Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism



Almost from the time we are born, we are taught that our way of life is good, moral, civilized, or natural as compared to others. The result in ETHNOCENTRISM: the attitude that one’s own culture is superior to that of others.

Most human beings spend their entire, lives within the culture in which they were born. Knowing little about the culture of others, they see their own norms values as inevitable rather than optional. As anthropologist Ralph Linton observed.

“The last thing a fish would ever notice would be water. It would become conscious of its (water’s) existence only if some accident brought it to the surface and introduced it to air.”

For this reason, people in every society are bound to have some measure of ethnocentrism—the tendency to judge other cultures, by the standards of one’s own. People everywhere are apt to take it for granted that their morality, their marriage forms, their clothing styles or their conceptions of beauty are right, proper and the best of all possible choices.


Here are some examples of ethnocentric thinking.

Eastern women put rings through their ears cosmetics on their faces because it enhances their beauty; Western women put bones through their noses scars on their faces because, in their pitiful ignorance, they don’t realize how ugly it makes them. Muslim won’t eat cats because Islam prohibits haram things, Hindu won’t eat beef because of some silly food taboo. Muslims cover their private parts because they are civilized; they walk around naked because they are primitive shameless. Our brave troops achieve glorious victories over them; their fanatical hordes perpetrate bloody massacres on us. Our religion in divinely inspired truth; there is heathen superstition.

Thus ethnocentrism is the ethnic-centered tendency to evaluate other cultures in terms of our own  i.e., the ways of thinking the ways of doing that we observe in other societies are measured judged in terms of the ideas, norms prevailing in the society with which we are most familiar.

Universal Phenomenon:

Ethnocentrism exists to one degree or another in every society. It is particularly strong in isolated, traditional societies that have had little contact with other cultures. But even in the modern world, where citizens have such advantages as formal education and frequent communication with people across the globe; ethnocentrism still prevails.

Negative Impact of Ethnocentrism:   

Ethnocentrism is no stranger to nations, tribes, families, colleges, fraternities, businesses, political parties etc. The thought that we belong to the best people provides a sort of social glue that fastens us together. Feeling of group pride, belonging collective self-awareness promote social cohesion and unity.

They negative consequences of ethnocentrism are:

It encourages racism.

It can cause hostility conflict between groups.

It can make people unwilling to see the need for changes in their own cultures.

It leads to harmful discrimination against people whose way of life differs from ours.

It can lead to global violence as a result of cultural clash.

Clash of Civilization and Ethnocentrism:

Samuel Huntington (1992) has enlisted Eight “Cultural domains” in the world today. Huntington observed that after the end of the Cold war, the dominating source of international conflict in the new world will no longer be ideological (as was during the Cold War) or economic, but this will be Cultural. The differences among these cultural domains— Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox Lat in America and Africa — can be expected to generate most of the conflict or even violence around the globe just as he culture clash within as country. We have seen how correct Huntington was in his observation, but this may not had happened if people learned to understand each other culture.

Ethnocentrism then is a double edged feeling. It fosters a sense of oneness, overriding divisions within a group, knitting together people who otherwise are divided by economic tensions; social gradations, political interest. At the same time, it sets humans apart by promoting a longing not to belong to any other group. On sum, ethnocentrism has both social benefits and costs.

Cultural Relativism:

Although ethnocentrism is universal, it can be suppressed with cultural relativism— the recognition that one culture cannot be arbitrarily judged by the standards of another or we can say that a belief that a culture must be understood on its own terms. By looking at others cultures from their own perspective, we can understand why they do things the way they do.

We are quick to complain when foreign critics, for instance, an Indian, judge us in terms of their own culture for we feel that such a judgment distorts the reality of our culture’s society. We have to be equality on guard against arbitrarily using our own standards to judge other cultures.

Thus if we hope to understand another culture including that of an adversary  we need to put ourselves in the shoes of its people and grasp reality so they perceive it.

We cannot grasp the behavior of other people if we interpret what they say and do in the light of our values, beliefs norms. Instead, we need to examine their behavior within the framework of THEIR value, belief norms.

To study human behavior, it is vital that we try, as far as possible, to remove the blinding of our own culture when we are looking at another. None of us can be entirely successful at practicing cultural relativism, we simply cannot help viewing a contrasting way of life through the lens that our own culture. Cultural relativism, however, is an attempt to mute that lens thereby assess other ways of life rather than simply asserting: “Our way is right”.

Cultural relativism can contribute to international peace. Soon after Bill Clinton took office as president of the US in 1993, he repeatedly pressured the Chinese government to improve its human rights record. The pressure seriously strained US- China relations. Clinton obviously refused the problem to understand Chinese perspective. In China the feeling was Clinton should not interfere in other countries internal affairs and US should mind its own problems. Thereafter, Clinton seemed to acquire cultural relativism and came around to the Chinese view. He stopped pressuring china on its human rights problem and started targeting increasing US exports to China. The US-China relations began to improving.


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.