more serious negative aspects of ethnocentrism have often been manifested throughout history as violent conflicts, wars, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The protohistorical accounts of warfare were based on tribal affiliations. The crusades in the Middle Ages, conflict in Northern Ireland, and the Nazi holocaust were based on religion. In addition to tribal and religious basis of ethnocen-trism, race, colonialism, and ethnonationalism have contributed toward distinctly negative and sometimes savage consequences. Prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior of Whites and African Americans in the United States are examples of ethnocentrism based on racial lines.
The apartheid practices in South Africa constituted an example of colonial ethnocentrism and concomitant racism that was common in most colonial situations. Even in multiracial or multicultural colonies, the primary White and non-White grouping, along with the dichotomy of the master and the subjugated, persisted because of the convergence of power, color, race, language, and class differences. The colonial perspective was often Eurocentric, with hierarchical and discriminatory lines drawn between the European colonizer and the colonized. The perceived distinctions of superiority and inferiority of groups became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Race relations in the United States have often been described as internal colonialism by Marxists and non-Marxists alike. The minority ethnic groups are often disrespectful of their own ethnicity in contrast with the ethnic group that is in power, a phenomenon often noticed in the colonial context. Ethnonationalism has manifested in the creation of more new nations in the last century than any other century in history. Many of these nations were created as a result of violent conflicts, atrocities, and civil wars.
CAUSES OF ETHNOCENTRISM
The causes of ethnocentrism can take different forms. One type of explanation would be based on personality factors of individuals. Another form of ethnocentric behavior is contextual or situational, such as the loss of jobs due to competition from a neighboring state or groups. One group or nation can be transformed from a friend to an enemy and vice versa after the end of a war. The reasons for another type of ethnocentrism may vary from mistrust of the stranger to the aims of conquest and subjugation of another group for various reasons.
I believe that ethnocentrism stems from the assumption that one’s ethnicity is far superior than all others. Pride in one’s own ethnicity definitely plays a role in this. In Nazi Germany, we know that Hitler held such a view and extinguished many Jews as a result.
IMPACT OF THE ETHNOCENTRISM ON IT VICTIMS (POSISTVE & NEGATIVE IMPACTS)
Ethnocentric people tend to look down on those people who are of a different ethnic group. They make premature judgments and wrong assumptions because they believe other cultures are inferior to theirs. It is difficult for ethnocentric people to assimilate the beliefs, practices, traditions and customs of other cultures.
Ethnocentrism fosters conflict, distorts communication, and creates suspicion and antagonism between people. It prevents people of a particular culture from appreciating and understanding other people’s cultures. For example, conservative Muslims find European women to be extremely immodest and unchaste because they do not cover their bodies from head to toe when in public. On the other hand, Europeans condemn societies that eat dogs or practice polygamy.
Ethnocentrism can lead to serious social issues, such as colonialism, racism and ethnic cleansing. A negative aspect of ethnocentrism is the false notion that one’s culture is more superior to others. This perception deepens inhumane behavior because of cultural misinterpretation, ethnic and racial prejudices, and mistrust brought about by ethnocentrism. A positive aspect of ethnocentrism centers on protection. People of the same culture can preserve their traditions, customs and practices by rejecting those cultures that are different from theirs. Ethnocentrism also helps maintain the uniqueness and authenticity of a culture.
SOLUTION TO ETHNOCENTRISM
Overcoming this prejudice is necessary in a world where people must unite to prevail over such global challenges as climate change.
Step 1: Learn about other groups. This is the easiest way to discover that everybody, despite their culture, experiences the same joys and heartaches you do. Colleges promote this sensitivity with classes on various races and countries. Reading foreign books and newspapers offers this same insight.
Step 2: Make friends. Friendship cuts through a lot of misconceptions simply because we see them as individuals rather than as collections of traits. An easy way to cultivate friends of different viewpoints is to volunteer for or join cultural clubs. For example, a Persian Club at a local university will have Iranian members while a Latino Business Association can consist of Mexicans.
Step 3: Browse foreign sites on the Internet. The Internet offers us the exact same resource available to foreigners. For instance, you can digest the same French news as a French citizen by browsing (see References). Want to see how Somalis view Americans?
Step 4:Entertain yourself differently. The dramatic emotions highlighted by movies, television shows and music can make us feel exactly what foreigners feel, increasing our empathy for them. Celebrate life’s passages Indian-style by renting a Bollywood movie. Taste the Brazilian view of romance by listening and dancing to a sultry samba.
Step 5: Attend services from another religion. Start with different flavors of your belief. For example, a Christian can attend Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist services. You can then continue with different religions: a Catholic can attend Muslim daily prayers or a Buddhist can visit a Jewish synagogue. Despite not professing your faith, these worshipers revel in a rich spiritual life.
Ethnocentrism is a major reason for divisions amongst members of different ethnicities, races, and religious groups in society. Ethnocentrism is the belief of superiority is one’s personal ethnic group, but it can also develop from racial or religious differences.
Ethnocentric individuals believe that they are better than other individuals for reasons based solely on their heritage. Clearly, this practice is related to problems of both racism and prejudice.
While many people may recognize the problems, they may not realize that ethnocentrism occurs everywhere and everyday at both the local and political levels.
John T. Omohundro (2008). Thinking like an Anthropologist: A practical introduction to Cultural Anthropology. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-319580-4.
Shimp, Terence. Sharma, Shubhash. “Consumer Ethnocentrism: Construction and Validation of the CETSCALE. Journal of Marketing Research. 24 (3). Aug 1987. 280–289.
Sumner, W. G. Folkways. New York: Ginn, 1906.
Seidner, Stanley S. (1982). Ethnicity, Language, and Power from a Psycholinguistic Perspective. Bruxelles: Centre de Recherche sur le Plurilinguisme.