Ethnocentrism is the act of judging another culture based on preconceptions that are found in the values and standards of one's own culture – especially regarding language, behavior, customs, and religion. These aspects or categories are distinctions that define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity.
Origins of the concept
The term ethnocentrism was coined by Ludwig Gumplowicz and subsequently employed by social scientist William G. Sumner. Gumplowicz defined ethnocentrism as the reasons by virtue of which each group of people believed it had always occupied the highest point, not only among contemporaneous peoples and nations, but also in relation to all peoples of the historical past.
William G. Sumner defined ethnocentrism 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 ethnocentrism as often leading to pride, vanity, the belief in one's own group's superiority, and contempt for outsiders. These problems may occur from the division of societies into in-groups and out-groups. Ethnocentrism is explained in the social sciences and genetics. In anthropology, cultural relativism is used as an antithesis and antonym to ethnocentrism.
Although central to anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines, the concept of ethnocentrism has been defined and characterized so variously that some scholars have spoken of the "disutility of the ethnocentrism concept" and have wondered whether any conclusions could be drawn from the large body of research on ethnocentrism.
William Graham Sumner proposed two different definitions. In the 1906 Folkways, Sumner stated that "ethnocentrism is the technical name for this 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." In the 1911 War and Other Essays, he wrote that "the sentiment of cohesion, internal comradeship, and devotion to the in-group, which carries with it a sense of superiority to any out-group and readiness to defend the interests of the in-group against the out-group, is technically known as ethnocentrism."
Forty years later, anthropologist Richard Adams undertook to clear up a confusion between two scholars. He noted that G.P. Murdock defined ethnocentrism as "the tendency to exalt the in-group and to depreciate other groups", which made out-group antagonism the inevitable concomitant of in-group solidarity, but that M. J. Herkovits defined ethnocentrism as "the point of view that one's way of life is to be preferred to all others". Adams pointed out that these were two different attitudes and that it was important to distinguish them. The first is in-group consciousness, a sense of communal interests found even in sub-human animals, but the second arises from the processes of socialization and enculturation and has no counterpart among sub-human groups.[clarification needed]
In 1996, Robert K. Merton commented that "although the practice of seeing one's own group as the center of things is empirically correlated with a belief in superiority, centrality and superiority need to be kept analytically distinct in order to deal with patterns of alienation from one's membership group and contempt for it."
People raised in a particular culture that absorb the values and behaviors of that culture will develop a worldview that considers their own culture to be the norm. If people then experience other cultures that have different values and behaviors, they will find that the thought patterns appropriate to their native culture are not appropriate for the new cultures. However, since people are accustomed to their native culture, it can be difficult for them to see the behaviors of people from a different culture from the viewpoint of that culture rather than from their own.
Ethnocentrism can be explicit or implicit. Explicit ethnocentrism involves the ability to express feelings about outsiders (people from other groups). Implicit ethnocentrism refers to the inhibition of the feelings for outsiders.
Anthropology in the 19th century had been committed to using evolution as a methodological framework in which European society and culture represented the apex of human development—all non-European societies and their cultures were described and ranked according to the degree to which they had developed a monotheistic religion, science, technology, and so on. Franz Boas committed himself to overthrowing this 19th century evolutionism and with his methodological innovations sought to show the error of the proposition that race determined cultural capacity. Boas wrote:
It is somewhat difficult for us to recognize that the value which we attribute to our own civilization is due to the fact that we participate in this civilization, and that it has been controlling all our actions from the time of our birth; but it is certainly conceivable that there may be other civilizations, based perhaps on different traditions and on a different equilibrium of emotion and reason, which are of no less value than ours, although it may be impossible for us to appreciate their values without having grown up under their influence.
Boas and his colleagues promulgated the principle that there are no inferior races or cultures. Cultural relativism in anthropology is a methodological principle, indispensable for investigating and comparing societies in as unprejudiced way as possible without using a developmental scale that is usually irrelevant. 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 where context plays an important role in the understanding of other people's values 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.
Scholars are generally agreed that Boas developed his ideas under the influence of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Legend has it that, on a field trip to the Baffin Islands in 1883, Boas would pass the frigid nights reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. In that work, Kant argued that human understanding could not be described according to the laws that applied to the operations of nature, and that its operations were therefore free, not determined, and that ideas regulated human action, sometimes independent of material interests. Following Kant, Boas pointed out, for instance, the starving Eskimos who, because of their religious beliefs, would not hunt seals to feed themselves, thus showing that no pragmatic or material calculus determined their values.
There is no broad consensus as to the cause of ethnocentrism. Various areas of social and biological science have developed theories as to how ethnocentrism works. The social identity approach to psychology suggests that ethnocentricity is caused by a strong identification with one's own culture that links one's self-esteem to a positive view of that culture. It is theorized that in order to maintain that positive view, people make social comparisons that cast competing cultural groups in an unfavorable light.
Research published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) suggested that ethnocentrism may be mediated by the oxytocin hormone. It was found that in randomized controlled trials "oxytocin creates intergroup bias because oxytocin motivates in-group favoritism and, to a lesser extent, out-group derogation."
In The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes that "blood-feuds and inter-clan warfare are easily interpretable in terms of Hamilton's genetic theory." Simulation-based experiments in evolutionary game theory have attempted to provide an explanation for the selection of ethnocentric-strategy phenotypes.
Realistic conflict theory assumes that ethnocentrism happens due to "real or perceived conflict" in between groups. This also happens when a dominant group may perceive the new members as a threat.
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- Examples of ethnocentric maps: select "Ethnocentrism" subject at the Persuasive Cartography, The PJ Mode Collection, Cornell University Library