views updated May 29 2018


Ethnocentrism is a notion not widely used in the early twenty-first century. Coined by William Graham Sumner in the early twentieth century, the term owes what conceptual life it has to the likes of anthropology and intercultural communication. Dominant strains of these disciplines, especially anthropology, have examined the lives and cultural expressions of ethnically defined or identified groups and the misinterpretations resulting from Western perspectives.

Nevertheless, a survey of contemporary critical works on ethnicity and race, including those in critical anthropology, reveal an almost complete lack of engagement with the concept. In Anglo-American studies, the term ethnocentrism carries a largely descriptive and fleeting connotation, its meaning more or less taken for granted. It has been overshadowed perhaps by more readily invoked characterizations or charges of racism, racialization, and ethnoracial determination. This is perhaps less the case in mainstream European social analysis, where race remains a largely taboo category and ethnic configurations and characterizations are far more readily and uncritically invoked. It is unsurprising, then, that the thickest critical engagement to be found with the notion of ethnocentrism is in French works from the late 1980s (Taguieff; Todorov).


Ethnocentrism can be understood as the disposition to read the rest of the world, those of different cultural traditions, from inside the conceptual scheme of one's own ethnocultural group. The ethnocentric attitude assumes that one's own ethnic Weltanschauung (worldview) is the only one from which other customs, practices, and habits can be understood and judged. Ethnocentrism thus is conceived critically as involving overgeneralizations about cultures and their inhabitants, others' or one's own, on the basis of limited or skewed, if any, evidence. So the notion of ethnocentrism is conceived as a profound failure to understand other conceptual schemes, and, by extension, practices, habits, expressions, and articulations of others on their own terms. Standing inside our own conceptual schemes, we are blinded even to the possibilities of other ways of thinking, seeing, understanding, and interpreting the world, of being and belongingin short, other ways of worldmaking.

It would seem to follow, as many definitions in fact insist, that ethnocentrism is a claim about the superiority of one's own culture or ethnic standing. While this is perhaps a strong presumption in many ethnocentric claims, we should be careful not to make it definitionally so. One can imagine claims of inherent and inescapably culture-bound judgments about ethnically ascribed others, about inherent differences, without assumption or assertion of cultural superiority. If there is any coherence to the concept, "differentialist ethnocentrism" must factor into any working definition of the term as well.

As an analytic concept, ethnocentrism took hold only in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the word did not appear in authoritative dictionaries until the mid-1970s. The reasons are not unrelated to the conceptual history of the term racism. While invocation of the notion of "race" in regard to human beings (and by extension, discussion of racism) became a taboo subject in Europe in the wake of the Holocaust, concerns around racism, socially and analytically, emerged forcefully in the United States. The anthropological concern with culture turned increasingly to the language of ethnicity, reinforced by the emergent hold of area studies and liberal distribution of development aid as an arm of geostrategic politics in the face of colonial liberation and the Cold War. The romance with ethnicity seemed more respectful than the legacy of race, its faux universalism enabling an easy evasiveness. At the same time, the concept of ethnocentrismlargely descriptive and individualist in analytic dispositioncould offer a liberal contrast to the more critically pressing concept of "institutional racism," with its sociostructural connotations, emergent in the late 1960s (Carmichael and Hamilton). Indeed, proponents of ethnocentrism today will often claim both racism and colonialism as sub-species of ethnocentrisms. But this would seem to undercut the sociohistorical specificities of both racisms and colonialisms.

Universalizing Ethnocentrism

There is a widespread insistence among those who readily invoke the notion that ethnocentrism is a universal condition. All cultures, the argument goes, express enthnocentric attitudes toward others. This might be called the "universality of ethnocentrism" claim. It is the supposition that everyone necessarily stands inside oneand perhaps only oneculture. It would follow that we must (cannot but? always?) express inherently partial judgments about others from inside the inescapable frame, whether or not we thereby assume our own cultural commitments to be preferable or better.

