Ethnocentrism is a belief that the norms, values, ideology, customs, and traditions of one’s own culture or subculture are superior to those characterizing other cultural settings. The term was coined by William Graham Sumner in his Folkways (1906) and has long served as a cornerstone in the social analysis of culture. While ethnocentrism arguably is a universal phenomenon that facilitates cohesion and continuity at all levels of social organization, it provides the rationalization for attack on other cultures or subcultures in its more extreme forms. It may, for example, motivate criminalization of practices within subcultures or be used to justify going to war with other nation states. Ethnocentrism is intricately tied to definitions of deviance wherein the deviant is seen as not only different, but also as morally inferior or even evil. Members of the in group stereotype those in the out group as ignorant, bad, or even subhuman and these characterizations provide the basis for culture conflict.
Ethnocentrism falls on a continuum along which the more ethnocentric tend to hold to more absolutist or objectivist moral positions. That is, as ethnocentrism grows stronger, there is more acceptance of the notion that there is a single proper way to behave at all times and places. Conversely, cultural and moral relativism is associated with lesser degrees of ethnocentrism. The relativist views social reaction as playing an important role in defining norms and deviance. From such an interactionist perspective people absorb the values and norms of their own culture through a process of enculturation. Cultural values are transmitted down through generations as a result of learning experiences within any cultural setting. Acknowledging such culturally specific learning processes serves to undermine harsher judgments of cultural disparities.
While ethnocentrism in its various degrees is considered a universal cultural phenomenon, a rare, but intriguing phenomenon is inverse ethnocentrism, wherein an individual holds a reverse cultural bias. The more usual derogatory stereotyping of other cultures is replaced by a tendency to see characteristics of other cultural milieus as inherently superior to those of one’s own culture. Obviously, persons holding such views tend to be at odds with their own cultural environment and are likely defined by others as eccentrics, traitors, or other deviant identities. Another variation of this is the critique that the relativist is not firmly committed to any moral standards or is tolerant of moral abuses occurring in other cultural settings. The classic argument offered to bolster this concern is that complete relativity would withhold condemnation of atrocities such as genocide. Cultural relativism, however, is central to sociological and anthropological analysis, but does not mean that the sociologist cannot apply any moral criteria to the examination of cultures. It only means that one should not blindly apply the values and standards of one culture to another. Practices within a culture should be analyzed within their own cultural context and moral judgment held in abeyance until their meaning is identified.
Sensitivity to ethnocentrism is vital to understanding social relations because it constitutes blinded bias. Thus, ethnocentrism is at the heart of prejudice and discrimination toward outgroups. Understanding the dynamics of ethnocentrism is thereby central to analyzing human conflict.
- Curra, J. (2000) The Relativity of Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Reynolds, , Falger, V. S. E., & Vine, I. (Eds.) (1987) The Sociobiology of Ethnocentrism: Evolutionary Dimensions of Xenophobia, Discrimination, Racism and Nationalism. University of Georgia Press, Athens.
- Sumner, W. G. (1906) Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. Ginn, Boston.
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