Perceptions of Culture: Ideal Culture and Real Culture, Ethnocentrism, & Culture Relativism

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  • 0:07 Perceptions of Culture
  • 0:52 Ideal vs. Real Culture
  • 2:21 Ethnocentrism
  • 3:39 Culture Relativism
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
The way we perceive culture - both our own and that of others - is affected by many things. In this lesson, we define and discuss the difference between perceptions of ideal culture and real culture. We also examine ethnocentrism and compare it to the idea of culture relativism.

Perceptions of Culture

When we think of American culture, it's easy to picture certain symbols and rituals, such as the American flag, baseball, apple pie, and so on. But, for many, it's not as easy to identify norms and values that are shared by most Americans. The behavior of those around us often seems to contradict what they say is important. In this lesson, we will discuss this contradiction by defining ideal and real culture. We will also discuss how we typically view our culture in comparison to other cultures by examining the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

Ideal and Real Culture

First, think again about the gap between the values that people profess to have and the behavior that contradicts it. This gap exists at a bigger level between ideal culture and real culture. Ideal culture includes the values and norms that a culture claims to have. It involves an idealized, uncompromising value system that dictates perfect behavior. Using ideal culture as a standard, you are either right or wrong. Rules are black and white, with no gray areas and no exceptions.

Real culture, on the other hand, includes the values and norms that are actually followed by a culture. It involves an adaptable value system that is used mostly as a set of guidelines for preferred behavior. Right and wrong are separated, but exceptions exist for pretty much everything.

To illustrate the difference between ideal and real culture, just think about the American value of equality. Growing up in the U.S., we were told that equality is very important - it's part of our ideal culture. Yet, we see inequality everywhere. Women are paid less than men, minorities are given less opportunities, and so on. Unfortunately, our real culture doesn't include much equality.


We continue to see a trend of idealizing our culture when we look at the prevalence of ethnocentrism, which is the tendency to assume that one's own culture is good, while that of another is strange or even immoral. Usually, we are so used to the values and behavioral norms that we've grown up with that they seem to be human nature rather than just elements of our own culture.

For example, in America, eye contact suggests that you are paying attention and interested in what a person has to say. This may seem like something obvious that everyone would know. Yet, in other cultures, eye contact can be considered rude and a challenge of authority.

Even language shows our tendency for ethnocentrism. Americans have referred to China as the 'Far East' for a long time. This expression uses our own country as the point of origin - we put ourselves in the center, with every other culture located relative to us. At the same time, the Chinese name for their country translates as 'central kingdom' - an indication that they do the exact same thing.

Cultural Relativism

With today's continued emphasis on globalization, it's more important than ever to rid ourselves of the cultural biases that can come with ethnocentrism. Some social scientists even believe that, ideally, we could reach a point where each of us could fully accept and even appreciate the cultures of others. This is cultural relativism, which could be defined as the practice of understanding and judging a culture from the viewpoint of that culture instead of one's own. This perspective promotes the idea that there is no universal right or wrong and that we should not judge behavioral norms and values that exist in another culture based on our own cultural standards.

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