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How can ethnocentrism have both positive and negative consequences for group life?

Ethnocentrism is a dangerous force, generally understood in many societies as inherently bad. While promoting a particular culture can serve as a unifying force among different cultural groups, celebrating one's own culture is not inherently ethnocentric.

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Ethnocentrism refers specifically to evaluating the beliefs or culture of another ethnic group based on the beliefs or culture of one's own group. Today, ethnocentrism is viewed as fundamentally wrong in and of itself. Its negative effects are many—it can lead to discrimination and mistreatment of people from different cultures. It is often understood as one facet of a process of "othering," where people from a minority group with different beliefs are seen as fundamentally inferior to a dominant group. This can be a pretext for denying even basic rights to the minority group. Ethnocentrism is inherently oppressive—by definition it excludes people from the privileges of membership in a group.

It is difficult to speak of ethnocentrism as a positive force, but some anthropologists have pointed to the possibility that ethnocentrism has evolutionary origins, rooted in the basic human need to form cohesive groups to survive. In modern terms, ethnocentrism on the part of minority groups can be understood as a reaction to exclusion from society as a whole, a means to retain aspects of a culture that is under siege from the outside.

It should be noted however, that attempts to maintain cultural elements of a group—teaching Indigenous languages, for example—are not really ethnocentric. It is entirely possible for majority or minority cultures to celebrate their own values while accepting, tolerating, and even practicing the values of other cultures.

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Ethnocentrism is a double-edged sword that bears both positive and negative consequences for group life. In order to understand this problem, we must define our terms. The word ethnocentric means that one ethnic group views itself and its culture as superior to the other ethnic groups of the world. Culture is that which makes a group distinct: philosophy, religion, literature, art, architecture, societal norms, etc. The concept of group life refers to the health, or ability to thrive, of those individuals belonging to a specific ethnic culture. The obvious reason for the negative consequences rests on the fact that an ethnocentric worldview leads to harmful assumptions about others, and the positive effect is that it builds solidarity among the culture espousing that superiority.

It is safe to say that stereotypes can sometimes be true—but they can also be dangerous. The real danger of ethnocentrism is that it promotes a view of superiority over other groups. This kind of insular thinking sees other cultures as backward, evil, or wrong. Such assumptions can evolve into violence, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, and stagnation. This is both negative for the “other” in the world and unhealthy for the group viewing itself as superior. As cultures tend to ebb and flow, syncretize, and evolve, it is healthy for group members to remain conscious of both similarities and differences; it is healthy for the survival of civilizations if groups can see the common threads of the human experience. If a rigidity in the group forms, stagnation may result in a deterioration of that culture. As basic sociological theory argues, it is unhealthy for group members to be overly integrated into society.

There are also some positive aspects to ethnocentrism. The most obvious of these reasons is the solidarity that ethnocentrism perpetuates. When a group holds their view to be superior to the other views of the world, there tends to be an ardent effort to defend, build, expand, and underscore the group’s ethnic and cultural characteristics. Arguably, this can be seen in the history of Western civilization. The colonization of the world, the triumphing of the arts and humanities during the Renaissance, and the Catholicization of the world, all served to fortify the culture of the West. As basic sociological theory holds, people flourish when they are well integrated into society. Ethnocentrism leads the group to rally around what makes their culture distinct. Ethnocentrism also bears a positive effect on societies as it heralds the most important elements in that society. This heralding draws together the members of the group as they celebrate their superiority in thought, culture, and civility.

As can be seen here, ethnocentrism has both positive and negative effects on group life. These effects can be seen in the harmful facilitation of stereotypes and assumptions as well as in the solidarity ethnocentrism accentuates within the group that holds that view. Unfortunately, such superiority often comes at the expense of other groups.

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Although we typically think of ethnocentrism as something that is very bad, it can at least arguably have some good consequences for group life.

Ethnocentrism is generally seen as a bad thing because it leads to prejudice and hatred of other groups.  Ethnocentrism is the belief that our own ethnic group is different from, and in some way superior to, other ethnic groups.  This can lead us to actively despise other groups and, at times, to try to harm them.  Thus, we can say that ethnocentrism led to such atrocities as the Holocaust or, on a lower level, to things like apartheid in South Africa or slavery in the United States.

However, we can at least argue that ethnocentrism can have a good side.  In general, it can be hard for modern societies to stick together and for people in such societies to feel much of a connection with one another.  When this happens, there can be problems such as crime or civil discord.  Ethnocentrism can help to prevent this.  If people have the attitude that their group is better than others, it can give them a sense of identity that binds them to one another.  In that way, ethnocentrism can lead to greater cohesion within a group.

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