Back To CourseAnthropology 101: General Anthropology
25 chapters | 274 lessons
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Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.
Today's lesson on ethnocentrism, cultural relativity, and human rights will be one we can all relate to. Yes, many of us may have never heard of some of these terms, and if asked, we might not be able to define them. However, this doesn't mean they're not at work in our everyday lives.
With that little teaser, I'll explain.
For starters, ethnocentrism is defined as the attitude that other societies' customs and ideas can be judged in the context of one's own culture. Simply put, it's the idea that one's own culture is superior and that it's acceptable to judge other societies based on what your society thinks is acceptable. Really simply put, it's sort of like walking around using your own culture as a measuring stick for others.
Like I said at the beginning, ethnocentrism is something we're all pretty familiar with. Sadly, our history books are full of it. For instance, it could be easily argued that it was ethnocentrism that led the first Western settlers of the Americas to begin subjugating the native populations. After all (and I say this quite dramatically, with some sarcasm to make a point), those poor savages were walking around unclothed and uneducated. Why wouldn't they want to become like the properly dressed, shoe-wearing English and Frenchmen? Why wouldn't they want to learn to read, write, and memorize Plato?
Continuing with some drama and sarcasm for effect - never mind the fact that heavy shoes and poofy pants made no sense when traipsing through a forest. Never mind the fact that the so-called illiterate people already had their own working economy. Never mind that they had existed and thrived on their lands for generation upon generation. All of this was nothing compared to the new life they could experience doing it the Westernized way. Just as soon as the poor savages figured that out, they'd be better off for sure!
Hmm….I'm not completely positive, but based on the definition of ethnocentrism, I'm thinking the label just might apply.
Unfortunately, we don't need to open up a history textbook to get a glimpse of ethnocentrism. We just need to look around. We see it when someone turns up their noses at how some cultures choose to dress or not dress. We see it when one person disgustingly says to another, 'Why do those people from that place play their music so loudly?' or 'Can't they just speak quietly?' In short, we see it anytime one people group looks at another people group and says or thinks, 'You're not like us, and therefore, you're strange and maybe even beneath us!' In a very simplified nutshell, that's ethnocentrism.
Now, before we move away from ethnocentrism, there's one point we need to make. We'd be remiss if we didn't allow room for the fact that ethnocentrism isn't always bad. In fact, many anthropologists would argue it's sometimes positive and that it seeks to help give a people group a feeling of solidarity and belonging. For example, take the Olympics. Fans from all over the world excitedly watch as athletes compete in the name of their country. We wave flags and hold up our fingers signifying our country is number one.
Meanwhile, athletes don our flag on their warm-up suits, reminding us that we are part of a bigger whole, and that, despite what the scoreboard might read, we are the best! In short, we become ultra-ethnocentric, and if only for a short time, it binds us together as one.
On a more serious note, there are definitely people from what we'd call more modernized cultures that seek to actually help other cultures. They don't bring things like economic aid and new technologies to the less modernized world because they feel superior. They do it because they care and want to share their culture's advancements with things like life-saving medicines.
That being said, let's move on to ethnocentrism's sort-of opposite, cultural relativism. Academically speaking, cultural relativism is the attitude that a society's customs and ideas should be viewed within the context of that society's problems and opportunities. Simply stated, it's the belief that one society has no right to superimpose their values onto another's. It's sort of the 'live and let live' idea played out across societies. It argues that just because one might not understand the workings of one culture, that doesn't mean he should judge it harshly. Instead, he should seek to understand it through the lens of that culture.
To give a personal, rather light example, as a young adult, I spent some time living among a tribe in Africa. When I arrived there, I was pretty horrified by the way people smelled and how infrequently they bathed. To me, everything and everyone smelled like day-old burnt bacon. To my rather ethnocentric, perfume-coddled nose, it was gross.
Ironically, it only took me a few days to see that the tribe's people were not gross or dirty. They had simply adapted to the problems in their environment, namely mosquitoes! Think about it; if you were a mosquito, which would you prefer, skin that tasted like smoke or skin that smelled like fresh flowers? When I looked at their decision to bathe in smoke rather than perfume through the lens of their culture, it made perfect sense! In fact, it only took me a few days to join them.
Although there are some really good things about practicing cultural relativism, there are also some real pitfalls. As most anthropologists would agree, cultural relativism taken to the extreme, where there is no universal morality but only what a culture deems acceptable, can be irresponsible if not dangerous. To use an extreme case often cited by modern anthropologists, there's Nazi Germany. What if the whole world had continued to stand by and let that atrocity continue in the name of cultural relativism? What if they had simply said, 'Well, it's not our right to criticize?' This leads us to basic human rights and moral responsibility.
To answer the question of cultural relativism versus moral responsibility, most try to distinguish between upholding basic human rights and making biased judgment calls. For instance, there are some cultures around the globe that still practice cannibalism. With this, there are many social and religious organizations that are going into these areas, seeking to end this practice and preserve human life. Yes, they understand that many of these tribes live amid other warring tribes, and for this reason, cannibalism has long been used as a means to intimidate enemies. In other words, they understand its relation to the culture. However, when push comes to shove, they are willing to impose their views of conflict resolution on these cultures in an effort to save lives.
Although many of us may be unable to specifically define them, the concepts of ethnocentrism, cultural relativity, and human rights can be seen all around our world. Ethnocentrism is the attitude that other societies' customs and ideas can be judged in the context of one's own culture. Stated simply, it's the idea that one's culture is a valid measuring stick for other cultures.
Unfortunately, ethnocentrism has been a catalyst for violence and subjugation throughout history. However, it must also be mentioned that ethnocentrism can also play a positive role in society, when in like a sporting event, it is used to give a society's members a sense of belonging or when modernized technology is used to save lives.
Cultural relativism is the attitude that a society's customs and ideas should be viewed within the context of that society's problems and opportunities. In other words, it's the attitude that one society has no right to push their values onto another. Instead, each society's actions should be filtered through the lens of that society.
Cultural relativism carries with it many positives; however, taken to the extreme, where there is no universal morality but only what a culture deems acceptable, it can become dangerous. For this reason, many seek a balance between cultural relativism and the protection of basic human rights, trying to distinguish between preserving life and making biased judgment calls.
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Back To CourseAnthropology 101: General Anthropology
25 chapters | 274 lessons