This claim suggests that there is a spectrum of ethnocentrisms. They supposedly range from the less to the more pernicious, from judgments about others inescapably expressed from, and expressive of, a cultural stance not theirs to a dismissal of cultural differentiation as inferior, as lesser. Analysts or commentators usually define ethnocentrism in the latter sense, that is, as belief in or claim to the superiority of one's own culture, as this article suggests earlier. For example, mainstream Japanese society is deemed ethnocentric for its sense of discriminatory superiority over "Burakumin," or social outcasts, those deemed barely human and good only for menial employment (Weiner). Defined as such, ethnocentrism is seen as deeply linked, or leading to, the scapegoating of those deemed inferior or difficult, demanding, or incapable. Consider the enmity between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda during the 1990s Those deemed "incapable" are often identified as the cause of things gone wrong in society, of dangers threatening, of social conditions gone sour, of frustrations with socioeconomic concerns turning to ethno-tensions and fast exploding into violence. "They" are the cause of "our" difficulties. If "we" have "failed" it must be "their" fault. But it also reveals that the socially produced responses to such ethnocentrisms vary widely from avoidance or dismissal to outright rejection or, worse still, to outright attack, purging, or ultimately to genocide.

The universality claim thus expressed, however, undercuts critical judgments against ethnocentric commitment. If we are all party to such narrowness, if we are inescapably of and judge from (inside) our culture, then it cannot be that bad. After all, those so judged have their own culture not only from which to render their inescapably ethnocentric judgments but also as a form of defense. Ethnocentrism as a claim to universal inevitability conceptually reduces to a case of culture war.

The universalizability claim is considered by self-satisfied critics as revealing the poverty of extreme forms of relativism. Value universalists cannot be so smug, however. The "universality of ethnocentrism" claim on the more extreme relativistic side has its characteristic correlate among bigoted universalists too. Call this by contrast the "ethnocentrism of universality" claim. Tzvetan Todorov revealingly defines ethnocentrism to capture just this characterization. Ethnocentrism, he writes, takes the values of one's own society without warrant as universal, as applying to all anytime, everywhere.

Consider Keith Windschuttle's characteristic assumptions in attacking what he questionably deems the "ethnocentrism of [the anthropologist] Clifford Geertz," who Windschuttle reads as the quintessential relativist.

From its origins in classical thought and Christianity, Western culture has always had a strong tendency towards universalism. This principle has long been expressed in the idea of the unity of human kind and the belief that all human beings had a common origin and were equal before God. During the European Enlightenment, these Christian concepts were secularized to produce the notions of a common human nature and universal human rights. In other words, the universalizing principle has been one of the great strengths of Western culture and has been central to the self-assurance and development of Western civilization.

Here the universalizing project of "Western Enlightenment," precisely in the name of criticizing relativistic ethnocentrism, is the project to universalize its values. This is to insist that, because these are universal values, they ought to be universally recognized. Blaise Pascal writes that "We have to admit that there is something astonishing about Christian religion though I was born in it, I soon found it astonishing" (p. 23). So astonishing, it turns out, that its valuesthe only religion whose values are rationally produced, Pascal saysshould hold for all, absolutely, everywhere, always. The assertion of the universality of one's society's or religion's values fails to acknowledge that even such general values as liberty and equality are open to interpretation and inflection. Liberty and equality may be general values aspired to very widely. But value universalists all too often generalize the specific interpretation or meanings of those commitments from within their own sociocultural boundaries, insisting that they should apply universally, thereby denying interpretations to these terms diverging from dominant, usually Western conceptions (though prosyletizing Islamic universalists, for example, might be guilty of this too).

