What is Ethnocentrism?


William G. Sumner came up with the term Ethnocentrism to describe the tendency of an individual to believe his/her own customs and traditions to be better than any one else’s. Ethnocentrism makes a person consider the ethnic groups, traditions, customs, cultures, language and many other racial aspects of other people as lower or inferior relative to her own. It has often lead to false pride, superiority complex concerning one’s own ethnicity, vanity and contemptuous behavior towards the people who differ in thoughts with the ethnocentric person.


One of the major consequences is racism, a problem prevailing all over the world, spreading violence and despair. It is normal for a person, born and brought up in a certain region and a certain ethnic group to be adapted to his/her own cultural, lingual and traditional environment. If in the later stages of life, the person comes in contact with people with different ethnic and cultural profiles he or she may not have a frame of reference, other than their own cultural framework, to understand them. The person being accustomed to his/her own culture often fails to view the culture of others from their point of view. These interactions and inability to adjust the perspective has lead to disastrous consequences, including war and genocide. This is the basis of Ethnocentrism.


What are some examples of Ethnocentrism?

Ethnocentrism has also been classified according to the regions of their origin. American centrism is a kind of ethnocentrism dealing with the American views being dominant over the neutral view towards the world. It can include anything from politics to ideology and culture. The Anglo centrism is another example that describes the English ethnocentrism concentrated among those who call themselves as English. German centrism is the belief that German people and culture are superior above all others, and this has been the basis for the past two World Wars with disastrous consequences.

Ethnocentrism may appear natural from an individual’s point of view, but when we begin to realize that the individuals are responsible for forming the society, the problem gets compounded, as all societies are not the same. Sure enough, for the individuals who are active in determining the political and cultural views of the countries towards the rest of the world, being ethnocentric can prove to be a real hindrance. Being proud of the birth culture, religion and traditions is a good thing and is certainly helpful for a person to identify himself / herself with his / her race. But, believing it to be superior to others’ cultures, taking a contemptuous view towards anything different can lead to very harmful circumstances for the ethnocentric individual and the society on the whole.


Ethnocentrism is a much studied and discussed topic among the anthropologists. The anthropologists themselves, people who study the human cultures and races, need to rise above the limits created by ethnocentrism and make their studies unbiased. Malinowski, who developed the theory of Functionalism, reasoned that the culture of different societies functioned in accordance with the needs of the individuals who comprise the society and not on the society as a whole. He remarked that a hard working anthropologist would work to understand the feelings and motives of the people to better understand the functions of their cultures and societies. Franz Boas, who developed the Principle of Cultural Relativism, proposed that the beliefs and activities of a society ought to be studied in accordance with the individuals' own culture and not with the eyes of the anthropologist’s ethnic group.


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