The ethnocentrism is the act of judging a different culture itself based on the values and standards that in which the person is immersed. It refers above all to the valuation of phenomena such as the language, customs, behaviors, beliefs and religion of a group of people other than their own.
When you think ethnocentrically, people are comparing what makes their culture unique to the most important elements of other societies. Often, the value judgments that arise from ethnocentrism generate conflicts and misunderstandings between different groups; although if this phenomenon is understood, it is possible to avoid these problems to a great extent.
The term was defined in its modern form by the American sociologist William G. Sumner, who first applied it to the field of social science. This author described it as “the way of looking at the world in which the group itself is the center of everything, in such a way that other people and cultures score themselves using it as a reference.”
According to Sumner, ethnocentrism generally causes emotional states such as pride and vanity. Furthermore, people who habitually reason in this way believe that their group is superior to the rest, and they tend to show contempt for those who do not belong to it. This phenomenon, if left unchecked, can end up causing prejudice and racist behavior.
Over time, the concept of ethnocentrism was developed by other authors, sociologists, and social theorists. For example, some thinkers of the Frankfurt School established ethnocentrism as any type of thinking that differentiates between one’s own group and people outside of it. Generally, this last definition is the one used today.
Origin and history
Although William G. Sumner is generally considered to be the originator of the term, the truth is that it was first used by the Austrian sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz in the 19th century. This author considered that ethnocentrism was a phenomenon similar to other ideas such as geocentrism or anthropocentrism, so he thought it was an illusion.
According to Gumplowicz, ethnocentrism is the set of reasons why a group of people believes that they are at the highest point in comparison not only with the rest of the cultures and nations that exist today in the world, but also in relation to all those that existed in the past.
Later, as early as the 20th century, the sociologist William G. Sumner proposed two different definitions for the concept of ethnocentrism, which are basically the same as those used today. The first, as we have already seen, refers to the way of looking at the world by which the rest of cultures are examined through their own filter.
Sumner’s other definition was a little different. In it, he described ethnocentrism as a feeling of cohesion and dedication to one’s own group, which provokes a feeling of superiority towards anyone who belongs to another group. It should be noted that in this case the author was also speaking at the level of cultures, and not of smaller groups.
From the formal definition of the term, the concept of ethnocentrism has been used to postulate and reinforce different theories, especially in fields such as sociology or psychology.
Furthermore, studies in fields such as social psychology have confirmed the existence of a large part of the mental mechanisms that are supposedly attributed to this way of thinking.
Characteristics of ethnocentrism
Ethnocentrism is a complex phenomenon that encompasses a whole series of clearly differentiated beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Next we will see some of its most important characteristics.
Judgment of other cultures based on one’s own
The main characteristic of ethnocentrism is the use of one’s own habits, cultural factors, ways of thinking or beliefs as a filter to judge whether those of other people are valid or not. The more similar a society is to the one in which one has developed, the more favorably it will be judged.
Thus, for example, an individual affected by ethnocentrism will think that the religion practiced in his country will be the only valid one, and will only accept to a greater or lesser extent those that are very similar to his own. The same will happen with other aspects of their culture, such as their attitudes towards relationships or sex, their artistic expressions or their beliefs about life.
In this way, when ethnocentrism occurs, culture itself becomes the yardstick against which all other groups on the planet are judged. This attitude does not take into account the great diversity that exists in the world in terms of societies and their ways of thinking and acting.
Establishing a hierarchy
A side effect of using one’s own culture as a reference to assess the others is the creation of a hierarchy. For ethnocentric people, the society in which they live is superior to all others (and in many cases, it is the best that has ever existed in all of history).
The rest of the existing cultures in the world will be better or worse depending on how much they resemble that of origin of the ethnocentric individual. Thus, someone from the United States would consider their society as the best in the world, closely followed by those in Europe, and with all the others far removed from them.
Appearance of biases, prejudices and racism
Although it is not something that always has to happen, in most cases where there is ethnocentrism, this comes from the hand of other negative phenomena, such as the existence of biases and prejudices about other cultures. In addition, on many occasions this way of thinking also ends up causing racism.
When a person has an ethnocentric thought, he judges the other cultures of the world based on his own preconceptions, instead of analyzing them rationally and impartially. In this way, they generally apply a large number of stereotypes and believe they have the right to disparage others just based on their place of origin.
