Ethnocentrism occurs when someone judges the acts of another culture based on the preconceptions that are found in the standards and values of one’s own culture. This process can occur on a societal level or involve specific behaviors or actions in the areas of religion, language, behavior, or customs. It is in these specific categories or aspects where we can define the unique cultural identity of each ethnicity.
The term “ethnocentrism” was first developed by Ludwig Gumplowicz, and then used by social scientist William Sumner. It was used as a term to describe why one culture feels like it has always occupied the highest point of humanity when compared to other groups. This attitude or approach may apply to the current nations and cultures in the world, but it can also relate to all of the civilizations that existed in the past.
Someone who takes an ethnocentric approach will always view their own group as the center of everything in the world. Everything else is done scaled or rated with reference to their primary definition to “prove” seniority. It is an approach in life which often leads to vanity and pride, failing to see any strength in the idea of diversity.
Although there are mostly disadvantages to the views that ethnocentrism requires, some cultures and individuals can use this comparison to find some advantages.
List of the Advantages of Ethnocentrism
1. An ethnocentric perspective eliminates social order criticisms.
When a society takes an ethnocentric approach, then it works to eliminate any criticism there might be of the social order. The general population will not start thinking about different political philosophies or structures because they become loyal through ethnocentrism to what currently exists. This approach maintains the prevailing order so that each person can see and understand their role in their community. It eliminates any criticism because those who want change are viewed as outliers and disloyal, which means their opinions or perspectives don’t matter to the majority.
2. It can increase the levels of devotion to a community, country, or society.
From an American perspective, patriotism is seen as a positive attribute. It is an indication of a person’s solidarity and devotion to the way of life found in the United States. This loyalty is not possible unless there is an effort to maintain ethnocentric views from the top down. It is more than a home country that you support. It is a spirit where you believe that what you have is the best way to live life.
People who leave to live in a different culture are doing it for ethnocentric views, but in an opposite manner. Because you would feel that going elsewhere would inspire more loyalty, you would place yourself in the best possible position to surround yourself with people who can support you.
3. Ethnocentrism can enhance solidarity in society.
When the majority of people in the society think and feel the same way about ethics and morality, then it creates less conflict in the general public. You will not find problems with racial friction, class conflicts, or sectarian violence if ethnocentrism is the approach that people take to their interactions with others. When everyone is on the same page and focused on improving their society for everyone, then it can help to bring progress to a community of any size.
The ethnocentric approach allows an individual to promote a positive self-image without much risk of conflict or rigidity because of the similarities that they share with the majority in their cultural community. Although this approach can also inspire hatred and violence, most people take a nuanced approach so that they can focus on themselves and their families first before worrying about what other people are doing.
4. It can produce higher levels of self-esteem.
People will only start to compare their culture with what others experience when there are high levels of pride involved in the personal experience. You must love who you are and your community before you can make an accurate judgment on how someone else is living. This approach can be advantageous in certain circumstances because it creates opportunities for people to find common ground. By comparing who we are with who others want to be, it becomes possible to find connections with like-minded people so that we can avoid the perils of social isolation.
Humans need to feel like they’re connected to something or someone for them to feel like there is a place for them in this world. Despite its many flaws, ethnocentrism can make this possible.
5. This view can help an evolving society remember who it has always been.
The people who tend to follow ethnocentric views often take their cues from history and the traditions that their ancestors brought to the modern culture. Because there is such an emphasis on keeping things the same whenever possible, it is easier to feel like we are in touch with the past in meaningful ways.
Ethnocentrism gives us an opportunity to show future generations what is possible through the implementation of continuous best practices based on historical knowledge. This process is how we can keep the distinctive elements of a culture alive for centuries without the need to find a compromise.
6. Ethnocentrism created the world as we know it today.
Settlers who started venturing out to the Western states during the expansion era of America did so under the assumption that they had a manifest destiny to follow. It was God’s will that the “civilized” cultures of the east begin to migrate west to begin taming the final frontier. All of the work was completed under the idea that missionary work was occurring, bringing new opportunities to the tribal cultures already living there.
