Ethnocentrism: Meaning, Origins and Importance for Intercultural Relations

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  2. March 2, 2013 7:40 pm

Ethnocentrism: Meaning, Origins and Importance for Intercultural Relations

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture and beliefs are inherently better than anyone else’s. The term is primarily used in cultural anthropology although it was originally coined by a sociologist, William G. Sumner, in the 19th century.

Examples of ethnocentrism would include the belief that one’s country or culture is always right or even divinely inspired, believing that the food of another culture is inherently disgusting, thinking another’s religious beliefs are silly or assuming that while one’s own culture has good reasons underlying certain behaviors other cultures lack those good reasons.

Overcoming ethnocentrism is considered essential for anyone doing valid fieldwork in other cultures. Several anthropologists have built on the concept of ethnocentrism to develop related concepts including Franz Boas and his principle of cultural relativism which linked values to one’s particular civilization. Along similar lines, the idea of functionalism when applied to sociology and anthropology sees society as a kind of organism in which the set of beliefs and customs within any society have developed to produce the most stable system within that environment.

Avoiding ethnocentrism is crucial in intercultural relations for a number of reasons. When two or more people from different cultures come together to work toward a common goal, it is essential that each respects the other’s differences even if there is strong disagreement regarding those differences. A lack of ethnocentrism prevents one from taking the position that one’s own views and approaches to things are automatically the correct ones. Furthermore, in avoiding ethnocentrism and opening oneself to other cultures, one not only avoids making incorrect assumptions but one questions all assumptions. When intercultural relations are approached with ethnocentrism set aside, new frameworks can be created for understanding and problem-solving.

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