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Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture. Part of ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own race, ethnic or cultural group is the most important or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Some people will simply call it cultural ignorance.

Ethnocentrism often leads to incorrect assumptions about others’ behavior based on your own norms, values, and beliefs. In extreme cases, a group of individuals may see another culture as wrong or immoral and because of this may try to convert, sometimes forcibly, the group to their own ways of living. War and genocide could be the devastating result if a group is unwilling to change their ways of living or cultural practices.

Ethnocentrism may not, in some circumstances, be avoidable. We often have involuntary reactions toward another person or culture’s practices or beliefs but these reactions do not have to result in horrible events such as genocide or war. In order to avoid conflict over culture practices and beliefs, we must all try to be more culturally relative.

Two young men walking and holding hands.

Cultural relativism is the principle of regarding and valuing the practices of a culture from the point of view of that culture and to avoid making hasty judgments. Cultural relativism tries to counter ethnocentrism by promoting the understanding of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to other cultures such as eating insects, genocides or genital cutting. Take for example, the common practice of same-sex friends in India walking in public while holding hands. This is a common behavior and a sign of connectedness between two people. In England, by contrast, holding hands is largely limited to romantically involved couples, and often suggests a sexual relationship. These are simply two different ways of understanding the meaning of holding hands. Someone who does not take a relativistic view might be tempted to see their own understanding of this behavior as superior and, perhaps, the foreign practice as being immoral.

D espite the fact that cultural relativism promotes the appreciation for cultural differences, it can also be problematic. At its most extreme, cultural relativism leaves no room for criticism of other cultures, even if certain cultural practices are horrific or harmful. Many practices have drawn criticism over the years. In Madagascar, for example, the famahidana funeral tradition includes bringing bodies out from tombs once every seven years, wrapping them in cloth, and dancing with them. Some people view this practice disrespectful to the body of the deceased person. Today, a debate rages about the ritual cutting of genitals of girls in several Middle Eastern and African cultures. To a lesser extent, this same debate arises around the circumcision of baby boys in Western hospitals. When considering harmful cultural traditions, it can be patronizing to use cultural relativism as an excuse for avoiding debate. To assume that people from other cultures are neither mature enough nor responsible enough to consider criticism from the outside is demeaning.

The concept of cross-cultural relationship is the idea that people from different cultures can have relationships that acknowledge, respect and begin to understand each other’s diverse lives. People with different backgrounds can help each other see possibilities that they never thought were there because of limitations, or cultural proscriptions, posed by their own traditions. Becoming aware of these new possibilities will ultimately change the people who are exposed to the new ideas. This cross-cultural relationship provides hope that new opportunities will be discovered, but at the same time it is threatening. The threat is that once the relationship occurs, one can no longer claim that any single culture is the absolute truth.

Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Module 3: Culture

Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, learning outcomes.

  • Describe and give examples of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance and maintain a larger “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, the mug is most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favorite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.

The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travelers pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture’s fare. Often, people in the United States express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine and think that it’s gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig, for example, while they don’t question their own habit of eating cows or pigs. Such attitudes are an example of  ethnocentrism , or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s own cultural norms. Ethnocentrism, as sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others,  and should therefore serve as the standard frame of reference.   Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Americans tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than on the “other” side. Someone from a country where dog meat is standard fare might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant—not on the menu, but as a pet and fellow patron’s companion. A good example of ethnocentrism is referring to parts of Asia as the “Far East.” One might question, “Far east of where?”

A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures and could cause misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, because they see them as uneducated or backward—essentially inferior. In reality, these travelers are guilty of  cultural imperialism , the deliberate imposition of one’s own ostensibly advanced cultural values on another culture. Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the sixteenth century, was often accompanied by a severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who were in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices.

A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to a particular region. Another example would be the deforestation of the Amazon Basin as indigenous cultures lose land to timber corporations.

Coffins hanging from the side of a cliff.

Figure 1 . Experiencing an entirely new practice may lead to a high degree of interest or a level of criticism. The Indegenous people of Sagada, in the Philippines, have for thousands of years placed the bodies of deceased people into coffins hung on the cliffs near their villages. Some visitors may find this practice admirable, while others may think it’s inappropriate. (Credit: Arian Zwegers/flickr) Sagada, Echo Valley, hanging coffins.

Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all of the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration. In sociology, we call this  culture shock . A traveler from Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in class as other students ask questions—a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Chicago traveler was initially captivated by Montana’s quiet beauty and the Chinese student was originally excited to see a U.S.-style classroom firsthand. But as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture and adapt to its norms, they recover from culture shock.

