Ethnocentrism: what it is, causes and characteristics

Almost no one would like to admit that he has been touched by a bad culture, but most will say that his culture is hands down the best. How curious is it that 99% of the world’s population were lucky enough to be born in the best place in the world?

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is the main benchmark from which to judge things. Essentially, it is about judging foreign cultures based on stereotypes, beliefs, and perspective that have been imposed on us since using reason.

Then, we will deepen this concept, understanding what are the causes, the consequences and contrasting with the idea of ​​cultural relativism.

    What is ethnocentrism?

    Ethnocentrism, in the strictest sense, is the tendency of a person or a human group to interpret reality from its own cultural parameters.

    This practice is generally linked to the bias of believing that one’s own ethnicity and all of its cultural characteristics are superior to the ethnic traits of others. In other words, it involves placing a higher value on one’s own culture over others, using one’s own role models to judge someone else’s culture.

    For practical reasons, ethnocentrism is a universal value. In every culture in general and in every person in particular, one can observe beliefs that glorify the ingroup and demonize, or at least discredit, extraterrestrial cultures, regardless of the cutoff point to delineate its own culture and extraterrestrial culture. (eg, vs Catalan culture Spanish culture, Spanish culture vs French culture, African culture vs European culture …). This is because almost everyone generally thinks that he was born in the best culture.

    This belief can have consequences of all kinds. The “softer” ones would imply not bothering to learn more about the traditions of others. or not to risk trying the cuisine of other countries, judging it too exotic and dangerous for health. However, ethnocentrism has been associated with more serious consequences throughout history, such as racism, xenophobia, and ethnic and religious intolerance, but not necessarily.

    the causes

    There is a lot of research, both in anthropology and in the social sciences, in which it is pointed out that ethnocentrism is a model of learned behavior and thought. The belief in seeing other cultures as worse, if not inferior, would be acquired by the individual as they develop in their original cultural context.

    It should be understood that no individual, no matter how hard they try, is separated from their culture. Either way, culture permeates the characteristics of the individual, especially their personality, individual history and knowledge. As a rule, as one grows up and establishes more relationships with other in-group members, the individual becomes more loyal to them, being more loyal to socially imposed rules.

    In turn, ethnocentrism has an important transgenerational component, that is, it is passed down from generation to generation. Stereotypes and perspectives of the world, however false or exaggerated, they are they are reinforced and encouraged over time, inherited from parents to children and even become an important part of its own culture.

    Basically, an important component of culture can be based on contempt for other cultures. This can be seen in many languages ​​which use expressions based on stereotypes, as would be the case for Spanish with phrases such as “doing Indian” (making jokes), “cheating like a Chinese” (completely deceiving ), “functioning like a black man” (hard working and exploited), “being Swedish” (pretending to ignore) or “being dumber than Lepe” (being mostly short of intelligence), among others.

    From the field of social psychology, two theories have been shown as potential explanations of the phenomenon.

    First, we have social identity theory. Along with it, it is suggested that ethnocentric beliefs are caused by a strong identification with one’s own culture creating a positive and idealized view of it. With the intention of maintaining this positive outlook, people tend to make social comparisons with other ethnic groups, as if it were a competition, viewing them from a more critical point of view and pejorative.

    On the other hand, we have the realistic conflict theory, which assumes that ethnocentrism occurs due to the perception or experience of a real conflict between two or more ethnic groups. This happens when a culturally dominant group perceives new members from a foreign culture as a threat.


      At first glance, ethnocentrism can appear as a current that has negative consequences. This is true insofar as assuming other cultures are inferior to one’s own may motivate actions to end the outgroup. In fact, it is ethnocentric views that are responsible for the great misfortunes of humanity, such as the Holocaust, the Crusades or the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands. In all of these events, the dominant cultural group negatively highlighted the cultural traits of others, thus justifying ethnic cleansing.

      However, and surprising as it may seem, ethnocentrism can have its positive consequences, acting as a defense mechanism to preserve its own culture. An example of this would be the non-tolerance of traditions and languages ​​foreign to the territory because, in the long term, this could imply a process of cultural substitution and possibly the elimination of the culture that previously existed.

      In a certain science, it is also thanks to ethnocentric ideas, regardless of the continent, that the creation of a single world culture has been avoided. Since the world has globalized, many cultures have ended up disappearing, mainly because they want to assimilate a homogeneous pattern of behavior around the world. In response to globalization and the creation of a single culture, the different cultures of the world have cultivated ethnocentric ideas, as long as they take refuge in the idea that their culture is better allows even the smallest of them. , to exist.

      Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

      Anthropology has tried to study all the cultures of the world in the most objective way possible.. This is why this science has found it difficult to combat the ethnocentric view, as it is not possible to study a culture and everything related to it by seeing it as a little inferior or more primitive. Additionally, since it is common for the anthropologist to use participant observation to learn more about a culture, an ethnocentric bias would be a burden on their study, preventing them from learning about the ethnic group in question. .

      However, as we have already discussed, ethnocentric behavior, which is neither racist nor xenophobic, is a universal pattern. Everyone shows, to a greater or lesser extent, this bias, not being able to avoid thinking that their culture of origin is better and that of others is strange. It is difficult to be European and not to see the cultures of other continents as more primitive and wild or, seen from the other side, it is difficult to be Japanese and not to see Europeans as dirtier and more messy.

      Unlike the idea of ​​ethnocentrism, there is cultural relativism, its most opposing view. This current of thought, better understood as a properly anthropological way of acting, it involves accepting the idea that no culture should be judged on the models of another. For example, we cannot judge African tribal cultures from a European, Western, White and Christian point of view, since they will always end up “losing” the other culture.

      However, fully accepting the cultural traits of the ethnic group studied risks accepting behaviors which, whatever or their culture of origin, are not acceptable insofar as they violate human rights, individual freedom and ethics. For example, being extremely culturally relativistic could lead us to justify stoning in Islamic countries (“it’s their traditions”), bullfighting (“art is a very relative thing”) or female ablation. (“This is their culture and we must respect it”).

      Bibliographical references:

      • Hogg, MA and Abrams, D. (1988). Social identification: a social psychology of the intergroup relationship and of the group process. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
      • Smith-Castro, V .. (2006). The social psychology of intergroup relations: models and hypotheses. Current Affairs in Psychology, 20 (107), 45-71.

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