This article identifies the basis of ethnocentrism. It defines ethnocentrism, locates it within two of the major sociological perspectives, and provides numerous forms and examples of ethnocentrism. The article goes on to address several questions: Why are people ethnocentric? How does ethnocentric thinking lead to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination? Is there anything positive about ethnocentrism? And finally, what are the possible solutions, such as establishing a global culture and tolerance of other cultures, to problems caused by ethnocentrism? Ethnocentrism and its relationship to cultural relativism, multiculturalism, racism and tolerance of one culture toward another are also discussed.
Keywords Culture; Cultural Relativism; Cultural Universals; Ethnicity; Ethnocentrism; Folkways; Global Culture; Mores; Multiculturalism; Nationalism; Norms; Racism; Tolerance; Values; Xenophobia
What is Ethnocentrism?
Take the word "Ethnocentrism" apart to discover its roots. "Ethnic" means culture and heritage. "Centrism" refers to the center of something. The term "ethnocentrism" was introduced in the first decade of the 20th century by William Graham Sumner (1906, p. 13) in his book, Folkways. Its origin is from the Greek word for people, "ethnos." The word "centrism" characterizes the thoughts of a group, or a nation toward itself as being in the center.
Functionalist Perspectives of Ethnocentrism
A sociologist who follows a functionalist perspective might ask the question, what is positive about ethnocentrism?
One example of how some view ethnocentrism in a positive way involves a report of white and non-white high school students who were required to attend racially segregated school assemblies in a U.S. school (Sinatra, 2007). In each assembly, the test scores of each racial group were discussed and students encouraged to do better as a group, perhaps in the spirit of competition with one another. While many students, faculty and parents believed the assemblies were racist in nature, test scores for each racial group did improve. The functionalist perspective would point to ethnocentrism's ability to develop a strong social integration among groups. Similarly, this technique is used among new military recruits who are encouraged, like the high school students, to be the best they can be (Sinatra, 2007).
But for the most part, ethnocentrism is viewed in a negative way. According to Cohen and Kennedy (2000), "Ethnocentrists see their community or nation as the model against which all others have to be judged. By implication other people's ways of thinking and behaviour are aberrant, strange and inferior" (p. 376).
According to Sumner (1906), "ethnocentrism is the technical name for this view of things in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it" (par. 15). In other words, what people in one culture find natural and normal, people in another culture might find absurd, and even disgusting. Moreover, these ideas of what is right and wrong, good or bad, can change over time and over cultures.
Attitudes and beliefs of the superiority of one's group over another shape a language that reinforces ethnocentrism. Ethnocentric language and name-calling to maintain separateness and superiority can be traced back to early civilizations such as to the Greeks and Romans, who called anyone other than themselves "barbarians." The Jews were the "chosen people," as opposed to all who were not chosen, the Gentiles (Sumner, 1906, par. 28).
Sumner also found that "nature peoples" such as the Tunguses, call themselves "men," while other people are not men, or at least, not men like they are, indicating a cultural bias against the unfamiliar (1906, par. 26).
Examples of Ethnocentrism
Ethnocentrism seems to be universal, existing not only in exotic tribal communities studied by Sumner in the early 20th century, but also existing today in core, postindustrial societies such as the United States as well as all places in between. Following are a few examples of how ethnocentrism affects how one culture may view the rituals and traditions of other cultures, even over time.
Cultural notions regarding values, beliefs, norms and folkways can also differ from one era to another within the same culture. Take the example of child labor in America. At one time, child labor was accepted as necessary not only on farms but also, during the Industrial Revolution, in factories. Today, however, in the same American culture, child labor is reviled. In contemporary America, childhood is viewed as a time of innocence and freedom. Given that view, Americans are often shocked to find that in other cultures such as in Morocco or Bangladesh, children are not only expected to work, they are sometimes sold into slavery, chained to machines in factories, or locked in rooms where they are forced to produce goods (goods which often end up in American stores or in American tourists' luggage as souvenirs).
Marriage Age for Females
Another example might be the marriage age of females. In the U.S., women can marry without their parents' consent usually at the age of 18; however, the trend is for women to marry at a median age of 26.9 (US Census, 2011). Few, if any, young women marry before age 18 and if they do (depending on the state in which they live) they must receive written permission from a parent. The age of the woman's intended spouse is expected not to vary beyond a few years. Older men who marry very young women in our culture are often ridiculed as "cradle robbers." However, in other cultures, such as in Bangladesh, young girls are often married at the age of 10 and sometimes to men much older than themselves, often for economic reasons. Sometimes the family does not want the costly burden of caring for the child, or perhaps the girl's sexual reputation must be protected by marrying her off soon after puberty (UNICEF, 2001).
When Americans judge the child labor practices or early marriage patterns for females of other cultures based on their own cultural beliefs and values, they are practicing ethnocentric behavior. According to Sumner, each culture thinks that its folkways, those routine behaviors of the group which serve to set them apart from another group, are the best ones. These attitudes serve to strengthen the beliefs and adherence to those folkways, causing people to cling stubbornly to the practices in question by outside groups. (Sumner, 1906).
Weeber (1999) describes the experience of a disabled woman who comes to know and to experience prejudice and ethnocentrism. She discovers that as a white woman, she should be part of a privileged social class, but because of her disability and her subsequent need to use a wheel chair for mobility, she compares the discrimination she faces from those who are ambulatory, to the racism people of color experience because of the ethnocentric notions. Using the term "decolonize," Weeber discovers the need to safeguard her own mind and sanity by rooting out the negative feedback she receives from the community surrounding her (Weeber, 1999).
Fans who root for their favorite team often display ethnocentric behavior, which can lead to racism and discrimination. Imagine the rivalry between two American high school football teams, with the fans touting the superiority of their team over the other. Certainly, the rivalry can be good natured, but it can turn ugly, especially in the larger sports arenas.
During the 2007-2008 football season in Europe, serious incidents of ethnocentric attitudes that could be called racism were observed. For example, during one game, Newcastle United team supporters chanted anti-Islamic taunts at an Egyptian player on the other team, calling him a terrorist and accusing him of carrying a bomb. Incidents have become so routine, that a group calling itself Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) has begun a grass roots campaign to support anti-racism projects (Wachter & Fanizadeh, 2007).
Why are People Ethnocentric?
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