Culture shock may appear because people aren’t always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger (1971) discovered this when he conducted a participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. Originally from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he’d never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. But the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Over the course of his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.

During his time with the Inuit tribe, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism.  Cultural relativism  is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Practicing cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies—ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies—would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition. Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism, then, may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture they are studying.

Sometimes when people attempt to rectify feelings of ethnocentrism and to practice cultural relativism, they swing too far to the other end of the spectrum.  Xenocentrism   is the opposite of ethnocentrism, and refers to the belief that another culture is superior to one’s own. (The Greek root word xeno , pronounced “ZEE-no,” means “stranger” or “foreign guest.”) An exchange student who goes home after a semester abroad or a sociologist who returns from the field may find it difficult to associate with the values of their own culture after having experienced what they deem a more upright or nobler way of living.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for sociologists studying different cultures is the matter of keeping a perspective. It is impossible for anyone to keep all cultural biases at bay; the best we can do is strive to be aware of them. Pride in one’s own culture doesn’t have to lead to imposing its values on others. And an appreciation for another culture shouldn’t preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye.

Overcoming Culture Shock

Three female tourists carrying luggage are shown climbing a cobblestone hill.

Figure 2. Experiencing new cultures offers an opportunity to practice cultural relativism. (Photo courtesy of OledSidorenko/flickr)

During her summer vacation, Caitlin flew from Chicago to Madrid to visit Maria, the exchange student she’d befriended the previous semester. In the airport, she heard rapid, musical Spanish being spoken all around her. Exciting as it was, she felt isolated and disconnected. Maria’s mother kissed Caitlin on both cheeks when she greeted her. Her imposing father kept his distance. Caitlin was half asleep by the time supper was served—at 10 p.m.! Maria’s family sat at the table for hours, speaking loudly, gesturing, and arguing about politics, a taboo dinner subject in Caitlin’s house. They served wine and toasted their honored guest. Caitlin had trouble interpreting her hosts’ facial expressions, and didn’t realize she should make the next toast. That night, Caitlin crawled into a strange bed, wishing she hadn’t come. She missed her home and felt overwhelmed by the new customs, language, and surroundings. She’d studied Spanish in school for years—why hadn’t it prepared her for this?

What Caitlin hadn’t realized was that people depend not only on spoken words but also on subtle cues like gestures and facial expressions, to communicate. Cultural norms accompany even the smallest nonverbal signals (DuBois 1951). They help people know when to shake hands, where to sit, how to converse, and even when to laugh. We relate to others through a shared set of cultural norms, and ordinarily, we take them for granted.

For this reason, culture shock is often associated with traveling abroad, although it can happen in one’s own country, state, or even hometown. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1960) is credited with first coining the term “culture shock.” In his studies, Oberg found that most people found encountering a new culture to be exciting at first. But bit by bit, they became stressed by interacting with people from a different culture who spoke another language and used different regional expressions. There was new food to digest, new daily schedules to follow, and new rules of etiquette to learn. Living with these constant adaptive challenges can make people feel incompetent and insecure. People react to frustration in a new culture, Oberg found, by initially rejecting it and glorifying one’s own culture. An American visiting Italy might long for a “real” pizza or complain about the unsafe driving habits of Italians compared to people in the United States.

It helps to remember that culture is learned. Everyone is ethnocentric to an extent, and identifying with one’s own country is natural.

Caitlin’s shock was minor compared to that of her friends Dayar and Mahlika, a Turkish couple living in married student housing on campus. And it was nothing like that of her classmate Sanai. Sanai had been forced to flee war-torn Bosnia with her family when she was fifteen. After two weeks in Spain, Caitlin had developed a bit more compassion and understanding for what those people had gone through. She understood that adjusting to a new culture takes time. It can take weeks or months to recover from culture shock, and it can take years to fully adjust to living in a new culture.

By the end of Caitlin’s trip, she’d made new lifelong friends. She’d stepped out of her comfort zone. She’d learned a lot about Spain, but she’d also discovered a lot about herself and her own culture.

Further Research

In January 2011, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America presented evidence indicating that the hormone oxytocin could regulate and manage instances of ethnocentrism. Read the full article “Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism” here .

Think It Over

  • Do you feel that feelings of ethnocentricity or xenocentricity are more prevalent in U.S. culture? Why do you believe this? What issues or events might inform this?