These presumptively universal values and interpretations, which proponents such as Windschuttle seek to generalize and have rule the world, turn out invariably to be those of a relatively small group of people. They are a distinct minority actually in the global scheme of things, with a particular history of domination and subjugation. Critics of ethnocentrism often contrast ethnocentric disposition to that of tolerance, which is promoted as the proper response to ethnic distinction and differentiation. It is curious consequently to note accordingly how critics of value universalism are dismissed by proponents such as Windschuttle as incorrigible relativists, or even worse as relativistic multiculturalists. These are charges that themselves reveal the ethnocentric reification of such universalistic claims, not to mention the distinct horizons of application and scope when it comes to tolerance, which after all is always expressed from a position of power (Goldberg). But as Todorov points out, regarding what he calls the "ethnocentric spirit" exhibited by Pascal, having absolutized local values or interpretations ethnocentrists then judge their own values and practices as universally ordained. The "ethnocentrism of universality" becomes at once the rationalization of local values imposed universalistically.

The "ethnocentrism of universalism" and the "universalism of ethnocentrism" thus converge in the end. The ethnocentrism of universalism ends up flattening out all distinction. If I universalize the values of "my" culture (given that I can identify a coherent universalizable set) to apply to all cultural and social arrangements, I effectively deny or belie what makes those cultures unique. And if I insist, seemingly by contrast, that all societies, universally, are ethnocentric, and so their members do and perhaps can only exercise value judgments from within their cultural horizons, then effectively I must be claiming that the universalism of ethnocentrism amounts to no more than the ethnocentrism of universalism: my judgment from within a culture is, from my point of view, all there can be, and so must perversely be the grounds of universal judgment. The ethnocentric disposition at least implicitly denies historical relations connecting the ethnically dominated to the ethnically dominant. Whether taken substantively as a standpoint from which judgments are expressed about others or as an analytic framework for understanding historical circumstances, ethnocentrism implodes on the common claim to social homogeneity.


The social dynamics of ethnocentric charge and countercharge are confined almost exclusively to the cultural wars over values and their scope. Social power and the relative positionings of those charging and charged remain largely unaddressed. And yet power is at the heart of the ethnocentric concern, in both its universalistic versions, to maintain and refine social homogeneity. The most extreme form of ethnically predicated and produced homogenization is reflected in the phenomenon of "ethnocratic states." These are states in which a single ethnically defined or self-ascribed group seeks, and seeks to maintain, power on just those terms (Yiftachel, 2002, 2004). In the self-defining extreme, ethnocratic states are keen to remove all those identified within as "minorities" who refuse or (more likely) are refused to join or affirm the dominant conception of social value and belonging, the common "nation-state." The ethnocratic state takes itself to be born out of a single, common history, cultural legacy, language, religious tradition, and racial kinship. Consider, for example, the radical Romanian nationalist Radu Sorescu who first defined the "ethnocratic state" as an aspiring commitment, in his case for Romania in the 1930s (Dreapta). The ethnocratic state thus conceived fashions a peculiar sort of state personality, mixing the perceived need to defend society against or "clean" it of threatening heterogeneities with the related concern to claim power by asserting it over those deemed inferior or immature, distinct or detrimental.

Ethnocentrism as a concept fails in its self-assured lack of relational analysis. It refuses, by extension, any engagement with relations of social power and differentiated social positionings that has been the mark, by contrast, of race critical theory (Essed and Goldberg).

See also Colonialism ; Critical Race Theory ; Ethnicity and Race ; Race and Racism .


Barger, Ken. "Ethnocentrism: What Is It? Why Are People Ethnocentric? What Is the Problem? What Can We Do about It?" 2003. Available at

Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House, 1967.

Dreapta, Noua. "The Romanian Ethnocratic State." In Fascism, edited by Roger Griffin, 207209. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Essed, Philomena, and David Theo Goldberg, eds. Race Critical Theories: Text and Context. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Goldberg, David Theo. The Death of Race. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

. The Racial State. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Mamdani, Mahmood. When Victims become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Pascal, Blaise. Pascal's Pensees. Translated by Martin Turnell. London: Harvill, 1962.

