Anthropological Concepts of 'Ethnocentrism' and 'Cultural Relativism Term Paper

Pages: 6 (1614 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Anthropology

¶ … anthropological concepts of 'ethnocentrism' and 'cultural relativism'.

Ethnocentrism and cultural relativity

The western world has for many centuries had an ethnocentric view of other cultures. This was due to its historical dominance in scientific and cultural areas. The western perspective resulted in a view that other cultures were inferior or less valuable in comparison to the dominant culture of the time. The attitude which views other cultures only in relation to one point-of-view, and which makes moral and value assumptions about the culture on this basis is known as ethnocentrism. In essence the term ethnocentric refers to the belief in the superiority of one's own ethnic group. (Answers Com) definition of ethnocentrism is:

the feeling that one's group has a mode of living, values, and patterns of adaptation that are superior to those of other groups. It is coupled with a generalized contempt for members of other groups. Ethnocentrism may manifest itself in attitudes of superiority or sometimes hostility. Violence, discrimination, proselytizing, and verbal aggressiveness are other means whereby ethnocentrism may be expressed.

A ethnocentrism)

Strictly speaking "ethnic" refers to cultural heritage, while "centricism" refers to a central starting point or originating point-of-view. Therefore, the term ethnocentric means to make assumptions or judgments about other groups and cultures from one's own point-of-view. (Barger K. 2004)

The problem that an ethnocentric view presents is that other cultures are seen as necessarily inferior because they do conform to the norms, value and reality perceptions of one culture. Therefore when other cultures and groups are measured according to the norms of the one culture, this can lead not to cultural misunderstandings and also to discrimination and prejudice. In this sense ethnocentrism is defined as " making false assumptions about others' ways based on our own limited experience. " (ibid)

Examples of the problems and misunderstandings that ethnocentric attitudes can engender are numerous in recent history. For example, the view was prevalent that the language of the Hopi Indians was inferior to English as it did not have any tenses or words for time. This led to the assumption that the Hopi Indians were somewhat primitive and less advanced as a civilization. Subsequently, this led to the treatment of the Indians on the basis of an assumed inferiority. (Windschuttle, 2002. p.21) Later the cultural assumption that the Hopi did not have words for time was proven to be incorrect.

Another example refers to the differences in perception, which are seen from an ethnocentric point-of-view as a sign of inferiority. An example is the different perceptions of color by the Intuit Indians. The ethnocentric assumption was that the intuit Indians had an inferior culture because they seemingly could not tell the difference between green and blue

The Inuit lump shades of what AngloAmericans call "blue" and "green" into one color category, tungortuk, which can only be translated as "bluegreen." Does this mean that they cannot see the difference? Just as we can distinguish between different shades (such as "sky blue" and "navy blue," and "kelly green" and "forest green"), so can the Inuit. If they want to refer to what we would call "green," they would say tungUYortuk, which can be translated something like "that bluegreen that looks like the color of a [conifer] tree." The point is that something so "simple" as colors has very different meanings to us and to the Inuit.

Barger K. (2004) similar example relates to the culture and language of the Algonquian Indians. The English language is grammatically structured in a specific way that emphasizes time. "English has tenses built into our verb forms, so we automatically think in terms of time (being "punctual," "time is money," "make the time," etc.). "(ibid)

However, the Algonquian Indian languages are structured differently so that they do not have tenses in the same way. Their language is structured in terms of "animate' and 'inanimate' verb forms. This causes them to think of the world in terms of whether it has life or not. This view may result in an Algonquian Indian not showing up punctually for an appointment; causing the ethnocentric observer to deduce that the Indian is lazy, when in actual fact he is subscribing to a different cultural perception of time. Therefore the view of other cultures from a single and often one-sided perspective, can lead to numerous cases of misunderstandings and misreading of the other culture.

The assumptions we make about others' experience can involve false negative judgements, reflected in the common definition of ethnocentrism. For example, Anglos may observe Cree Indians sitting around a camp not doing obvious work that is needed and see Crees as "lazy." Westerners generally value "being busy" (industriousness), and so may not appreciate the Cree capacity to relax and not be compelled to pursue some activities of a temporary nature... Nor realize how much effort is put into other activities like hunting.

A more serious example of ethnocentrism can be seen in Africa. In this region ethnic assumptions of inferiority or superiority led to the infamous and horrific genocide in Rwanda. Another more obvious view that need no explanation, were the ethnocentric views in Nazi Germany.

Cultural relativity

Some of the above examples can be used to illustrate the concept of cultural relativity. Cultural relativity is a theoretical stance that is in direct opposition to that of ethnocentrism. Cultural relativity states that cultures are constructed according to certain dominant cultural traits specific to the world view of that culture. Culture and meaning, as well as the perception of reality, is therefore relative to the norms and ideas in each culture. This means that no culture is better or worse than another - all cultures can be viewed and judged relative to their cultural principles and values. This view emphasizes that cultures are a product of different historical experiences and this difference should be respected and not be expected to conform to other cultures.

Because culture so deeply and broadly determines our worldview, it stands to reason that we can have no objective basis for asserting that one such worldview is superior to another, or that one worldview can be used as a yardstick to measure another. In this sense, cultures can only be judged relative to one another, and the meaning of a given belief or behaviour must first and foremost be understood relative to its own cultural context. That, in a nutshell, is the basis of what has come to be called cultural relativism.

Monaghan & Just, 2000, p. 48/49)

The idea of cultural relativism can be seen in the above example of the Intuit Indian's perception of color. The cultural relativistic point-of-view would be to see other cultural perceptions of color as different and not inferior to the Eurocentric point-of-view in any sense.

There are numerous other examples that can be quoted, particularly with regard to language differences in culture.

A in learning a language, we learn a world. Thus, when reporting on a cloud burst speakers of English are likely to say 'it is raining'. But what is the 'it' that is raining? We say 'it is raining' because we are predisposed by our language to think of events in the world in terms of the direct effects of specific causes. In contrast, an Indonesian would report 'Ada hujan' (there is rain'). Rather than cause and effect, the Indonesian expression predisposes its speakers toward seeing the world as a flowing together of things and events. (Monaghan & Just, 2000, p. 49)

An important and sometimes problematic aspect of cultural relativism is the moral implications associated with it. In other words, what may be morally acceptable in one culture may not be accepted in another culture. "Behaviour that might be nonsensical, illegal, or immoral in one society might be perfectly rational and socially accepted in another. The only reasonable… [END OF PREVIEW]

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