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Understanding Cultural Relativism and Its Importance

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

cultural relativism and ethnocentrism essay

Akeem Marsh, MD, is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist who has dedicated his career to working with medically underserved communities.

cultural relativism and ethnocentrism essay

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Beliefs of Cultural Relativism

  • Limitations
  • In Mental Health

Cultural Relativism vs. Ethnocentrism

  • How to Promote

Cultural relativism suggests that ethics, morals, values, norms, beliefs, and behaviors must be understood within the context of the culture from which they arise. It means that all cultures have their own beliefs and that there is no universal or absolute standard to judge those cultural norms. 

"Cultural relativism leads us to accept that cultures are foundationally different, with differing social and ethical norms. This includes understanding that a person’s place of birth, including where or how a patient was raised during their formative years, is the basis of a person’s approach to the world and emotional self," says Anu Raj, PsyD , a clinical psychologist at New York Institute of Technology.

Advocates of cultural relativism suggest that one culture's values, beliefs, and norms should not be judged through the lens of another culture.

It is the opposite of ethnocentrism, which involves judging or understanding cultural beliefs from the perspective of your own. Instead, cultural relativism suggests that observers and researchers should focus on describing those practices without attempting to impose their own biases and judgments upon them.

History of Cultural Relativism

The concept of cultural relativism was introduced by anthropologist Franz Boas in 1887. While he did not coin the term, it later became widely used by his students to describe his anthropological perspective and theories.

Cultural relativism suggests that:

  • Different societies have their own moral codes and practices.
  • Norms, beliefs, and values must be judged and understood from the context of the culture where they originate.
  • No culture is objectively better than others; cultures and their customs and beliefs are not objectively superior or inferior to any other culture.
  • Practices and behaviors considered acceptable or unacceptable vary from one culture to the next.
  • Cultural relativism aims to help promote acceptance, tolerance, and an appreciation for diverse cultural beliefs and practices.
  • No universal ethical or moral truths apply to all people in all situations.
  • What is considered right and wrong is determined by society’s moral codes.
  • Researchers and observers should strive to observe behavior rather than pass judgments on it based on their own cultural perspective.

Different Types of Cultural Relativism

There are two distinct types of cultural relativism: absolute cultural relativism and critical cultural relativism.

Absolute Cultural Relativism

According to this perspective, outsiders should not question or judge cultural events. Essentially, this point of view proposes that outsiders should not criticize or question the cultural practices of other societies, no matter what they might involve.

Critical Cultural Relativism

Critical cultural relativism suggests that practices should be evaluated in terms of how and why they are adopted. This perspective suggests that cultural practices can be evaluated and understood by looking at factors such as the historical context and social influences.

It also recognizes that all societies experience inequalities and power dynamics that influence how and why certain beliefs are adopted and who adopts them.

Strengths of Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism has a number of benefits that can help people gain greater insight into different cultures. This perspective can help:

  • Promote cultural understanding : Because cultural relativism encourages seeing cultures with an open mind, it can foster greater empathy , understanding, and respect for cultures different from ours. 
  • Protect cultural respect and autonomy : Cultural relativism recognizes that no culture is superior to any other. Rather than attempting to change other cultures, this perspective encourages people to respect the autonomy and self-determinism of other cultures, which can play an important role in preserving the heritage and traditions of other cultures.
  • Foster learning : By embracing cultural relativism, people from different backgrounds are able to communicate effectively and create an open dialogue to foster greater learning for other cultures of the world.

Cultural relativism can also be important in helping mental health professionals deliver culturally competent care to clients of different backgrounds.

"What’s considered “typical and normal versus pathological” depends on cultural norms. It varies between providers and patients; it impacts diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis," Raj explains.

When mental health professionals account for the differences in values, and attitudes towards and of marginalized people (including communities of color and LGBTQ+ communities), providers develop respect for individual patients. Consequently, patients are less likely to be misdiagnosed and more likely to continue treatment.

Limitations of Cultural Relativism

While cultural relativism has strengths, that does not mean it is without limitations.

Failure to Address Human Rights

This perspective has been criticized for failing to address universal rights. Some suggest that this approach may appear to condone cultural practices that constitute human rights violations. It can be challenging to practice non-judgment of other cultures while still protecting people’s right to live free from discrimination and oppression.

Cultural relativism may sometimes hamper progress by inhibiting the examination of practices, norms, and traditions that limit a society’s growth and progress.

