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ethnocentrism_and_cultural_relativism [2014/08/23 21:36] (current)
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 +# Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism #
 +
 +In Ancient Greece, non-Greek speaking peoples were called
 +barbarians after their language, which the Greeks could not
 +understand, and considered to be just "bar bar bar bar," that is,
 +babbling nonsense. Barbarians did not live in a city-state. They had no
 +language. In other words, the Greeks thought the barbarians were not
 +just a different //ethnos// (nation), but that they lacked things
 +which Greek culture possessed, and hence they were inferior
 +(Levi-Strauss 1952: 11).
 +
 +Like many cultures, Greek culture is highly **ethnocentric**. It
 +considers itself to be a standard against which other cultures can be
 +judged. Ethnocentrism is a way of thinking about cultural difference
 +in which different cultures are ranked on a scale according to how
 +closely they approximate the culture of the observer (Eriksen 2001:
 +6). For generations and still today European society described foreign
 +societies based on terms such as primitive, savage, barbarian,
 +traditional,​ civilized, and modern. The way they decided where other
 +societies fell was by comparing them to European ways of life,
 +[[Pangloss|which they assumed was the best]]. Chinese civilization has
 +also developed its own form of ethnocentrism as a way of representing
 +national minorities of China and peoples of Asia (Guldin 1994). In
 +fact, in many other cultures, large and small, the foreigner is
 +conceptualized as the exact opposite of oneself, which is the
 +representative of humanity. If one is human, then people from other
 +cultures are animal-like and inferior (Levi-Strauss 1952: 12).
 +
 +Wherever it has gone anthropology has struggled to shed itself of its
 +own ethnocentric roots and develop a new approach to cultural
 +differences based on a holistic study of culture on its own terms and
 +in its own context. Most explanations of behavior in contemporary
 +anthropology are based on **the doctrine of cultural relativism**. This
 +simply means that to understand any one pattern of behavior within a
 +culture, it must be seen in relation to the other patterns within that
 +society, and the system of social institution and cultural values and
 +ideas which members of a culture share. The reason for adopting this
 +doctrine is that anthropologists generally start from the view that
 +the patterns within a community are elements of an integrated system
 +and all the parts work to understand the whole. So, for instance, if a
 +society has a practice of placing the infant child in a wooden cage
 +for sleep, removing it only when it wails hysterically in fear, this
 +is not because the mothers lack education or love their children
 +less. Anthropologists would argue that this pattern persists because
 +of how the pattern fits in relation to a system of child-rearing
 +practices. This is also why this pattern makes sense and seems natural
 +to the people who do it.
 +
 +This is a crucial distinction. Anthropologists do not seek to justify
 +any one culture'​s practice. Nor do they only wish to endorse a belief
 +or value of the people in one society. In fact, most people have no
 +opinion about the patterns of daily life because they never stop to
 +think about them. There is no value judgement implied in what they do,
 +because they don't choose to do it. Likewise, a relativist explanation
 +is not an endorsement of the value of a cultural practice.
 +Anthropologists only seek to understand why a particular pattern is
 +maintained. Moreover, they do not seek to explain all behavior is
 +through a relativist lens. For instance, deviant behavior is by
 +definition not widely practiced and so cannot be explained as a part
 +of a system. Similarly many situations are not part of one single or
 +one complete system, and so one cannot explain why patterns exist by
 +framing them in relativist terms, because in these situations people
 +are choosing which patterns to follow.
 +
 +## References ##
 +
 +Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2001. Small Places, Large Issues: An
 +Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 2nd ed. London:
 +Pluto Press.
 +
 +Guldin, Gregory Eliyu. 1994. The Saga of Anthropology in China: From
 +Malinowski to Moscow to Mao. London: Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.
 +
 +Lévi-Strauss,​ Claude. 1952. Race and History. Paris:
 +UNESCO. http://​archive.org/​details/​racehistory00levi.
ethnocentrism_and_cultural_relativism.txt · Last modified: 2014/08/23 21:36 by ryans