Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s culture is more superior to others and that they hold all others in comparison to their own. It is a concept that was introduced in the beginning of this course and has played a role in discussions throughout the semester. At first it is difficult to understand what ethnocentrism is and why it plays such a prominent role, but with the reoccurring appearance of the term in class, the importance behind it becomes more evident.
If an individual has the perspective of being ethnocentric, then they limit themselves because of the mindset they have on the world. In cultural anthropology it is of great importance that researchers do not take on an ethnocentric perspective, because they learn more if they can set their own views and biases aside and focus on a different culture.
Ethnocentrism leads to a narrow-minded perspective that isolates one set of ideas, values and morals. A society with an ethnocentric view believes that their culture is the center of everything, and that anything different or new to them is not sufficient. If a community of people with ethnocentric views were to gain power, then they could go to such extreme as to impose their ideas onto others who may have a different perspective. It is seen in history with racial segregation and the genocide of a race such as in the case of the Nazi power in Germany and the holocaust. In today’s time, when culture is constantly changing with globalization, to have an ethnocentric perspective can cause great interference with international relations.
Anthropologists benefit a great deal from observing and learning from other cultures. They use a variety of methods and strategies to avoid ethnocentric interpretations. These methods may include, but are not limited to, surveys, interviews with individuals and participant observation. In the novel Veiled Sentiments author and anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod describes her experience in the Bedouin community by saying “in a society where kinship defines most relationships, it was important to have a role as a fictive kinsperson in order to participate” (15).
For Abu-Lughod to observe the intimate and personal moments of the Bedouins, she had to leave behind the culture she was used to in the United States of America to convince the natives of the community to take her into their culture. It is not unusual for an anthropologist to submerse themselves into the society that they are observing. Most find that they benefit and learn more if they go into their fieldwork with an open mind and assume a role in the society instead of retaining the position of an outsider.
By stepping out of their own culture and into another, they can begin to understand why some people act and live a particular way. Laura Bohannan experienced such an situation during her fieldwork in Africa, she stated beforehand “that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; at least the general plot and motivation of the greater tragedies would always be clear everywhere.
Although, some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes” what she did not understand at the time was the in depth differences between cultures (41). The exposure and research that anthropologists gathered can be relayed to other individuals and situations in their own society. With the knowledge gained in the work of cultural anthropology, an individual can critique one’s own culture and devise solutions to social problems.
A society is expected to learn and expand over the passing of time. It is crucial that we do not fall into an ethnocentric mind set. The world is a diverse place with many philosophies on how to live life. By taking on the role of observing instead of judging, we can embark on finding out what these beliefs are and why they are followed by people. We can better understand how the world works. If an individual has the perspective of being ethnocentric, then they limit themselves because of the mindset they have on the world.
Abu-lughod, Lila. Veiled Sentiments. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986. Print. Spradley, James P., and David W. McCurdy. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2012. 41-47. Print.