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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.
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).
Examples include Toynbee notes that Ancient Persia regarded itself the center of the world and viewed other nations as increasingly barbaric according to their degree of distance. China's very name is composed of ideographs meaning "center" and "country" respectively, and traditional Chinese world maps show China in the center. It's also important to note that it wasn't just China that bought into this idea. At the height of the Chinese empire, the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Thai also believed China to be the centre of the universe and referred to China as the middle kingdom. To this day, Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam still refer to China as the middle kingdom. England defined the world's meridians with itself on the center line, and to this day, longitude is measured in degrees east or west of Greenwich, thus establishing as fact an Anglo-centrist's worldview. Native American tribal names often translate as some variant on "the people"; other tribes were labeled with often pejorative names. The United States has traditionally conceived of itself as having a unique role in world history—famously characterized by President Abraham Lincoln as "the last, best hope of Earth"—an outlook known as American exceptionalism.
The Japanese word for foreigner ("gaijin") can also mean "outsiders," and Japanese do not normally use the term to describe themselves when visiting other countries. It also excludes those native to the country where the speaker is. For a Japanese tourist in New York, gaijin are not Japanese tourists or New Yorkers, but those of other nationalities visiting New York.
In the United States foreigners or immigrants that are not considered residents are called "aliens" and in the case they do not hold a legal status within the country they are called "illegal aliens". The connotation of the word does not only suggest pure ethnocentrism but is in some sense a distancing language used between an American citizen and an immigrant or visitor.
Psychological underpinnings of ethnocentrism
The psychological underpinning of ethnocentrism appears to be assigning to various cultures higher or lower status or value by the ethnocentric person who then assumes that the culture of higher status or value is intrinsically better than other cultures. The ethnocentric person, when assigning the status or value to various cultures, will automatically assign to their own culture the highest status or value.
Ethnocentrism is a natural result of the observation that most people are more comfortable with and prefer the company of people who are like themselves, sharing similar values and behaving in similar ways. It is not unusual for a person to consider that what ever they believe is the most appropriate system of belief or that how ever they behave is the most appropriate and natural behavior.
A person who is born into a particular culture and grows up absorbing the values and behaviors of the culture will develop patterns of thought reflecting the culture as normal. If the person then experiences other cultures that have different values and normal behaviors, the person finds that the thought patterns appropriate to their birth culture and the meanings their birth culture attaches to behaviors are not appropriate for the new cultures. However, since a person is accustomed to their birth culture it can be difficult for the person to see the behaviors of people from a different culture from the viewpoint of that culture rather than from their own.
The ethnocentric person will see those cultures other than their birth culture as being not only different but also wrong to some degree. The ethnocentric person will resist or refuse the new meanings and new thought patterns since they are seen as being less desirable than those of the birth culture.
The ethnocentric person may also adopt a new culture, repudiating their birth culture, considering that the adopted culture is somehow superior to the birth culture.
Tribal and familial groups are often seen to dominate in economic settings where transaction costs are high. Examples include the crime syndicates of Russia, Sicily, and the United States, prison gangs, and the diamond trade (Salter 2002).
Throughout history, warring factions have been composed of fairly homogeneous ethnic groups. Ethnic strife is seen to dominate the landscape in many parts of the world even to this day. Evolutionary psychology posits that the reason for these groupings stems from the alignment of interests among members of these groups due to their genetic similarity. Independent of evolutionary psychology, observers such as Shelby Steele have suggested that ethnocentrism is a mainstay of any modern society, and in cases such as the white and black population in the US, programs such as affirmative action serve only to relieve the moral consciences of the white population. People like Steele harbour respect for vocal racists, as they, unlike the rest of the population, are able to reveal their honest feelings regarding race and ethnicity.
- Salter, F.K., ed. 2002. Risky Transactions. Trust, Kinship, and Ethnicity. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.
- Sow, Adama: Ethnozentrismus als Katalysator bestehender Konflikte in Afrika südlich der Sahara, am Beispiel der Unruhen in Côte d`Ivoire at: European University Center for Peace Studies (EPU).
- Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, Sage Press.
Types of ethnocentrism
- American exceptionalism
- Chinese nationalism
- Greater Serbia
- Indian nationalism, Hindu nationalism, Hindutva
- Islamism, Islamic fundamentalism
- Nazism, Neo-Nazism
- Russocentrism, Russian Chauvinism, Eurasianism
- White nationalism, White supremacy
- Cross-cultural communication
- Cross cultural psychology
- Cultural diversity
- Cultural relativism
- Cultural bias
- Cultural competence
- Ethnic nationalism
- Ethnic nepotism
- Intercultural competence
- Intercultural communication principles
- Social identity
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