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What is Ethnocentrism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ethnocentrism means preferencing an individual’s culture over the cultures of any other group. The term first began to be used in the early 20th century, and remains important in cultural anthropology studies. Many argue that the concept can be more broadly applied to the attitudes of most people, since the majority like and prefer their culture over any other, and in so doing, they tend to downgrade the value and relevance of other cultures, or of other ways of doing things. The term can also refer to the tension that may exist in a society that has several discrete cultural groups or ethnicities.

In cultural anthropology, one of the reasons understanding ethnocentrism became so important is because the anthropologist could not be a skilled observer if he or she constantly applied his or her own cultural standards to other societies. This led to what is considered the opposite term, cultural relativism. Impartiality in reporting on how other groups “do things” was strongly needed to scientifically describe those groups. It doesn’t take much reading into history to find the descriptions of people coming into contact with other cultures for the first time to understand how deeply ingrained the preference for a person's own culture has been in the past and, arguably, continues to be.

Accounts of journeys to the “New World,” which wasn’t at all new to the people who already lived there, are peppered with descriptions of “savages.” Despite the great cultural accomplishments of many of the tribes encountered, Europeans typically saw such groups as non-Christians, who didn’t speak their languages. They were less than full persons, just as most Africans were less than white people. From an ethnocentric point of view, it was therefore far easier to kill people in the thousands or to begin the slave trade.

Historical examples of ethnocentrism are often given as how people wrongly thought in the past. There is plenty of evidence that people today are quite invested in the superiority of their cultures. Efforts to bring advancements to other parts of the world may be well-meaning, but may not be culturally necessary when viewed through the eyes of another culture. One example of this has been the US attempt to “bring democracy” to the rest of the world, which immediately shows US preference that democracy can be the only acceptable or is the best form of government. The US is not basing this on fact, however, and is instead basing such decisions on long held cultural opinions about democracy.

Even the average person is guilty of this practice from time to time, and it’s hard not to be. Most people have looked at other people of a different ethnicity or cultural background and questioned: “How can they wear that?” or “How can they listen to that?” or “How can they live like that?” From personal cultural standards, the behavior of someone else who comes from a different culture may indeed seem strange. It’s likely the person of a different background has the same questions about others.

Awareness that differences are to be expected, and that differences alone don’t equate to “not as good as,” is a first step toward avoiding ethnocentrism. That being said, it may be virtually impossible to never judge another culture by home culture standards. A constant quest toward cultural relativism is admirable, but it’s very hard to accomplish true relativism or live with a perpetually open mind.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By NathanG — On May 13, 2011

@David09 - I think another way of looking at your argument is to ask the question, “If every student in the class gets an ‘A’, then no one really has an ‘A’ do they?”

I believe in American exceptionalism as well, but I also believe that there does exist some actual ethnocentrism in America (no, not everyone), where some people believe that because of their culture, skin color or background that they are superior to other races.

I don’t believe that, and nothing in history bears that out. Everyone is given the opportunity to succeed if they make the right choices.

By David09 — On May 13, 2011

@Mammmood - I agree, but I think we need to make another important point when attempting to define ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is not the same as a belief in exceptionalism. When people say that they believe in American exceptionalism, for example, that does not mean that they believe in the inferiority of other nations. It means that they believe there is something about America that is unique, its freedoms, opportunities, what have you.

The fact remains that a lot of these freedoms and opportunities do not exist in other nations, at least not to the degree they exist in America.

I myself come from an immigrant background, yet I believe in the exceptionalism of America, while also remaining proud of my own culture and background.

Believing in American exceptionalism does make me ethnocentric—it is not the European aspect of America’s history that makes it stand out. It is the idea of freedom upon which the nation was founded. I’m sure some sociologists would disagree with my take, lumping me in as “ethnocentric” nonetheless. But that’s my position.

By Mammmood — On May 10, 2011

I think it’s important to stress that while sociological ethnocentrism may be bad, national pride is not. Every nation on the face of the Earth ought to feel some measure of pride about its country, its heritage and its accomplishments. Every people group has had something to contribute to the betterment of mankind, whether in the arts, technology, science, letters or whatever. Some nations have had their periods of glory in the past while others are still in their peak.

Feeling proud about your culture is not, in my opinion, ethnocentric. It’s only if you say other cultures are bad or inferior that it becomes so.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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