Every colonization attempting for the past 500 years has been an effort to develop new resources in foreign locations because of the belief that one’s home country is better than the colony itself. It is a rule that is similar to “finder’s keepers” because of the role that ethnocentrism plays in our personal approach.
7. It creates an attitude of independence.
The people who maintain an ethnocentric view in life will not typically bother much about other societies and cultures in the world, past or present. This attitude causes them to lead a self-directed life. Some groups may come together with a similar perspective of the world, but there are also others who decide to thrive under independent isolation. People find contentment when there is unity in thought or a desire to take action. It is a process which can bring more solidarity to specific elements of society while allowing other cultures to pursue their goals at the same time without any interference.
8. Ethnocentrism can be a way to improve the world.
There are some moral absolutes which exist throughout almost every human society in history. Can you imagine what life would be like if Nazi Germany had won World War II instead of the allied forces? Even though the thought of having our personal culture be superior to that of Nazi culture is ethnocentric by definition, most people would see that there is a positive element to that comparison. When people can come together to take a moral stand, then they can speak with a collective voice that can shape the world in positive ways.
The only problem with this approach is that people can speak with one voice in negative ways as well.
List of the Disadvantages of Ethnocentrism
1. Decisions are made based on unrealistic comparisons.
The attitude of ethnocentrism is always one of superiority. Someone from outside of an existing culture is judging the actions of another people based on perspectives gained without the use of wisdom. Although every person on our planet has their own definition of “normal,” we cannot apply this observation to anyone else. Each person, even within a similar culture or ethnicity, leads an independent life. Their perspectives and differences are unique.
That means the conclusions which people draw when using ethnocentrism as their foundation for decision-making are based on generalizations and opinions instead of facts. Because this information does not include the other side of the equation, the conclusions we reach when using this approach are misleading at best.
2. Ethnocentrism can cause societal polarization.
It is easier to be scared of something or someone who is different than you then it is to embrace the diversity that can develop through the intermingling of ideas. When we think of someone who comes from a different culture, then the initial perspective tends to be one that looks at what we don’t like about that other system. Ethnocentrism is an embrace of negativity because the only goal of this approach is to prove individualized superiority. It makes us feel good to think that the decisions we made in life are better than the ones that other people made, especially in the areas of religious salvation, moral fortitude, and family planning.
When you have two individuals or groups who look at each other and think of that other culture as being inferior, then you create polarization in society. With each group not willing to compromise because they fear that there is a lack of morality or superiority in such a position, then people take sides instead of trying to get along with each other.
3. It can impact every aspect of life if we allow it to do so.
After the 2016 presidential election in the United States, there were couples filing for divorce because of the candidate whom they chose on their ballot. People can separate themselves even in the same religion by preferring one denomination over another because they think their belief structure is the best one to follow. Parents can become divided over how they decide to discipline their children. Any time that we think of one group as being superior to another (and we are in that superior group), then it isn’t an ego that is talking. It is the philosophies of ethnocentrism rearing its ugly head.
This belief system requires us to close off our minds to different perspectives and opinions. We can no longer choose to believe anything but our own thoughts or ideas because no one else to be correct. That is why societies self-destruct over time – because no one is willing to listen to what anyone else has to say. Life becomes more about what is said in the echo chamber instead of outside of it.
4. Ethnocentrism drives people away from what they love.
If the only thing that a person experiences is rejection in life, then there is no desire to be around people who think of them as being inferior. This attitude drives a wedge between groups where those who are in the minority feel like the only option available to them sometimes is to leave. Communities in the United States are becoming more like minded than ever before because of this very reason. Whenever the approach of ethnocentrism is taken, it creates a circumstance where individuals or groups provide ultimatums to each other.
This approach is a “you’re with me” or “you’re against me” attitude in all aspects of life. There is no middle ground when taking the ethnocentric approach. Because the only relationships which form from these ultimatums are the ones which share specific belief systems, people are moving further away from diversity. In time, this will cause humanity to become weaker.
