Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture. Part of ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own race, ethnic or cultural group is the most important or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Some people will simply call it cultural ignorance.

Ethnocentrism often leads to incorrect assumptions about others’ behavior based on your own norms, values, and beliefs. In extreme cases, a group of individuals may see another culture as wrong or immoral and because of this may try to convert, sometimes forcibly, the group to their own ways of living. War and genocide could be the devastating result if a group is unwilling to change their ways of living or cultural practices.

Ethnocentrism may not, in some circumstances, be avoidable. We often have involuntary reactions toward another person or culture’s practices or beliefs but these reactions do not have to result in horrible events such as genocide or war. In order to avoid conflict over culture practices and beliefs, we must all try to be more culturally relative.

Two young men walking and holding hands.
In some cultures, it’s perfectly normal for same-sex friends to hold hands while in others, hand holding is restricted to romantically involved individuals only. [Image: Subharnab Majumdar,, CC BY-2.0]

Cultural relativism is the principle of regarding and valuing the practices of a culture from the point of view of that culture and to avoid making hasty judgments. Cultural relativism tries to counter ethnocentrism by promoting the understanding of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to other cultures such as eating insects, genocides or genital cutting. Take for example, the common practice of same-sex friends in India walking in public while holding hands. This is a common behavior and a sign of connectedness between two people. In England, by contrast, holding hands is largely limited to romantically involved couples, and often suggests a sexual relationship. These are simply two different ways of understanding the meaning of holding hands. Someone who does not take a relativistic view might be tempted to see their own understanding of this behavior as superior and, perhaps, the foreign practice as being immoral.

Despite the fact that cultural relativism promotes the appreciation for cultural differences, it can also be problematic. At its most extreme, cultural relativism leaves no room for criticism of other cultures, even if certain cultural practices are horrific or harmful. Many practices have drawn criticism over the years. In Madagascar, for example, the famahidana funeral tradition includes bringing bodies out from tombs once every seven years, wrapping them in cloth, and dancing with them. Some people view this practice disrespectful to the body of the deceased person. Today, a debate rages about the ritual cutting of genitals of girls in several Middle Eastern and African cultures. To a lesser extent, this same debate arises around the circumcision of baby boys in Western hospitals. When considering harmful cultural traditions, it can be patronizing to use cultural relativism as an excuse for avoiding debate. To assume that people from other cultures are neither mature enough nor responsible enough to consider criticism from the outside is demeaning.

The concept of cross-cultural relationship is the idea that people from different cultures can have relationships that acknowledge, respect and begin to understand each other’s diverse lives. People with different backgrounds can help each other see possibilities that they never thought were there because of limitations, or cultural proscriptions, posed by their own traditions. Becoming aware of these new possibilities will ultimately change the people who are exposed to the new ideas. This cross-cultural relationship provides hope that new opportunities will be discovered, but at the same time it is threatening. The threat is that once the relationship occurs, one can no longer claim that any single culture is the absolute truth.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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