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Ethnocentrism (Greek ethnos nation + -centrism) is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture. Many claim that ethnocentrism occurs in every society; ironically, ethnocentrism may be something that all cultures have in common.
Various researchers study ethnocentricism as it pertains to their specialized fields. This article covers anthropology, political science and especially sociology.
This term was coined by William Graham Sumner, a social evolutionist and professor of Political and Social Science at Yale University. He defined it as the viewpoint that “one’s own group is the center of everything,” against which all other groups are judged. Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one's own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Within this ideology, individuals will judge other groups in relation to their own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behaviour, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity.
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 tools for developing non-ethnocentric studies of different societies. The books The Sexual Life of Savages, by Malinowski, Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict and Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead (two of Boas's students) are classic examples of anti-ethnocentric anthropology.
Politicians apply the concept
In political science and public relations, not only have academics used the concept to explain nationalism, but activists and politicians have used labels like ethnocentric and ethnocentrism to criticize national and ethnic groups as being unbearably selfish - or at best, culturally biased (see cultural bias). At the same time, members or some such groups have (in a mirror fashion) exalted their own group as being uniquely and even supremely wonderful and valuable.
Claims of unique value
Nearly every religion, "race" or nation feels it aspects which are uniquely valuable. (This tendency is humorously illustrated in the romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which the heroine's father perenially exalts Greek culture: "Give me any word, and I'll show you how it derives from Greek roots" "Oh, yeah, how about kimono?")
Arabs invented the concept of zero, especially the use of the digit zero as a placeholder in arithmetic calculations (multiplication and long division were a nightmare in the Hellenistic Sphere of Rome and Greece), as well as the idea of the algorithm.
Various cultures have laid claim to having created the phonetic alphabet, or indeed even writing itself.
Ethnocentrism is common among people belonging to large empires. Toynbee notes that Ancient Persia regarded itself the center of the world and viewed other nations as increasingly barbaric in degree that they were farther away. China's very name is composed of ideographs meaning "center" and "country" respectively, and traditional Chinese world maps show China in the center.
England defined the world's meridians with itself as on the center line, and to this day longitude is measured in degrees east or west of it Greenwich. "The sun never sets on the British Empire."
The United States so conceived of its role of "Manifest Destiny" that it regarded the western portions of North America as essentially "uninhabited" and for many years celebrated Columbus Day as the anniversary of the America's "discovery".
The Japanese word for foreigner ("gaijin") also means "barbarian", and Japanese do not normally use the term to describe themselves when visiting other countries. For a Japanese person in New York, New Yorkers are gaijin - not Japanese tourists.
Ethnocentrism as selfishness
In the latter quarter of the 20th century, various forms of ethnocentrism began to be decried, largely by other groups professing either to be innocent of ethnocentrism themselves or eminently qualified to embrace it. Black Americans complained of the Eurocentrism of white America while exalting Afrocentrism. Edward Said wrote a book called Orientalism arguing that the West could not understand Arab and Islamic cultures (and should not try to).
Many wars have been fought with ethnocentricism as a major theme. World War II entailed ethnocentrism on two fronts: Nazi Germany's "master race" concept exalted the so-called "Aryan people", while Japan proposed its Greater East-Asia Co-prosperity Sphere . The Nazis succeeded in taking over much of Europe and embarked on the largest ethnic cleansing campaign in history (see the Holocaust, ironically demonizing Jews for "Jewish ethnocentrism" and using that as part of their justification).
The reasons for maintaining an ethnicity or culture are often personal, and relate to the cohesion of familiar personal and social elements; that is, attachment or custom. We all are born into a human culture, and it is the culture that shapes our self-awareness and understanding of other individuals. It also reflects, depending on the cultural teaching, customs or patterns of behaviour in relating to other cultures. This behaviour can range from universal acceptance or feelings of inferiority compared with other cultures, to racism, which many consider an aspect of xenophobia. Some examples of ethnocentric behaviours are represented by such social phenomena as economic isolationism, counter-cultures, anti-establishmentism, and widespread social patterns of interpersonal abusive behaviours as ostracization, prejudice, and discrimination.
A paradigm of the academic community in the United States, particularly among anthropologists, is that enthnocentrism adversely affects one's understanding and assessment of culture, and therefore should always be avoided. However, the extent to which education can engage enthnocentrism is debated, because education by definition is a cultural construct. Moreover, many anthropologists contend that almost every opinion and insight held by an individual is influenced by their culture, hence ethnocentrism cannot always be avoided.
In theory, however, the anthropology and sociology fields advocate a removal of the unique cultural lens of researchers studying culture and adherence to the academic tenet of cultural relativism. This theory is illustrated by anthropologist Phillippe Bourgois in his book In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, which states that "cultures are neither good nor bad; they simply have an internal logic" (15).
In the modern world, a global economy has resulted in a great increase in inter-cultural contact. Technological advances in communication have progressively overcome previous obstacles to communication - physical obstacles that once helped to keep ethnic distinctions distinct. Ethnic lines still exist, and co-exist, and cultures of the world often find that their central concern, that of maintaining an identity despite rapid transculturation, or a merging between cultures, is still possible.
Examples of Ethnocentrism