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In This Article Ethnocentrism

  • Introduction
  • Sociocultural Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Applied Anthropology
  • Interdisciplinary Connections

Anthropology Ethnocentrism
by
Elizabeth Elliott Cooper

Introduction

Ethnocentrism is a term applied to the cultural or ethnic bias—whether conscious or unconscious—in which an individual views the world from the perspective of his or her own group, establishing the in-group as archetypal and rating all other groups with reference to this ideal. This form of tunnel vision often results in: (1) an inability to adequately understand cultures that are different from one’s own and (2) value judgments that preference the in-group and assert its inherent superiority, thus linking the concept of ethnocentrism to multiple forms of chauvinism and prejudice, including nationalism, tribalism, racism, and even sexism and disability discrimination. Ethnocentrism is a concept that was coined within anthropology and formed the cornerstone of its early evolutionary theory before becoming one of the discipline’s primary social critiques. It continues to both challenge and inspire anthropologists, shifting in meaning and application with theoretical trends and across the subdisciplines. For many anthropologists in the Boasian tradition, ethnocentrism is the antithesis of anthropology, a mind-set that it actively counters through cultural relativism, education, and applied activities such as cultural brokering. Physical anthropologists have tended to define the concept more generally as preferential cooperation with a defined in-group and to interrogate its potential evolutionary origins, while the postmodern trend has been a growing suspicion of the anthropologist’s own ability to transcend cultural bias in his or her analysis and presentation of the “other,” leading to an emphasis on reflexivity and subjective diversity. Outside of the discipline, ethnocentrism is a topic of study for biologists, political scientists, communication experts, psychologists, and sociologists, particularly in the areas of politics, identity, and conflict. Marketing has seized on the term to describe consumers who prefer domestically produced goods, and the derivative ethnocentric has become a common criticism in the era of globalization for those assuming their own cultural superiority.

General Overviews and Foundational Texts

It is difficult to identify a definitive text for the concept of ethnocentrism, given its shifting meanings and common usage as an implicit critique. Sumner 1906 provides the original formulation of the term, defining it as a “view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.” While Sumner is commonly credited with coining the term, ethnocentric was previously used in McGee 1900 to characterize what he termed the primitive mind-set. Levine and Campbell 1972 provides one of the most comprehensive and research-friendly definitions, drawing on the literature from anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and economics to create a set of twenty-three testable characteristics. Yet while Levine and Campbell 1972 combines in-group and out-group directed characteristics, many theorists have argued for a decoupling of these concepts, further problematizing the issue of defining ethnocentrism (see Definitions). See Murdock 1949 for a classic formulation of ethnocentrism as a universal form of in-group consciousness and Herskovits 1948 for a standard reading of the term as a human cultural feature with an implied value judgment.

  • Herskovits, Melville J. 1948. Man and his works. New York: Knopf.

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    Classic definition of ethnocentrism as a feeling of superiority regarding one’s own culture or way of life.

  • Levine, Robert A., and Donald T. Campbell. 1972. Ethnocentrism: Theories of conflict, ethnic attitudes, and group behavior. New York: Wiley.

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    The author draws on literature from anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and economics in this text to define ethnocentrism as a set of twenty-three characteristics, nine of which are attitudes toward a perceived in-group (e.g., perceptions of superiority and virtue, sanctions against murder and theft) and fourteen of which are toward a perceived out-group (e.g., blaming, distrust, fear).

  • McGee, William J. 1900. Primitive numbers. Bureau of American Ethnology Annual Report 19:821–851.

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    Early source predating the classic Sumner 1906 definition. In this work, McGee uses the term ethnocentric to describe the dominant orientation characterizing primitive thought and action.

  • Murdock, George P. 1949. Social structure. New York: Macmillan.

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    Provides a useful alternative understanding of the concept of ethnocentrism, defining it as a “tendency to exalt the in-group and to depreciate other groups” (pp. 83–84).

  • Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. New York: Mentor.

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    Publication credited with coining the term ethnocentrism.

LAST MODIFIED: 01/11/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199766567-0045

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