Taguieff, Pierre-Andre. The Force of Prejudice: Racism and its Doubles. Translated and edited by Hassan Melehy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Todorov, Tzvetan. On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Weinter, Michael, ed. Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Windschuttle, Keith. "The Ethnocentrism of Clifford Geertz." October 2002. Available at

Yiftachel, Oren. "'Ethnocracy': Land, Settlement, and the Politics of Judaising Israel/Palestine." 2002. Available at

. "Ethnocratic States and Spaces." 2004. Available at

David Theo Goldberg


views updated May 23 2018





Ethnocentrism is a basic attitude expressing the belief that ones own ethnic group or ones own culture is superior to other ethnic groups or cultures, and that ones cultural standards can be applied in a universal manner. The term was first used by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner (18401910) to describe the view that ones own culture can be considered central, while other cultures or religious traditions are reduced to a less prominent role. Ethnocentrism is closely related to other attitudinal indicators for racism, xenophobia, prejudice, mental closure, and, more generally, an authoritarian personality structure. Ethnocentrism is widely used in research on social and political attitudes because it proves to be a very powerful and easily identifiable attitude that can be measured in a valid manner with a limited number of variables. Although ethnocentric prejudice can be directed toward one specific outsider group, empirical research reveals that usually ethnocentrism is generalized toward all outsider groups.

Although ethnocentrism is closely related to racism, it can be distinguished from racism because it does not involve necessarily a negative vision toward other races. Any culturally distinct outsider group (whether the distinction involves language, religion, color, or descent) can be targeted by ethnocentric attitudes. In practice, European researchers often tend to avoid using the term racism because they are reluctant to apply the concept of race to human beings. In a U.S. context, the use of the term racism is not considered a problem. Given the fact that ethnocentrism is such a powerful attitude and is associated strongly with various behavioral patterns, ethnocentrism measurements are routinely included in almost all major survey projects. Ethnocentrism leads to in-group favoritism with regard to contact and cooperation, and accompanies outsider-group hostility, sometimes even leading to intergroup conflict, violence, or support for discriminatory behavior. There is also an abundant research literature on consumer ethnocentrism, that is, the tendency of consumers to prefer goods and services produced in ones own society.


Various explanations have been suggested for ethnocentrism. Social identity approaches assume that ethnocentrism is the result of a strong identification with the in-group of the actor, which almost automatically leads to negative feelings toward and stereotyping of members of the out-group. Because some personality types are more clearly dependent on this strong form of group identification, these personality types are also more vulnerable to adopting ethnocentric prejudice. Experimental research has demonstrated that even if groups are assigned on a purely random basis, processes of in-group identification and polarization with outsider-group members still occur. Social scientists also have speculated that a lack of real-life contact with members of outsider groups might enhance stereotyping, as the outsider group can be seen as homogeneous, but the empirical evidence about the allegedly beneficial effects of contact tends to be mixed.

Realistic conflict theory, in contrast, assumes that ethnocentrism is triggered by a real or perceived conflict between various ethnic groups competing for scarce resources in society. The originally dominant groups in a territory will develop antagonistic feelings toward newly arriving outsiders when they perceive these outsiders as a threat to their own social position (e.g., in the labor or housing markets). In practice, however, empirical research has demonstrated quite convincingly that even groups whose positions are not threatened by ethnic competition still develop ethnocentric prejudice.

Survey research routinely reveals strong individual-level determinants of ethnocentrism: for example, high education levels effectively reduce ethnocentrism, and in general, men are more willing to express ethnocentrism than women. It is believed that actors with fewer individual resources (e.g., lower socioeconomic status, cognitive ability, or self-esteem) are more dependent on in-group confirmation of their identity, thus strengthening prejudice toward members of outsider groups. There is no consensus, however, on the impact of religion on ethnocentrism. Several authors have argued that this relation can be considered as curvilinear, with the highest ethnocentrism levels among believers that are only marginally connected to organized religion. Ethnocentrism is also clearly associated with distrust and with authoritarian and right-wing ideologies, and is the single most powerful determinant of extreme-right voting behavior.


