AskDefine | Define ethnocentrism

Dictionary Definition

ethnocentrism n : belief in the superiority of one's own ethnic group

User Contributed Dictionary




ethnos (“nation”) + “centre” + “-ism


  1. the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture.


Extensive Definition

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture. Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one's own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Within this ideology, individuals will judge other groups in relation to their own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behaviour, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity.
Anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski argued that any human science had to transcend the ethnocentrism of the scientist. Both urged anthropologists to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in order to overcome their ethnocentrism. Boas developed the principle of cultural relativism and Malinowski developed the theory of functionalism as guides for producing non-ethnocentric studies of different cultures. The books The Sexual Life of Savages, by Malinowski, Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict and Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead (two of Boas's students) are classic examples of anti-ethnocentric anthropology.


In political relations, not only have academics used the concept to explain nationalism, but activists and politicians have used labels like ethnocentric and ethnocentrism to criticize national and ethnic groups as being unbearably selfish — or at best, culturally biased (see cultural bias).
Nearly every religion, "race," or nation feels it has aspects which are uniquely valuable.
Other examples abound: Toynbee notes that Ancient Persia regarded itself the center of the world and viewed other nations as increasingly barbaric according to their degree of distance.
China's very name is composed of ideographs meaning "center" and "country" respectively, and traditional Chinese world maps show China in the center. It's also important to note that it wasn't just China that bought into this idea. At the height of the Chinese empire, the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Thai also believed China to be the center of the universe and referred to China as the middle kingdom. To this day, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam still refer to China as the middle country .
It is often claimed that England defined the world's meridians with itself on the center line, so that to this day, longitude is measured in degrees east or west of Greenwich, thus establishing as fact an Anglo-centrist's worldview.
Native American tribal names often translate as some variant on "the people".
The United States has traditionally conceived of itself as having a unique role in world history; an outlook known as American exceptionalism.

Psychological underpinnings of ethnocentrism

The psychological underpinning of having ethnocentrism appears to be assigning to various cultures higher or lower status or value by the ethnocentric person who then assumes that the culture of higher status or value is intrinsically better than other cultures. The ethnocentric person, when assigning the status or value to various cultures, will automatically assign to their own culture the highest status or value. Ethnocentrism is a natural result of the observation that most people are more comfortable with and prefer the company of people who are like themselves, sharing similar values and behaving in similar ways. It is not unusual for a person to consider that what ever they believe is the most appropriate system of belief or that how ever they behave is the most appropriate and natural behavior. To be fair, a system of belief in which someone doesn't consider his own as the right one, is inherently inconsistent, for it is admitting its own falseness.
A person who is born into a particular culture and grows up absorbing the values and behaviors of the culture will develop patterns of thought reflecting the culture as normal. If the person then experiences other cultures that have different values and normal behaviors, the person finds that the thought patterns appropriate to their birth culture and the meanings their birth culture attaches to behaviors are not appropriate for the new cultures. However, since a person is accustomed to their birth culture it can be difficult for the person to see the behaviors of people from a different culture from the viewpoint of that culture rather than from their own.
The ethnocentric person will see those cultures other than their birth culture as being not only different but also wrong to some degree. The ethnocentric person will resist or refuse the new meanings and new thought patterns since they are seen as being less desirable than those of the birth culture.
The ethnocentric person may also adopt a new culture, repudiating their birth culture, considering that the adopted culture is somehow superior to the birth culture. Throughout history, warring factions have been composed of fairly homogeneous ethnic groups. Ethnic strife is seen dominating the landscape in many parts of the world even to this day. Evolutionary psychology posits that the reason for these groupings stems from the alignment of interests among members of these groups due to their genetic similarity. In this vein, van den Berghe (1981) sees ethnocentrism as a natural outgrowth of nepotism. A comprehensive look at ethnocentrism from the perspective of evolutionary psychology may be found in the volume edited by Reynolds et al. (1987).
Independent of evolutionary psychology, observers such as Shelby Steele have suggested that ethnocentrism is a mainstay of any modern society, and in cases such as the white and black population in the USA, programs such as affirmative action serve only to relieve the moral consciences of the white population.


Types of ethnocentrism

See also

ethnocentrism in Catalan: Etnocentrisme
ethnocentrism in Czech: Etnocentrismus
ethnocentrism in Danish: Etnocentrisme
ethnocentrism in German: Ethnozentrismus
ethnocentrism in Estonian: Etnotsentrism
ethnocentrism in Modern Greek (1453-): Εθνοκεντρισμός
ethnocentrism in Spanish: Etnocentrismo
ethnocentrism in Esperanto: Etnocentrismo
ethnocentrism in French: Ethnocentrisme
ethnocentrism in Italian: Etnocentrismo
ethnocentrism in Hebrew: אתנוצנטריות
ethnocentrism in Georgian: ეთნოცენტრიზმი
ethnocentrism in Dutch: Etnocentrisme
ethnocentrism in Norwegian: Etnosentrisme
ethnocentrism in Japanese: エスノセントリズム
ethnocentrism in Polish: Etnocentryzm
ethnocentrism in Portuguese: Etnocentrismo
ethnocentrism in Russian: Этноцентризм
ethnocentrism in Slovak: Etnocentrizmus
ethnocentrism in Slovenian: Etnocentrizem
ethnocentrism in Serbian: Етноцентризам
ethnocentrism in Finnish: Etnosentrismi
ethnocentrism in Swedish: Etnocentrism
ethnocentrism in Ukrainian: Етноцентризм
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