The Notion of Ethnocentrism

The Notion of Ethnocentrism Essay sample

Ethnocentrism is the preference of an ethnic group, manifested in the perception and evaluation of the life’s phenomena through the prism of its traditions and values. The term of ethnocentrism was first introduced in 1906 by William Graham Sumner, an American sociologist, who believed that people tend to see the world in such a way that their group is at the center of everything, and all others are measured or estimated with reference to it.

Ethnocentrism existed throughout the history of mankind. A reference to it can be considered in everything – religion, language, literature, food, clothing, etc. There is even an opinion of the American anthropologist Edmund Ronald Leach, according to which the matter of whether a particular tribal community burns or bury the dead, they build round or rectangular houses, can have no other functional explanation, except that each people want to show that it differs from their neighbors and surpasses them. These neighbors, in their turn, having directly opposite customs, are also convinced that their way of doing anything is right and is the best one.

American psychologists M. Brewer and D. Campbell singled out the main features of ethnocentrism:

  • Perception of their culture elements (norms, roles, and values) as natural and correct, and elements of other cultures as unnatural and incorrect;
  • Consideration of the own customs as universal;
  • The idea that it is natural for a person to cooperate with members of his group to help them, to prefer this group, to be proud of it and not to trust and even to quarrel with members of other groups.

The last of the criteria identified by Brewer and Campbell testifies the ethnocentrism of the individual. As for the first two features, some ethnocentric people recognize that other cultures have their own values, norms, and customs, but are inferior to the traditions of their “culture”. However, there is also a more naive form of the absolute ethnocentrism, when some group is convinced that “their” traditions and customs are universal for all people on the Earth.

Most scientists believe that ethnocentrism is a negative social phenomenon, equivalent to nationalism and even racism. Many psychologists consider ethnocentrism a negative social and psychological phenomenon manifested in the tendency of rejection of foreign groups in combination with an overestimation of their own group and consideration it as an inability to treat the behavior of other people in a manner other than that this is dictated by their own cultural environment.

The analysis of the problem shows that ethnocentrism is an inevitable part of our life, a normal consequence of socialization and familiarization of an individual with the culture of his group. Moreover, like any other socio-psychological phenomenon, ethnocentrism cannot be regarded as something only positive or only negative, and the value judgment of it is unacceptable. Although ethnocentrism often proves to be an obstacle to the intergroup interaction, it simultaneously performs a useful function for the group to maintain its positive ethnic identity and even preserve the integrity and specificity of the group in question.

Initially, ethnocentrism does not carry a hostile attitude toward other groups and can be combined with a tolerant attitude towards intergroup differences. On the one hand, the partiality is mainly a result of the fact that one’s own group is considered good, and to a lesser degree, it arises from the feeling that all other groups are bad. On the other hand, an uncritical attitude cannot extend to all the features and aspects of the life of its group.

In the studies of Brewer and Campbell in three countries of eastern Africa, ethnocentrism was found in thirty ethnic communities. Representatives of all nations are treated with a greater sympathy, they assess more positively their moral virtues and achievements. But the degree of expression of ethnocentrism varies. In assessing group achievements, the preference of the group is significantly weaker than in evaluating other aspects. A third of communities assess the achievements of at least one of foreign groups higher than their own achievements. Ethnocentrism, in which the quality of one’s group is objectively assessed, with attempts to understand the characteristics of a foreign group, is called benevolent or flexible.
In this case, the perception of one’s own and other groups occurs in the form of a comparison – a peaceful non-identity. It is an acceptance and recognition of differences that can be considered the most acceptable form of social perception in the interaction of ethnic communities and cultures at the present stage of the human history.

In the case of interethnic comparison, one’s own group can be preferred in some spheres of the life activity, and the foreign one – in others, which does not exclude the criticality to the activities and qualities of both and is manifested through the construction of complementary images. In this way, the American stereotype commonly includes business (enterprise, diligence, conscientiousness, competence) and communicative (sociability, positive attitude) characteristics, as well as main features of “Americanism” (striving for success, individualism, high self-esteem, pragmatism).

Ethnocentrism is not always benevolent. An interethnic comparison can be expressed in the form of an opposition, which implies, at least, bias in relations to other groups. An indicator of this comparison is polar and opposite images, when members of an ethnic group attribute only positive qualities to themselves, and only negative ones – to “outsiders”. The most vivid contrast is manifested in the mirror perception when members of two conflicting groups attribute identical positive traits to themselves, and identical defects – to rivals.