Research distinguishes two major components of ethnocentrism that are closely related but still can be empirically distinguished. Cultural ethnocentrism finds its origin in the belief that ones own cultural norms and attitudes are superior to the cultures of other societies or groups. Furthermore, cultural ethnocentrists believe that this cultural order is threatened by the arrival of new groups (with their own cultural norms) to the territory that is claimed as their own. Cultural ethnocentrism often expresses itself in a symbolic manner, for instance, in disagreements about the public presence of cultural markers of identity such as clothing, religious symbols, or other visible elements of minority cultures. Economic ethnocentrism is tied more closely to the perception that other groups can be seen as economic competitors and therefore should be limited in their capacity as economic actors. Economic ethnocentrism can express itself in discriminatory measures on the labor market, and in boycotts or other consumer actions expressing a clear preference for goods and services associated with ones own culture.

Some researchers have also distinguished between explicit and implicit ethnocentrism. In the explicit condition, respondents are willing to express negative stereotypes toward outsider groups; the implicit condition is characterized by an inhibition to express these sentiments despite the fact that other responses clearly indicate that the respondent is unwilling to grant the same rights and legal protections to members of outsider groups. Implicit ethnocentrism can lead to calls for segregation with regard to education, housing, or cultural participation, or to a negative attitude toward affirmative action.

Although throughout the world, various government agencies and education systems have developed social and legal strategies to reduce ethnocentrism, thus far no universally successful strategies have been documented. Avoiding stereotyping seems to be a necessary prerequisite, and mass media and other socialization agents clearly play an important role in this respect.

SEE ALSO Ethnic Conflict; Ethnic Fractionalization; Ethnicity; Jingoism; Nationalism and Nationality; Prejudice


Allport, Gordon. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

LeVine, Robert, and Donald Campbell. 1972. Ethnocentrism. New York: Wiley.

Sniderman, Paul, Philip Tetlock, and Edward Carmines, eds. 1993. Prejudice, Politics, and the American Dilemma. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tajfel, Henri, ed. 1982. Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Marc Hooghe


views updated May 08 2018


Any policy, research, and action on the part of individuals or institutions that promote (intentionally or unintentionally) the believed superiority of one group, profession, or set of ideals over another can be considered ethnocentric. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ethnocentrism as "regarding one's own race or ethnic group as of supreme importance" (1989, p. 424). The dictionary records the first use of the term to be in 1900 when W. G. McGee, in the Annals and Reports of American Ethnology, referred to ethnocentrism as a characteristic of primitive cultures. McGee couldn't imagine his own European culture as having ethnocentric biases. Ethnocentrism, as it is understood in the twenty-first century, was first defined in 1951. Noted anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, in the publication Social Anthropology, saw ethnocentrism as claiming or believing that one group has superiority over others and urged that "this ethnocentric attitude has to be abandoned if we are to appreciate the rich variety of human culture and social life" (OED 1989, p. 424). It is apparent that a broader use of the term has entered common usage.

Success in the field of public health requires cultural and social sensitivity. Recognizing the limiting effects of ethnocentrism and heeding the call of Evans-Pritchard is essential. Public health workers and the programs they design must recognize the distinctive features and characteristics of the populations they serve. S. Van der Geest notes that ethnocentrism encourages narrowmindedness. It prevents one from entertaining different worldviews, and one becomes less inclined to challenge or question how different groups of people learn or to understand what they are interested in learning. The appreciation of different forms of knowledge and values are at the core of ethical practice, policy, and research in public health.