Reducing Cultures to Stereotypes

Cultural relativism sometimes falls victim to the tendency to stereotype and simplify cultures. Rather than fully appreciating the full complexity and diversity that may exist within a culture, people may reduce it to a homogenous stereotype. This often prevents outsiders from seeing the many variations that may exist within a society and fully appreciating the way cultures evolve over time.

Individual Rights vs. Cultural Values

This perspective may sometimes lead observers to place a higher priority on a culture’s collective values while dismissing individual variations. This might involve, for example, avoiding criticism of cultures that punish political dissidents who voice opposition to cultural norms, and practices.

Examples of Cultural Relativism

In reality, people make cultural judgments all the time. If you've ever eaten food from another culture and described it as 'gross' or learned about a specific cultural practice and called it 'weird,' you've made a judgment about that culture based on the norms of your own. Because you don't eat those foods or engage in those practices in your culture, you are making culture-biased value judgments.

Cultural differences can affect a wide range of behaviors, including healthcare decisions. For example, research has found that while people from Western cultures prefer to be fully informed in order to make autonomous healthcare conditions, individuals from other cultures prefer varying degrees of truth-telling from medical providers.

An example of using cultural relativism in these cases would be describing the food practices of a different culture and learning more about why certain foods and dishes are important in those societies. Another example would be learning more about different cultural practices and exploring how they originated and the purpose they serve rather than evaluating them from your own cultural background. 

In medical settings, healthcare practitioners must balance the interests and autonomy of their patients with respect and tolerance for multicultural values.

Cultural Relativism in Mental Health

Cultural relativism can also play an important role in the practice and application of mental health. "An individual’s perception of mental health, including stigma, is often influenced by their cultural identity and social values," explains Raj.

People who experience cultural discrimination are also more likely to experience higher stress levels, which can seriously affect mental health. Research has shown that perceived discrimination increases psychological distress and predicts symptoms of anxiety and depression. It also contributes to worse physical health, including a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke.

Therapists must strive to understand people from different backgrounds to provide culturally competent care. "Through the lens of cultural competency, providers can educate themselves and elevate the plethora of coping mechanisms that a patient already might possess," says Raj. 

Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are two contrasting perspectives that can be used to evaluate and understand other cultures.

Ethnocentrism involves judging other cultures based on the standards and values of one's own culture, often leading to a biased or prejudiced perspective .

Where cultural relativism suggests that all cultures are equally valid, ethnocentrism involves seeing your own culture as superior or more correct than others.

Cultural relativism emphasizes the importance of diversity and recognizes that values, beliefs, and behaviors can vary across societies. This can be contrasted with ethnocentrism, which promotes the idea that your own culture is the norm or benchmark against which others should be evaluated. This can limit understanding and decrease tolerance for people of different backgrounds. 

How Do You Promote Cultural Relativism?

There are a number of strategies that can help promote cultural relativism. This can be particularly important for mental health professionals and other healthcare practitioners. 

"Therapists must be able to view the world through the eyes of their patients. Most importantly, culturally competent therapists understand their patient’s behavior through the cultural framework in which they live," Raj says.

Promoting cultural relativism involves adopting an open-minded and respectful approach toward other cultures. Some things you can do to foster greater cultural relativism:

  • Embrace cultural diversity : Strive to appreciate other cultures, including their unique values, traditions, and perspectives. Remember that diversity enriches our lives, experiences, and world knowledge.
  • Learn more about other cultures : Take the time to explore cultures other than your own, including histories, traditions, and beliefs. Resources that can help include books, documentaries, and online resources.
  • Practice empathy : Seek to understand others by imagining things from their perspective. Try to understand their experiences, challenges, and aspirations. Cultivate empathy and respect for the differences between people and cultures.
  • Seek diversity : Make an active effort to spend more time with people from different walks of life. Talk to people from diverse backgrounds and approach these discussions with an open mind and a desire to learn. Be willing to share your own perspectives and experiences without trying to change others or impose your beliefs on them.
  • Challenge biases : Try to become more aware of how your unconscious biases might shape your perceptions and interactions with others. Practicing cultural relativism is an ongoing process. It takes time, open-mindedness , and a willingness to reflect on your biases.

Promoting Cultural Relativism Among Mental Health Professionals

How can therapists apply cultural relativism to ensure they understand other cultural perspectives and avoid unintentional biases in therapy?   

A 2019 study found that the ideal training for therapists included graduate coursework in diversity, supervised clinical experiences working with diverse populations, experiential activities, didactic training, and cultural immersion when possible.

