September 29 2018

Ken Barger
Professor Emeritus, Anthropology
Indiana University Indianapolis


What is it? Why are people ethnocentric?
What is the problem? What can we do about it?

Recognition and control of Ethnocentrism
is the basic methodology for understanding ethnic behavior...
both our own and others.

A snowmobile race sponsored by the Inuit (Eskimo) community council in a village on the Hudson's Bay in the Canadian Arctic, Christmas 1969. Inuit friends urged me to join in a snowshoe race across the river ice, but, knowing I was inexperienced at this, I was reluctant to participate. They persisted, however, and, recognizing that they wanted me to be involved, I agreed. Of course, I was the last one to return, way behind everyone else in the race. I was very embarrassed, but to my surprise, people came up to me and congratulated me, saying, "You really tried!" A month later, when I was on a caribou hunting trip with three Inuit men in a remote area, we got trapped by a winter storm and had to go several days without food. This was when I learned that trying was much more important than winning. While the Inuit like to win, their greater value on trying has a distinct adaptive function. One way anthropologists learn about other cultures is "participant observation," being involved in their daily life, watching what they do, and doing what they do. We seek to learn the meanings and (more important) the functions of their ways. We Are also involved in "cross-cultural comparison," comparing their life experiences with other groups (mostly our own). In the case of the snowshoe race, I learned about Inuit values on trying, but I also learned about American values on competition and winning.

It is interesting that most people around the world tend to see life in a narrow context. This is understandable, given that we generally experience a small part of the broad range of human experience. Thus, we often see the differences between ourselves and others, rather than the similarities we all share. All of us humans share over 99.9% of our genes, and all cultures share basic values that call for us to be a good person with others. When we back off and look at each other as human beings, our differences are very small compared to our similarities.

"Ethnocentrism" is a commonly used word in circles where ethnicity, inter-ethnic relations, and similar social issues are of concern. The usual definition of the term is "thinking one's own group's ways are superior to others" or "judging other groups as inferior to one's own". "Ethnic" refers to cultural heritage, and "centrism" refers to the central starting point... so "ethnocentrism" basically refers to judging other groups from our own cultural point of view. But even this does not address the underlying issue of why people do this. Most people, thinking of the shallow definition, believe that they are not ethnocentric, but are rather "open minded" and "tolerant." However, as explained below, everyone is ethnocentric, and there is no way not to be ethnocentric... it cannot be avoided, nor can it be willed away by a positive or well-meaning attitude. It can, however, be an opportunity to recognize and resolve our own biases, and to learn more about potentials we all have for being human... a lifelong process of learning and growth.

To address the deeper issues involved in ethnocentrism calls for a more explicit definition. In this sense, ethnocentrism can be defined as: making false assumptions about others' ways based on our own limited experience. The key word is assumptions, because we are not even aware that we are being ethnocentric... we don't understand that we don't understand.

One example of ethnocentrism is seen in the above comments on the Inuit snowshoe race. I assumed that I had "lost" the race, but it turns out the Inuit saw the same situation very differently than I did. Westerners have a binary conflict view of life (right or wrong, liberal versus conservative, etc.), and I had imposed my "win or lose" perspective of life on the situation. As a result, I did not understand how they experience life, that trying is a basic element of life. This did not necessarily involve thinking that my ways were superior, but rather that I assumed my experience was operational in another group's circumstances.

Another example illustrates how basic ethnocentrism is. If we go to a store and ask for a green coat and the sales clerk gives us a blue one, we would think the person was color blind at the best or stupid at the worst. However, "colors" are not so simple. 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. How could an Inuk "feel blue"? Colors, after all, are only different wavelengths of light, and the rainbow can be divided in many different ways.

There are many, many examples of such differences in meanings that make life experience so unique for all the human groups around the world. For example, 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.). But Algonquian Indian languages do not have tenses (not that they cannot express time if they wish), but rather have "animate" and "inanimate" verb forms, so they automatically think in terms of whether things around them have a life essence or not. So when Chippewa Indians do not show up for a medical appointment, Anglo health care workers may explain this as being "present oriented," since we normally cannot think except in terms of time frames. But this is the essence of ethnocentrism, since we may be imposing a time frame where none exists.

