What are the similarities and differences between cultural relativism and ethnocentrism?

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kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism have a few things in common but are quite different attitudes in thinking about culture.

Ethnocentrism, as a term, can be understood by breaking it into two parts. The first, "ethno," implies ethnicity or nationality. "-Centrism" is the idea that something is central to experience or perhaps is the most important factor in a person's perspective. Altogether, ethnocentrism is the attitude that one's own cultural, ethnic, or national experience is the hegemonic experience or the most important. Often, when people act or think in a way that is ethnocentric, they aren't doing so on purpose—a lack of contact with alternate cultural experiences hasn't "opened their eyes," so to speak. On the other hand, people can quite willfully engage in ethnocentrism by asserting that their way of life is better or more important than all others'.

Cultural relativism is a framework popular in philosophy, morality studies, and anthropology. This idea asserts that any particular act, object, feeling, or belief only makes sense in the context of the culture in which it originates. That is, cultural practices must be understood and respected as part of their culture, even if someone disagrees with the practice. A great example of cultural relativism can be drawn from talking about differing food taboos from around the world. Many Westerners are grossed out by the idea of eating insects, snakes, or animals like squirrels or turtles. These are common food items throughout the world, however, so I respect that other people want to eat bugs, even though I don't.

Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism both rely on a cognitive dissonance between "Us" and "Them." It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that culture, especially our own, is a very fixed phenomena and anything that isn't a part of our culture simply falls into the realm of Other. While this kind of thinking is easy to do, it isn't necessarily true or helpful. Culture exists more like a grab-bag of beliefs and behaviors that evolve throughout time. An Us vs Them mentality is not likely to foster understanding or positive discourse. With ethnocentrism, I think it is quite obviously problematic to consider one's own culture as the only or the best way for things to be. Even cultural relativism is problematic because it does not encourage a discussion of the true value of cultural practices or give attention to the fact that our own feelings about certain beliefs or behaviors, while valid, are also culturally constructed.

In short, cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are similar in their use in the humanities, reliance on an Us vs Them mentality, and the fact that they are quite limiting frameworks. Neither idea encourages open, unbiased discussions about culture.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are similar in that they are both practices that try to understand and explain the beliefs and behaviors of other cultures. However, these two viewpoints differ significantly. Cultural relativism acknowledges that moral and ethical systems differ from one culture to the other and hence what is considered moral in one culture could be considered immoral in another cultural setting. Therefore, there is an objective analysis of behavior and practices free of comparisons with one’s own culture. Cultural relativism asserts that there is no universal standard for measuring morality and therefore no one has the right to judge other people’s cultures. In fact, cultural relativists state that all cultures are of equal value.

Ethnocentrism on the other hand involves the subjective analysis of another culture based on the standards of one’s own culture. This perspective holds the belief that one’s culture and value system are inherently superior to those of other cultures. It also seeks to distinguish different ethnicities based on their unique practices and come up with specific cultural identities.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For the most part, there is very little that is similar between these ideas.  The only major similarity they share is the fact that they are both meant as ways to evaluate and judge cultures other than our own.  Ethnocentrism is the practice of judging other cultures based on our own values.  In other words, it is the practice of saying that our way is right and other cultures are wrong whenever they stray from our way.  Cultural relativism, by contrast, judges cultures based on their own values.  It is the practice of saying that basically anything that a culture believes in is right.  In this view, no culture is better than any other--they are just different.

In this way, these are both methods of judging other cultures, but they are very different methods of doing so.