5. It is a philosophy which limits the human perspective.
Have you ever seen someone resist change even though the new policies or procedures they were being asked to follow would make your life easier? That is another example of ethnocentrism at work. Just because someone has been completing the same task in the same way for a long time doesn’t mean that it is the best way to operate. The act of dismissing any thought of evolution or change at the micro or macro levels is evidence of an ethnocentric perspective.
That’s not to say that all changes should be followed without question. The people who are enforcing change can be just as ethnocentric in their philosophies as those who are resisting it. The issue here is that the superiority of belief found on both sides of the aisle limits the ability to implement best practices in our personal or professional lives.
6. Ethnocentrism can have deadly results.
Are you the type of person who gets angry when someone has a disagreement on an opinion that you have shared? Have you changed the way that you go out in public if you’re an American because of the myriad of stories that involve gun violence in recent years? The problem that ethnocentrism ultimately brings to humanity is its nature of escalation. People become blinded by their personal perspectives to the extent where it becomes the correct choice for them to enforce their philosophies on other people at any expense.
When you see an act of terrorism, either domestic or foreign, then you are witnessing an act of ethnocentrism. If you see someone committing an act of violence against another person, then this is also ethnocentrism. Although people in the minority will sometimes rise up against these actions to commit violence themselves, a retaliatory response would not occur in society if the impression from ethnocentric views was not present in the first place.
7. This philosophy can create isolation.
As Psychology Today notes, humans are hardwired to interact with other people. We seek out social connections whenever we go through a stressful incident in life. Trying to cope with a stressful incident on our own can increase anxiety levels and hinder our ability to manage emotions. Some people like to be by themselves for personal reasons, but ethnocentrism can cause social isolation simply because someone feels different (and superior) to everyone else. Even small groups of like-minded people who do not experience diversity in thought or opinion can experience this disadvantage together.
People who experience ethnocentrism in small groups will eventually find themselves experiencing appetite changes, different sleeping patterns, and some may even lose track of time or their ability to concentrate and focus. There is boredom when you are around the same people all of the time with limited sources of entertainment.
8. Ethnocentrism limits the choices that people can make.
How do you feel about products which are made in China? Do you feel like they are made of a high-quality, or is there an underlying reason why there might be a distaste for imported products? When you have two items of equal quality and price available for purchase, having a consistent preference for something produced in a manner of which you approve is an ethnocentric viewpoint. Even in a free-market economy where people are free to choose whatever they want, the judgment of someone buying foreign instead of domestic sets the foundation for all of the other disadvantages listed here.
9. It hinders the work of cultural assimilation.
Cultural assimilation is a process where the individuals of one culture fuse themselves with a different one as a way to fit in with in the context of ethnocentrism. Individuals and groups will work to acquire the same cultural patterns, ideas, and attitudes of the majority in their new community. When the existing people see this activity, it feels like an attempt to copy their belief structures. This process then can lead to criticism and a hindrance of the work of fitting in if you are moving from a place outside of the “normal” culture.
That is why ethnocentrism is one of the most significant societal problems in the developed world today. Instead of creating unity through diversity, this approach requires people to change who they are if the majority of people in a community deem the difference to be something that makes a person unfit for inclusion.
Verdict on the Advantages and Disadvantages of Ethnocentrism
Ethnocentrism is a dangerous philosophy to follow because it requires each person to make assumptions of the other without taking their perspective into account. It is more than a lack of empathy; it is a complete disregard of the understanding needed to see through a different set of circumstances. We can find this issue in the significant subjects that we debate as well as our individual choices in some matters.
Each person decides to live their life based on the ethics and values which are found in that individual’s local society. These decisions do not translate to other cultures because there are a different set of perspectives involved. The diversity that we have in humanity demands that we have a willingness to except the experiences that everyone else contributes because that is how we all become better at the individual level.
The advantages and disadvantages of ethnocentrism show us that when we embrace the uniqueness of each identity, then we can find moments of inspiration and innovation. When we are unwilling to accept a different perspective on life, then there is no way for any of us to maximize the potential of who we are.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.