Understanding ethnocentrism and its relation to race in public health research is particularly important in the United States because of its history of using race in classifying and judging different groups. M. T. Fullilove notes that race is an arbitrary system of visual classification that has no scientific relevance in public health research. R. Bhopal and L. Donaldson suggest the use of nonracialized terms in public health research and caution that the use of racial categories in scientific research can be interpreted as an endorsement of racial determinism. The historical use of racial categorization was founded on the ethnocentric belief that the so-called white race was superior to the so-called black, red, and yellow races and promoted an attitude that there was no need for equality in entitlement to public goods and services. The most often cited example of racist and ethnocentric conduct in U.S. public health history is the forty-year Tuskegee syphilis study, where African-American men with syphilis were recruited to participate in a study and told they were being treated, only to be left untreated even though an effective cure was available.

In twenty-first-century America, there is concern over persistent disparities in health status between those of European or Caucasian descent and other groupsa distinction often based on racial or minority status. The disparity has persisted in part because of ethnocentric attitudes and beliefs on the part of health care providers, researchers, and health-policymakers over the most effective methods for addressing health promotion and disease prevention on the one hand, and for providing the most efficient health care services on the other. Effectiveness and efficiency are dependent on social and cultural characteristics and skills. It has been demonstrated that ethnic and cultural values and beliefs influence the way individuals and groups view health and disease and determine what practices are followed when illness occurs. Ethnocentric points of view can prevent attempts to acknowledge ethnic differences and cultural values in making health decisions that better address the health concerns of U.S. minorities. To challenge ethnocentrism is to recognize and value differences and qualities that exist in diverse groups. Such differences can include eating practices, spiritual values, body shape and size, and preventive and curative beliefs, to name but a few.

Public health often focuses too much on risk factors and not enough on protective cultural and cognitive factors in the same individuals. Public health does focus on these in attempting to promote positive health practices, attitudes, beliefs, values, and living conditions. All groups have both risk (negative) and protective (positive) factors that can determine health-related behavior and skills. The positive aspects of a group's beliefs and practices as they relate to health need to be recognized and promoted. When negative aspects of a minority group's beliefs and values must be changed, it does not follow that the strategy and approach for such change needs to conform with the strategy and approach for changing negative beliefs and values in the majority group. Failure to understand differences in the way various groups address their preventive and curative health needs often leads to ethnocentrism in public health. To eliminate the disparity in the health status of ethnic minorities in the United States, public health professionals must encourage diversity in approaches to health promotion and disease prevention and eliminate ethnocentrism in public health.

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa

Michael Ludwig

(see also: African Americans; Anthropology in Public Health; Asian Americans; Assimilation; Biculturalism; Cultural Identity; Cultural Appropriateness; Ethnicity and Health; Immigrants, Immigration; Minority Rights; Values in Health Education )


Airhihenbuwa, C. O. (1999). "Of Culture and Multiverse: Renouncing the 'Universal Truth' in Health." Journal of Health Education 30:267273.

Bhopal, R., and Donaldson, L. (1998). "White, European, Western, Caucasian, or What? Inappropriate Labeling in Research on Race, Ethnicity, and Health." American Journal of Public Health 88(9):13031307.

Fullilove, M. T. (1998). "Comment: Abandoning 'Race' as a Variable in Public Health ResearchAn Idea whose Time Has Come." American Journal of Public Health 88(9):12971298.

Jones, J. H. (1995). Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. New York: Free Press.

Judd, C. M.; Park, B.; Ryan, C. S.; Brauer, M.; and Kraus, S. (1995). "Stereotypes and Ethnocentrism: Diverging Interethnic Perceptions of African American and White American Youth." Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 69(3):460481.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Van der Geest, S. (1995). "Overcoming Ethnocentrism: How Social Science and Medicine Relate and Should Relate to One Another." Social Science and Medicine 40(7):869872.


