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MCAT Content / Prejudice And Bias / Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism

Topic: Prejudice And Bias

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s group is of central importance and includes the tendency to judge the practices of other groups by one’s cultural standards.

The concept of a cultural universal has long been discussed in the social sciences. Cultural universals are elements, patterns, traits, or institutions that are common to all human cultures worldwide. There is a tension in cultural anthropology and cultural sociology between the claim that culture is a universal (the fact that all human societies have culture), and that it is also particular (culture takes a tremendous variety of forms around the world). The idea of cultural universals—that specific aspects of culture are common to all human cultures—runs contrary to cultural relativism. Cultural relativism refers to an awareness of the wide diversity of beliefs, norms, values and cultural practices that exist. Cultural relativism was, in part, a response to Western ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism may take distinct forms, in which one consciously believes that one people’s arts are the most beautiful, values the most virtuous, and beliefs the most truthful. Franz Boas argued that one’s culture might mediate and thus limit one’s perceptions in less obvious ways. He understood “culture” to include not only specific tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion but instead assumed a much broader notion of culture.

The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism. In cultural relativism, the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of one’s own culture is promoted. The goal of this is to promote understanding of cultural practices that are not typically part of one’s own culture. Using the perspective of cultural relativism leads to the view that no one culture is superior to another culture when compared to systems of morality, law, politics, etc.


Practice Questions


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Key Points

• There is a tension in cultural anthropology and cultural sociology between the claim that culture is universal and that it is also particular. The idea of cultural universals runs contrary in some ways to cultural relativism which was, in part, a response to Western ethnocentrism.

• Ethnocentrism may take obvious forms. For example, the belief that one people’s culture is the most beautiful and true. Franz Boas understood “culture” to include not only certain tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion but instead assumed a much broader notion of culture.

• In Cultural relativism, the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of one’s own culture is promoted.

Key Terms

Culture: the beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life

Particular: a specific case; an individual thing as opposed to a whole class

Universal: common to all society; worldwide

Ethnocentrism: the belief that one’s group is of central importance and includes the tendency to judge the practices of other groups by one’s cultural standards

Cultural relativism: the practice of trying to understand a culture on its terms and to judge a culture by its standards, and an awareness of the differences in norms, values and practices between cultures



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