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, 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.
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.
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