views updated May 29 2018


Ethnocentric persons believe that the principles and practices of their own tribe, nation, or ethnic group are not just different from other groups, but superior in some sense, perhaps because they are more sacred, or perhaps more reasonable, or more practical. At the highest intellectual level, some cultures regard their own religious beliefs and systems of morality as representing the wishes of the only true God, while they assert that the beliefs of others are derived from a false god, or have been misinterpreted by false prophets. Even among religions that represent “people of the book” —Jews, Christians, and Muslims—some denominations maintain that they are the only people who “got it right,” while other denominations and religions are wallowing in sin and ignorance. Ironically, congregations and denominations are oftentimes most critical of those who, by any objective measure, are most similar to themselves—Shia and Sunni Muslims, Protestant and Catholic Christians, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

Disagreements among religionists at an apparently theological level frequently have social and political consequences for their respective adherents. Mahayana Buddhism, for example, is more ecumenical than Theravada Buddhism. The role of women is frequently at issue among religionists, as well as the proper structure of a family and attitudes toward other “races” and nations. In many cases, these social beliefs are part of a formal cosmology, frequently incorporating a creation story that delineates and rationalizes proper roles in society. For people of the book, the cosmology/creation story that they share is included in the Book of Genesis, with its narratives of the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the flood, which have been variously interpreted by theologians of the three faiths. All three religions have added supplemental sacred texts—such as the Jewish Mishnah, the Christian New Testament, and the Islamic Koran— which address the cultural differences among the three groups—concerning such social and political issues as pacifism, polygyny, diet, government, and even business practices such as the sanctity of contracts and charging interest for loans.

While large-scale, literate religious groups such as those above have most often accepted each other as “civilized,” in some sense, the same courtesy has not been extended historically to the practitioners of “primitive” religion. The most famous of the early comparative religious scholars, Sir James Frazer, contrasted civilized with “primitive” religions as a matter of real religion versus “magic.” In a classically ethnocentric manner, he managed to define magic in a way that made tribal religions seem to be magical while the “great religions” were not, being characterized as monotheistic and abstract instead of superstitious and magical. Critics soon challenged Frazer’s definitions, pointing out, for example, that Christian beliefs in transubstantiation or the power of prayer clearly constituted “magic” by Frazer’s own definition.

The acknowledged founder of modern anthropology, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, wrote easily and ethnocentrically about “primitive” beliefs in his book, Primitive Culture (1871). Like other cultural evolutionists of his day, he placed existing “primitive” societies on a historical scale leading from savagery to civilization, with different tribal societies of his day representing extinct societies that were the antecedents of “civilized” peoples. At that time, the word savage was also used to describe people known in the twenty-first century as tribal or pre-literate, an even more derogatory term than primitive. Franz Boas, the usually progressive founder of anthropology in the United States, used the milder term in his 1911 book, The Mind of Primitive Man, but his contemporary Bronislaw Malinowski wrote of The Sexual Life of Savages in 1929, and a 1966 book by Claude Levi-Strauss was entitled The Savage Mind, although the term sauvage is considered less offensive in his original French than in English.

For a time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the languages of tribal peoples were likewise regarded as “primitive.” European traders and travelers often reported that the native peoples of Africa and Indonesia spoke languages that were “guttural,” consisting of mere grunts and noises. Of course, the people who made these observations did not speak the languages in question, and so these comments are more an expression of European ignorance than of the “primitive” condition of native languages. In the twentieth century, textbooks in general linguistics made a serious effort to dispel these misunderstandings about language, pointing out that some languages had more sounds than others, and some had grammars that were more complicated than others, but there were no general criteria that could be used to categorize certain languages as “primitive.” A language might be simple in some respects, such as number of sounds, but very complicated in other respects, such as grammar. Also, they pointed out, it is ethnocentric to describe one language as intrinsically easy to learn and another as difficult. Whether it is easy or difficult depends on what language one speaks already. From the standpoint of English, Chinese is a difficult language. But to one who already speaks a Tibetan language, Chinese is easy. And to a speaker of Chippewa Indian language, Pequot is easy. And to those who speak English, German is easy.