The assumptions we make about others' experience can involve false negative judgments, 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.

Assumptions can also reflect false positive attitudes about others' ways. For example, we in urban industrial society frequently think of Cree Indians as being "free of the stresses of modern society," but this view fails to recognize that there are many stresses in their way of life, including the threat of starvation if injured while checking a trap line a hundred miles from base camp or when game cycles hit low ebbs. False positive assumptions are just as misleading as false negative assumptions.

Examples abound in our local communities, as well as around the world. When you think about your own experience with people from other ethnic groups and with attitudes expressed about relations with other countries, what examples come to your mind where you may have imposed your own views and feelings about life on their experience?

Everybody is ethnocentric, as all of us around the world assume things about other people's ways. The question is why are we ethnocentric?

The definition given above emphasizes that we make false assumptions based on our own limited experience. This is all we know... what we have already experienced is the basis for our "reality", what we expect. It is normal to assume it is the "natural" basis of reality... because our own ways work for us. Our perceptions of colors, our time frames, our values on industriousness, our social roles, our beliefs about Life and the Universe, and all our other ways help us organize life experience and provide important meanings and functions as we move through daily and life span activities. Therefore, our limited experiences we have already had are the basis for interpreting new experiences, in this case, others’ behavior.

Since we have not experienced everything they have experienced, how can we not be ethnocentric?

So what is the problem with ethnocentrism?

Ethnocentrism leads to misunderstanding others. We falsely distort what is meaningful and functional to other peoples through our own tinted glasses. We see their ways in terms of our life experience, not their context. We do not understand that their ways have their own meanings and functions in life, just as our ways have for us.

At the heart of this is that we do not understand that we do not understand! So we aren't aware that we can develop more valid understandings about how they experience life.

At the best, we simply continue in our unawareness. Yet this can have consequences within our own society and in international relations. We may be well meaning in interethnic relations, for example, but can unintentionally offend others, generate ill feelings, and even set up situations that harm others. For example, it is easy not to see the life concerns of others (particularly minorities and the disadvantaged) or conversely to pity them for their inabilities to deal with life situations (like poverty or high crime rates). How do we feel when someone doesn't recognize our concerns, or feels sorry for us because we can't "just let go" of a stressful situation?

A lack of understanding can also inhibit constructive resolutions when we face conflicts between social groups. It is easy to assume that others "should" have certain perspectives or values. How often are we prone to address conflicts when others tell us how we should think and feel?

Ethnocentrism is also evident in international relations, creating conflicts and inhibiting resolution of conflicts. For example, how might our Western binary conflict view of life (A versus B) influence our interpretation of another group's intents when they express a different position on an issue? Is it just another" viewpoint, or is it "against" our viewpoint? If we don't "win" the conflict, will we "lose"? We may have positive intentions (from our viewpoint) in "helping" other groups deal with certain "problems," but how do they see the problem and what kind of solution do they want? Some peoples around the world see Americans as very competitive and violent people, as evidenced by our business practices, Hollywood movies, and events like the Columbine High School massacre. How much does this describe your personal experience? How do you think this perception might influence their assumptions about our intents in relations with their societies? An ultimate case of such misunderstandings is warfare, where many people are killed, maimed for life, have their families, subsistence, health, and way of life disrupted, sometimes forever.

There are extreme forms of ethnocentrism that pose serious social problems, of course, such as racism, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing. These views are generally condemned by the world community, but we regularly see such cases in the news.

One issue that we need to consider is that ethnocentrism is often exploited to foster conflict... and to promote the power of a particular group. History shows us that promoting an "us versus them" perspective, political, religious, and other groups foster discrimination and conflict to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Social conflict and wars usually have ethnocentrism at their core, which over time usually proves to be self-destructive for all concerned.

Can better understandings of others' life experience avoid conflicts that drain the resources and well-being of all parties, and instead promote cooperative relations between peoples to the mutual advantage of all?

So here we have a paradox: we falsely assume because we are not even aware we are assuming... and furthermore it is the normal thing to do. We cannot not be ethnocentric, and we cannot will it away or make ourselves have a completely open attitude. Is it ever possible not to be ethnocentric?

