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
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''.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

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 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.

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Additional Activities

Ethnocentrism vs. Cultural Relativism - Writing Prompts

Poster Prompt 1:

Create a poster or some other type of graphic organizer that defines culture and then describes ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. Tip: It can be helpful to have the definition of culture at the top, and then have two sections dividing ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

List Prompt 1:

Make a list of as many questions that you can come up with that a cultural relativist might ask when studying a society's culture. You can think of a specific culture or you can provide more general questions that get to the heart of cultural relativism.

Example: How does the performance of x ritual serve this society?

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay that describes some of the impacts of ethnocentrism on historical cultures.

Example: You could explain how missionaries spread Christianity to native cultures, and how this has caused certain cultural rituals to disappear.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay that explains some of the potential negative impacts of utilizing cultural relativism when analyzing a certain culture. Be sure to utilize the concept of moral relativism in your essay.

Example: Since the implication of moral relativism is that there is no right or wrong, a cultural relativist might fail to see certain human or animal rights violations within a culture. For instance, a cultural relativist may not perceive animal sacrifice as animal cruelty, or may be unable to understand the detrimental effects of a culture denying girls the rights to higher education might be.

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