The complexities of cultures maintained by supposedly “primitive” peoples are also apparent in their religious beliefs and ceremonies. The Cheyenne Indians of North America, for example, envision a universe of two poles, male spirituality at the zenith and female materiality at the nadir. The cardinal directions represent philosophical contrasts between such entities as life and death, fertility and sterility, sickness and health, energy and nothingness, good luck and bad, symbolized by various colors, animals, and astronomical features. In their ceremonies, which have been well described, they celebrate good and beneficial plants and animals, and each supporting pole of the sacred ceremonial lodge represents a human virtue. Descriptions of many other religious and ceremonial complexes of tribal peoples on every continent were published in the twentieth century, for example, descriptions of the Tukano Indians of South America, the Kachin of Burma, and the Ndembu of Africa (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971, Leach 1970, Turner 1967). As with languages, the observation that tribal religions were in any sense “primitive” says more about the ethnocentric and often racist and intolerant attitudes of the European observers than about the condition of tribal religions.

Although anthropologists were responsible for drawing attention to the notion of primitive in the nineteenth century, with its ethnocentric connotations of cultural and racial inferiority, they also developed ideas of psychic unity and cultural relativity, which are opposite to the notion of ethnocentrism. The German scientist Adolf Bastian is generally credited with inventing the idea of psychic unity, which states that the brain power and sensitivities of all human beings are essentially the same, no matter where they live or who they are. He offered this idea in his 1860 book Der Mensch in der Geschichte (People in history). Cultural relativism is a similar idea but with many authors, gaining widespread acceptance among social scientists in the twentieth century. The earliest antecedent for these ideas is probably Charles de Montesquieu, who wrote in The Spirit of the Laws in 1748 that whereas Islamic laws worked very well for Arabs in North Africa, Christian laws worked just as well for European societies, because the two cultures were generally different from one another. One culture was not superior to the other, they were merely different. This idea was picked up by twentieth century scholars and elaborated as structural functionalism, making the point that each legal code, like everything else, had to be understood in its social and historical context. All cultures had component parts that fit together to make an integrated whole.


Leach, Edmund. 1970. Political Systems of Highland Burma. London: Athlone Press.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. New York: Eugenics Publishing Co.

Montesquieu, Charles. 1989 (1748). The Spirit of the Laws, translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Samuel Stone. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Powell, Peter. 1969. Sweet Medicine, 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1971. Amazonian Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

John H. Moore


views updated May 29 2018


An attitude of superiority about the ethnic group with which one is identified.

Ethnocentrism is a general belief that the ethnic group with which an individual is identified is superior to all other ethnic groups. Consequently, the individual persistently uses membership in the ethnic group as a primary criterion in the formation of relationships with others, and in evaluating or making judgments concerning other individuals. The term sociocentrism is sometimes used as a synonym of the term ethnocentrism, although sociocentrism is defined more narrowly. Sociocentrism involves the smaller social group rather than the larger ethnic group of the individual. Ethnic groups consist of individuals who are bound together, often closely, by a shared cultural structure and sense of ethnic identity . The central and defining feature of an ethnic group may be racial, religious, geopolitical, linguistic, traditional, tribal, or some combination of these or other characteristics. An ethnic group may be a majority or a minority of a population, and may be relatively dominant or powerless in a society. In varying degrees, ethnocentrism is an attribute of ethnic groups, past and present, throughout the world. The ethnocentric view that other ethnic groups and their members are inferior may be expressed in a number of ways: for example, through prejudice, paternalism, contempt, or hate crimes or other acts of violence .

Further Reading

Forbes, H. D. Nationalism, Ethnocentrism, and Personality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.


views updated May 14 2018

eth·no·cen·tric / ˌe[unvoicedth]nōˈsentrik/ • adj. evaluating other peoples and cultures according to the standards of one's own culture.DERIVATIVES: eth·no·cen·tri·cal·ly adv.eth·no·cen·tric·i·ty / -ˌsenˈtrisitē/ n.eth·no·cen·trism / -ˌtrizəm/ n.

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