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Compare and contrast ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. Explain each perspective, give an example of each, and discuss any flaws that each perspective might have. Finally, discuss which perspective is essential to anthropological research.

Ethnocentrism is the principle of comparing other cultures with one’s own culture as the standard. For example, European colonialists viewed Native Americans as savage because they did not share the same culture. This is flawed because it can justify and perpetuate discriminatory, racist beliefs. Cultural relativism is the opposite belief that stresses the importance of understanding a culture in its own unique context. This is important to anthropology to develop accurate, unbiased cultural comparisons.

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Ethnocentrism refers to when people judge other cultures with their own culture as reference. When we break down the word, we see the prefix “ethno,” meaning culture, which comes from the Greek “ethnos” that means nation or people. The root word “centr” is Latin in origin and means central. When put the two together, we see that this word describes one culture at the center of a world perspective.

For example, consider how European colonialists judged the Native people they encountered when they came to the Americas. Many European accounts described the people as “savage” because they did not have the same cultural customs, religious practices, or technology that the Europeans had. Because the Europeans viewed the world through an ethnocentric perspective, they judged the Natives as inferior to them. In other words, the Europeans used their own culture as a frame of reference for being “cultured” or “civilized.” Here, we see that ethnocentrism is flawed in how it ignores cultural context. The Europeans’ ethnocentrism led them to incorrectly judge the people they colonized as inferior, which led to years of exploitation and discrimination of non-Europeans.

Cultural relativism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, and is essential to anthropological research. Instead of using one’s own culture as a frame of reference, cultural relativists argue that every culture must be judged by its own standards. For example, when assessing the ethics of a cultural custom, a cultural relativist might point to the religious beliefs of that culture. This viewpoint takes necessary context into account before making judgments. Anthropologists study different cultures to learn various ways of thinking about and experiencing the world. It is thus essential that anthropologists take into account context the way that cultural relativists do.

However, some argue that there must be limits to cultural relativism. If applied in all contexts, the theory runs the risk of renouncing all objectivity. This makes it difficult to hold people or groups of people morally accountable for their actions. For example, consider if a small group of people radicalized their religious beliefs and coordinated a horrible act like genocide. In theory, a cultural relativist could point to the group’s religion and say that others do not have a right to condemn the group for this action just because their beliefs are unique. Thus, anthropologists and other social scientists work to reconcile objective moral laws with the importance of relativism.

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