Avoiding Bias in Therapy

Raj suggests that there are important questions that professionals should ask themselves, including:

  • How do I identify?
  • How does my patient identify? 
  • What prejudices or biases am I holding? 
  •  Are there biases or stereotypes I hold based on my own upbringing and culture? 

She also suggests that therapists should always be willing to ask about client involvement in treatment planning. She recommends asking questions such as: 

  • What approaches have been successful or failed in the past? 
  • How does the patient perceive their ailment? 
  • What were the results of the patient’s previous coping mechanisms? 
  • How does the patient’s culture drive their behavior, coping skills, and outcomes?

By making clients an active part of their treatment and taking steps to understand their background better, therapists can utilize cultural relativism to deliver more sensitive, informed care.

The New Republic. Pioneers of cultural relativism )

Kanarek J. Critiquing cultural relativism . The Intellectual Standard. 2013;2(2):1.

Rosenberg AR, Starks H, Unguru Y, Feudtner C, Diekema D. Truth telling in the setting of cultural differences and incurable pediatric illness: A review . JAMA Pediatr . 2017;171(11):1113-1119. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.2568

Williams DR, Lawrence JA, Davis BA, Vu C. Understanding how discrimination can affect health . Health Serv Res . 2019;54 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):1374-1388. doi:10.1111/1475-6773.13222

Benuto LT, Singer J, Newlands RT, Casas JB. Training culturally competent psychologists: Where are we and where do we need to go ? Training and Education in Professional Psychology . 2019;13(1):56-63. doi:10.1037/tep0000214

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Relativism

Introduction, general overviews.

  • Early Writing on Human Diversity
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  • Anthropological Defenses
  • Philosophical Engagements
  • Classics in Relativist Ethnography
  • Anthropology and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Human Rights Revisited
  • Renteln and Responses in Anthropology
  • Debate on Ethical Relativism in Ethos
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss and UNESCO
  • The Captain Cook Controversy
  • Multiculturalism and Cultural Rights
  • Gender and Multiculturalism
  • Power and Anthropological Authority
  • Undermining Anthropological Authority
  • Concepts and Categories
  • Feminist Ethnography and the Critique of Universal Womanhood
  • New Iterations of the Nature–Culture Debate

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Cultural Relativism by Mayanthi Fernando LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021 LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0003

In a 1580 essay called “On the Cannibals,” early Enlightenment thinker Michel de Montaigne posited that men are by nature ethnocentric and that they judge the customs and morals of other communities on the basis of their own particular customs and morals, which they take to be universally applicable. Montaigne’s essay foreshadowed the emergence in early 20th-century American anthropology of the principle of cultural relativism in a more robust and programmatic form, as a descriptive, methodological, epistemological, and prescriptive approach to human diversity. Franz Boas and his students, especially Melville J. Herskovits, were at the forefront of this new development, one that became foundational to modern anthropology. Against the biological and racial determinism of the time, they held that cultures develop according to the particular circumstances of history rather than in a linear progression from “primitive” to “savage” to “civilized,” that culture (rather than race or biology) most affects social life and human behavior, and that culture shapes the way members of a particular cultural group think, act, perceive, and evaluate. This new theorization of the culture concept led to a multifaceted approach to studying human diversity called cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is an umbrella term that covers different attitudes, though it relies on a basic notion of emic coherence: Each culture works in its own way, and beliefs and practices that appear strange from the outside make sense when contextualized within their particular cultural framework. More specifically, descriptive relativism holds that cultures differ substantially from place to place. Methodological relativism holds that the ethnographer must set aside his or her own cultural norms in order to understand another culture and explain its worldview. Epistemological relativism holds that because our own culture so mediates our perceptions, it is often impossible to fully grasp another culture in an unmediated way. Prescriptive or moral relativism holds that because we are all formed in culture, there is no Archimedean point from which to evaluate objectively, and so we must not judge other cultures using our own cultural norms. Recently, cultural relativism has become a straw man term, defined pejoratively as the strongest form of moral relativism; namely, that we cannot make any kind of moral judgments at all regarding foreign cultural practices. At the turn of the 20th century, cultural relativism was a progressive anthropological theory and methodological practice that sought to valorize marginalized communities in an inegalitarian world. Now cultural relativism is criticized as doing precisely the opposite: allowing repressive and inegalitarian societies to hide behind the cloak of cultural difference.