So what can we do about ethnocentrism?

Addressing ethnocentrism is not a matter of trying not to be ethnocentric. This is an impossible task, since we will never experience every life situation of everyone around the world. We will always have our assumptions about life based on our existing limited experience. So a much more productive approach is to catch ourselves when we are being ethnocentric and to control for this bias as we seek to develop better understandings.

In science, grounded understandings are not developed from the absence of biases, but rather the recognition and control of biases. The scientific process helps us have a clearer view of what we do understand in the context of what we do not understand. Ethnocentrism is a bias that keeps us from such understandings of other people's life experience, but it is possible to recognize this bias and control for it... so that we can go on to develop more valid and balanced understandings. This calls for us to develop our learning skills, but it can be done. Many of us know people who have moved to other societies and have learned to become functional in their new social settings, evidence that it is possible to develop more grounded understandings. Anthropologists, of course, have worked on systematically developing these skills for well over a century.

Asking about the meanings and functions of behavior is not a matter of "insiders" or "outsiders," however. We can analyze the meanings of our own behavior, which are highly complex and normally seated deeply in our subconscious, as with our idea of "freedom." We can also analyze the functions of our own behavior. For example, why is "freedom" such an important American value? how does it help us adapt? Sometimes outsiders can see things we don't usually see because they are contrasting our behavior with others' ways, but being an insider does not preclude members of any group from understanding their own behavior.

When we start asking about how others' ways are meaningful and functional to its participants, we come to realize that there are many valid ways in which human beings can experience life.

What can we do when recognize ethnocentrism in others? We can follow the same process, and ask them what they think the meanings involved are? the functions? This usually brings the focus to more critical awareness and understandings.

When we encounter ethnocentrism being promoted by particular groups, we can ask ourselves and those around us "Why are they doing this?" What function does promoting ethnocentrism and sowing conflict serve for this group? This exposes ulterior motives behind the group's rhetoric and actions.

Perhaps no one can ever have complete understanding of another people, without fully experiencing everything they experience. However, this does not mean we cannot develop a functional understanding, to interact successfully with others. The many immigrants who have become functional members of our society demonstrate this is possible, as well as anthropologists and others who have become functional members of other groups. One goal that is achievable, however, is to make sure that what we what we do understand is valid and balanced in the context of recognizing what we do not understand.

How can we develop these skills? Like other life skills, practice at every opportunity helps us develop our abilities to catch ourselves being ethnocentric and asking good questions to better understand others' cultural behavior.

How does all this concern the idea of relativism, a prominent value in anthropology?

"Relativism" usually means not judging others' ways and accepting them as equal to our own. This may be a positive value in terms of interethnic relations, though it is often unrealistic since we cannot avoid ethnocentrism. We do not necessarily have to agree with others' ways, and we have the right to our own ways, since they provide important meanings and adaptive functions for us.

The real issue of relativism, I believe, is at what point is one group justified in intervening in the behavior of another group? There are areas where most people around the world believe there is little justification, such as how an ethnic group defines a desirable marriage partner. There are also areas where most people believe there is great justification, as with genocide and atrocities that violate international principles of human rights. Also, there are areas where most people readily accept aid to meet catastrophic circumstances, like relief supplies for earthquake victims.

There is a wide gray area in between where different opinions abound, such as "free trade" which fosters both investment opportunities and child labor. Who is right in these circumstances? There are few absolute answers, but there are some guiding principles included in the international Declaration of Human Rights which can be applied in evaluating what to do. What are the community positions about the situation? Most groups have norms that are both meaningful and functional. If they promote well-being within and across groups, then we have to ask what right we have to intervene. If situations arise that jeopardize the adaptive balance within and across groups, there may be some room for addressing the situation, as long as it includes all the groups concerned and it is made clear whose well-being is being served on the part of all parties involved. As indicated, the world community has reached an international consensus about human rights and about world functioning and balances.

