Ethnocentrism: Culture and United States

Topics: Culture, China, Japan Pages: 16 (5125 words) Published: July 20, 2012
Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own ethnic culture. The concept of ethnocentrism has proven significant in the social sciences, both with respect to the issue of whether the ethnocentric bias of researchers colors the data they obtain, and the findings from research in anthropology and sociology. Such research has revealed ethnocentrism in every culture around the world, based on a number reasons, including religion, language, customs, culture, and shared history. It seems natural that people feel pride in the culture in which they have grown up and from which they have adopted their values and standards of behavior. However, the problem is that one may view other cultures not only as different, but also as inferior, with a great danger of behaving in ways that are damaging to those from other cultures. However, as increasing globalization brings different cultures together, people are learning to overcome their self-centered thinking and see human society from a broader, more inclusive perspective. The term ethnocentrism was coined by William Graham Sumner, a social evolutionist and professor of Political and Social Science at Yale University. He defined it as the viewpoint that "one’s own group is the center of everything," against which all other groups are judged. People often feel ethnocentric while experiencing what some call "culture shock" during a stay in a different country. Ethnocentrism, however, is distinguished from xenophobia, the fear of other strangers.

Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one's own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Within this ideology, individuals judge other groups in relation to their own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behavior, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity.

Anthropologists, such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, argued that any human science had to transcend the ethnocentrism of the scientist. Both urged anthropologists to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in order to overcome their ethnocentrism. Boas developed the principle of "cultural relativism," and Malinowski developed his functionalist approach methods of developing non-ethnocentric studies of different societies. The books The Sexual Life of Savages, by Malinowski, Patterns of Culture, by Ruth Benedict, and Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead (two of Boas' students) are classic examples of anti-ethnocentric anthropology. In political science and public relations, not only have academics used the concept to explain nationalism, but activists and politicians have used labels like "ethnocentric" and "ethnocentrism" to criticize national and ethnic groups as being unbearably selfish—or at best, culturally biased.

Nearly every religion, race, or nation feels it has aspects which are uniquely valuable. (This tendency is humorously illustrated in the romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in which the heroine's father perpetually exalts Greek culture: "Give me any word, and I'll show you how it derives from Greek roots." "Oh, yeah, how about kimono?")

Other examples abound: Arnold J. Toynbee noted that Ancient Persia regarded itself as the center of the world and viewed other nations as increasingly barbaric according to their degree of distance. Traditional Chinese world maps show China in the center. England defined the world's meridians with itself on the center line, and longitude continues to be measured in degrees east or west of Greenwich, thus establishing as fact the Anglo-centric worldview. Native American tribal names often translate as some variant on "the people," whereas other tribes were often labeled with pejorative names.
The Japanese word for foreigner (gaijin) can also mean "outsiders," though...
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