Cultural Relativity, Ethnocentrism & the Rights of Humans

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Culture Shock: Definition, Stages & Examples

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Ethnocentrism
  • 2:42 Positive Aspects of…
  • 3:55 Cultural Relativism
  • 5:26 Human Rights
  • 6:51 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativity. In doing so, it will also highlight the role human rights plays in the actual working out of these two concepts amid cultures.


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.

Positive Aspects of 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.

Cultural Relativism

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account