We need to be careful, however, in how to be involved. There are many examples of people using stated values to justify their own vested interests, as with efforts to "civilize" or "develop" other countries, which has promoted access to raw materials and new markets for their own industries. There are also many examples of people being sincerely well-meaning towards others (in terms of their own values) with dire unforeseen consequences, such as introducing medical technologies which undermine local social structures and cohesiveness. Whose interests are being served the most? What is the overall impact on the group's adaptation?

Before we act, we need to evaluate several issues:

Self-determination is one of the most effective means of social change for all parties concerned. Who is in the best position for understanding what is best for them? We all make mistakes, but they are our mistakes and we have the opportunity to develop from them. If we decide for others, then they will never have the opportunity to test their own initiative in doing what is best for themselves, to develop their own judgements, to learn from their own mistakes. Also, it is when people are denied the legitimacy of their own life goals that they may turn to radical means outside accepted practice like terrorism. I believe our most effective role is to support them in achieving their own goals where these overlap ours.

In the long run, hasty "solutions" that impose one side's views about the situation rarely work. How many times have we enthusiastically acted with high hopes, only to realize later that there were unforeseen and unwanted consequences that we ourselves may have generated? The most effective resolutions are those that negotiate the common areas which allow each party validation of their own ways, where the solution is desired by each party, and, of course, where each party is really able to make a contribution.

Encountering ethnocentrism, then, can be an opportunity.

One of Anthropology's greatest contributions is this concept of ethnocentrism and how to recognize and control for ethnocentrism so we can go on to develop more valid and balanced understandings of other cultural ways and of ourselves.

A standard scientific principle is that diversity is adaptive. The more different resources a group has, the more potentials it has for adapting to life challenges. We have come to realize this in ecodiversity, but perhaps we still have to realize this in terms of ethnic diversity. The more different ways of experiencing life available to a society, the more resources it has for meeting adaptive challenges. One of the United State's greatest strengths is its ethnic diversity. We have available within our society adaptive resources from peoples all over the world, available to contribute to our continued adaptation.

When we encounter people from other ethnic backgrounds, we have an opportunity to learn new ways of seeing and experiencing life which we never knew existed. In a larger framework, we can learn the tremendous potentials humans have for being human. These potentials also exist for us, possibilities that we never knew we could be, such as looking at life in a complementary perspective instead of as an inherent conflict; and, on the negative side, possibilities that we want to be sure that we not foster, such as the brutality exhibited by average young American men as they massacred Vietnamese civilians at Mi Lai. We can also better understand ourselves, by contrasting our own ways with other life experiences and asking about our own meanings and functions.

On a personal note, what started my thinking process about trying to understand how others see things was as a soldier in war. I wondered why they were trying to kill me... didn't they know I was trying to bring them freedom and democracy? Later I realized that they were mainly defending their families and homeland from foreign invaders like me, just like I would do in similar circumstances. As devestating as war is, it turned out to be an opportunity that started my life-long journey of trying to understand the human views of others.

When we go beyond ethnocentrism, there are whole new areas of understanding the possibilities in how all humans can experience life... lessons that can provide us with new possibilities for better experiencing life.

For more ideas that can help us understand our own and others' cultural behavior, see:

  • Core Concepts In Understanding the Human Experience.

    Recognizing and controlling for ethnocentrism and expanding our understandings of our own and others' human behavior involves critical thinking. For more guidelines on this process, see:

  • What Makes a Good Learner?

    A special thanks to all the people around the world who have contacted me over the years to discuss further the issue of ethnocentrism. Your critical thinking and questions have continued to stimulate my thinking and understandings of centrism in its many forms, and my lifelong learning about our shared human potentials.

         Thanks to several volunteer translators, this discussion is currently available in the following languages:

    I hope that this discussion is useful as we seek to build understandings with others in life. All of us humans share over 99.9% of our genes, and we are far more alike that we are different. For example, the above translations indicate that though we may speak different languages, it is amazing how much we all have a phenomenal capacity for language and can express common ideas across a wide variety of sounds, grammatical structures, and syntax. We don't always have to agree, of course, but if we can understand the views and concerns of each other we can seek mutually positive and beneficial relations.

    Ken Barger

    * No personal information is collected on this page.

    © Ken Barger, 2018