This phenomenon would occur, for example, in the case of a European tourist who travels to an Asian or African country and feels disgusted by the customs of its inhabitants. Returning home, he would tell those close to him how inferior the natives of the lands he has visited were, as their customs were strange and very different from his own.
Types of ethnocentrism
According to some authors, it is possible to find different types of ethnocentrism depending on the beliefs caused by it. The most important are the following:
– Xenocentrism or reverse ethnocentrism. It is about the idea that one’s own culture is less valid than the rest, and that therefore it can be detrimental to a person’s life.
– Racial ethnocentrism. Belief that people belonging to one’s own culture are superior to the rest because of race.
– Linguistic ethnocentrism. The thought that the language belonging to one’s own culture is superior in some respects to those of other peoples. For example, it may be believed that it is more subtle, or that it serves to express more complex ideas.
– Religious ethnocentrism. Belief that one’s own religion is the only valid and true one, being those who profess another faith ignorant or uneducated.
Examples of ethnocentrism
Throughout history, many cultures have emerged in the world that claimed to be superior to the rest. Today, this phenomenon still exists, and it takes many different forms. In this section we will look at some of the most important types of ethnocentrism today.
American exceptionalism is a form of ethnocentrism whose followers defend that the United States and its culture are unique and more advanced than those of the rest of the countries of the world. Those who subscribe to this way of thinking believe that, due to its origin, the ideals on which it was based and its history, this country on the American continent would be completely different (and superior) to all others.
For American exceptionalists, the United States was the first country founded on ideas such as equality and freedom. In this way, the territory would have transcended the values of Europe, thus having surpassed the continent on which it originally depended. Today, this type of ethnocentrism is still widespread.
Eurocentrism is the belief that Western culture, with all its advances and its way of understanding life, is superior to all others that have existed throughout history and that can be found today.
It had its origin in the time of the colonizations, when the European conquerors realized that the rest of societies were mainly farmers and livestock.
People with a Eurocentric point of view believe that Western culture is in charge of moving the world forward. Many times, the greatest number of achievements in Europe and the rest of Western countries are associated with ethnicity, although this type of racism is not always associated with Eurocentrism.
Indian nationalism is a type of ethnocentrism that defends that India is the most advanced country in the world, in aspects such as spiritual or cultural. People with this point of view believe that the culture of this Asian country is the one that has most influenced the development of all the others.
Some of the evidences defended by the Indian nationalists are, for example, that the culture of this country is the oldest recorded at a historical level; or that Hinduism, the oldest religion still practiced today, originated in India.
Japanocentrism is a set of beliefs of which the most important is that Japan is, or should be, the center of the world. This is manifested in different attitudes, both on a small scale (such as with the marginalization of foreigners within the Asian country) and internationally.
Japanese culture is especially concerned with the distinction between the country’s natives and foreigners. Their language is one of those that has the most different words to refer to those who are from abroad. Furthermore, the idea that Japan should have a central role in international politics is still very much in force among the inhabitants of the country.
Sinocentrism is a type of ethnocentrism that considers China to be the most important and advanced country in the world, with everyone else being far behind it. In pre-modern times, this belief was embodied in the idea that China was the only true civilization in the world, with all other cultures being considered “barbarian.”
In modern times, Sinocentrism has moderated considerably; But the inhabitants of the Asian country still consider that China is the most important and advanced country in the world.
In political terms, the majority of leaders of the territory believe that their state should have much more relevance at the international level, even if that meant a decrease in well-being in other areas of the planet.
Ethnocentrism in Mexico
In countries like Mexico, which suffered from the mixing of totally different cultures during the Spanish conquest, ethnocentrism plays a very important role even today. Thus, this phenomenon can be found in different ways in this country of the American continent.
On the one hand, for a long time Mexicans with a more marked European origin were considered superior to their compatriots with more indigenous features. On the other, in recent years the opposite view has begun to be promoted, by which the country’s traditional culture has characteristics that make it superior to that introduced by the colonizers.
Both in Mexico and in other countries with a similar situation, it is necessary to work at the social level to eliminate and prevent the problems that are usually associated with ethnocentrism. Only in this way can the very different cultures that coexist within its borders be made compatible.
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