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Ethnocentrism vs. Cultural Relativism

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  • 0:02 Culture
  • 0:49 Ethnocentrism &…
  • 2:37 Attitudes About the World
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Culture is the glue that binds people together in society. It can include norms, values, symbols, and more. In this lesson, explore the two major ways in which people encounter other cultures: ethnocentrism or cultural relativism.

Culture

Culture is a force in the world that shapes human behavior as surely as biology and family. We may define culture as beliefs, values and attitudes of a social group that are passed along from one generation of people to the next. Culture can also refer to an actual society with particular practices, such as American or African culture. Is there such a thing as a best culture? The answer to that questions depends on what perspective you want to adopt: ethnocentrism or cultural relativism. Since both ethnocentrism and cultural relativism can be a bit ponderous to explain, we're going to personify them with two siblings: ethnocentrist Ethan and cultural relativist Casey.

Ethnocentrism & Cultural Relativism

The two ideas we're going to discuss are ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. During the early days of contact between different cultures, ethnocentrism was the norm. Ethnocentrism is the idea that one's own culture is the main standard by which other cultures may be measured. An ethnocentric is concerned with how similar others' cultural practices, symbols, and beliefs are to their own.

For instance, Ethan is an ethnocentrist; he considers others' beliefs and practices to be savage or corrupt, or he is often confused by other people's cultures. Very often, people that are ethnocentric don't know they are using their culture to judge another's. The culture of an ethnocentric person is considered the 'normal' way that things are done, just as Ethan believes.

A competing idea, cultural relativism is the belief that the culture of people serves particular needs and must be looked at in terms of the world the people inhabit. This is often the perspective of social scientists who work with people and is the result of the work of anthropologist Franz Boas.

For instance, Casey is a cultural relativist; she prefers to look at other cultures in terms of what their practices bring to them. She believes that if a tribe paints their faces for religious ceremonies, there must be a good reason why they do that. Is there a practical reason for it, or is it symbolic? If symbolic, where do the symbols come from? These questions allow a closer examination of the practices of others than ethnocentrism. This doesn't imply that a relativist, like Casey, doesn't have strong beliefs of her own. Rather, other cultures are simply not judged with reference to one's own culture. Again, this often has to be trained into people.

Attitudes About the World

The difference between the two concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are the difference between night and day; they are simply different attitudes about the world. Ethnocentric Ethan postulates the observer's own culture as a standard of measurement, while cultural relativist Casey has no standard and views each culture as special, according to its own merits.

Now, there's nothing wrong with Ethan's view. Indeed, most people are considered a little ethnocentric. Unless someone is an anthropologist or other social scientist, it may be difficult for someone to appreciate anyone's behavior without referencing his or her own culture. However, there are problematic actions and attitudes that may be fostered by an ethnocentric attitude, like Ethan's.

Ethan's view was quite popular during the age of exploration and expansion that led to the colonization of the Americas. Colonial powers reasoned that they were taming the savage natives by civilizing them. Even something as innocuous as religion can serve an ethnocentric purpose. Many missionaries honestly believed they were teaching religion to the natives for their own good. Historically, however, such actions often have the net effect of destroying the culture of the natives. Without their own culture, or with it in crisis, the natives have problems organizing resistance to colonial demands for their land and resources. Ethan wouldn't see as much of a problem with this turn of events, as he assumes that his own people would make better use of the land than then natives.

There are issues with Casey's point of view as well. Cultural relativism stems from anthropology and the social sciences. Casey's view is intended as a realistic look at the function of behavior within another culture. This can help professionals, such as anthropologists, look at culture as it interacts with the world. However, there can be a sort of moral relativism implied through cultural relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that there is no right or wrong and that all actions are context-dependent.

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