Stocking 1982 analyzes the emergence of American cultural anthropology, the rise of Franz Boas and his students, and their lasting influence. Kuper 1999 offers the most comprehensive overview of American cultural anthropology, though from a critical, social anthropological perspective dominant in Britain. The best overview of major French thinkers on the question of cultural diversity from Montaigne to Lévi-Strauss remains Todorov 1993 , which provides a good companion piece to overviews of cultural relativism that largely focus on the United States. Shweder 1984 traces American cultural anthropology’s roots in German Romanticism. Hatch 1983 and Fernandez 1990 examine anthropology’s and especially Boasian anthropologists’ relationship to cultural relativism. Renteln 1988 provides a short but comprehensive overview of more general approaches to cultural relativism within and beyond anthropology.

Fernandez, James W. 1990. Tolerance in a repugnant world and other dilemmas in the cultural relativism of Melville J. Herskovits. Ethos 18.2: 140–164.

DOI: 10.1525/eth.1990.18.2.02a00020

A close reading of Herskovits’ work on cultural relativism by one of his last students. Argues that cultural relativism was not an abstract philosophical issue but a practical and political one and that Herskovits considered cultural relativism as both a scientific method and a tool to fight injustice. Also examines some of the specific impasses that arose for Herskovits between his commitment to objective science and to political and social justice. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

Hatch, Elvin. 1983. Culture and morality: The relativity of values in anthropology . New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Gives a critical overview of Boasian cultural relativism, including some of its epistemological, methodological, and ethical impasses. In addition to a historical overview, also argues for a new iteration of cultural relativism that overcomes what Hatch considers its earlier problems.

Kuper, Adam. 1999. Culture: The anthropologists’ account . Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Though often critical of cultural anthropology, and especially of cultural relativism, provides a comprehensive account of the development of the culture concept from its evolutionary civilizational sense to its contemporary, plural meaning. Examines the work of the Boasians, David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, and recent poststructural anthropology.

Renteln, Alison Dundes. 1988. Relativism and the search for human rights. American Anthropologist 90.1: 56–72.

DOI: 10.1525/aa.1988.90.1.02a00040

First half of the article is useful for outlining the various versions of cultural relativism in philosophy and anthropology. Provides a brief but comprehensive historical overview of the different approaches and ensuing debates. Latter half of the article takes up the question of contemporary human rights, arguing that cultural relativism is compatible with cross-cultural universals. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

Shweder, Richard A. 1984. Anthropology’s romantic rebellion against the enlightenment, or there’s more to thinking than reason and evidence. In Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion . Edited by Richard A. Schweder and Robert A. LeVine, 27–66. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Locates anthropology’s celebration of local context, its commitment to local rationalities, and its notion that primitive and modern are coequal within a longer genealogy that stretches back to the German Romantic movement.

Stocking, George W., Jr. 1982. Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology . Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

A classic text by the leading historian of the discipline charting the emergence of American cultural anthropology. Gives a good sense of the theoretical and political stakes in the development of Boasian anthropology and its culture concept against the racial theories popular at the time.

Todorov, Tzvetan. 1993. On human diversity: Nationalism, racism, and exoticism in French thought . Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Excellent overview of French thought from the Enlightenment onwards on the unity and diversity of the human species and its values. Particularly useful for defining key terms, including ethnocentrism , humanism , scientism , cultural relativism , universalism , and exoticism . Shows how ethnocentrism underpins certain forms of both universalism and cultural relativism. The author also offers his own theory of a universalism without ethnocentrism.

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2.4: Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

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CULTURAL RELATIVISM

The guiding philosophy of modern anthropology is cultural relativism —the idea that we should seek to understand another person’s beliefs and behaviors from the perspective of their culture rather than our own. Anthropologists do not judge other cultures based on their values nor view other cultural ways of doing things as inferior. Instead, anthropologists seek to understand people’s beliefs within the system they have for explaining things.

Definition: cultural relativism

The idea that we should seek to understand another person’s beliefs and behaviors from the perspective of their culture rather than our own.

Cultural relativism is an important methodological consideration when conducting research. In the field, anthropologists must temporarily suspend their own value, moral, and esthetic judgments and seek to understand and respect the values, morals, and esthetics of the other culture on their terms. This can be a challenging task, particularly when a culture is significantly different from the one in which they were raised.

A Young Anthropologist's Experience

Katie Nelson, Inver Hills Community College

During my first field experience in Brazil, I learned firsthand how challenging cultural relativism could be. Preferences for physical proximity and comfort talking about one’s body are among the first differences likely to be noticed by U.S. visitors to Brazil. Compared to Americans, Brazilians generally are much more comfortable standing close, touching, holding hands, and even smelling one another and often discuss each other’s bodies. Children and adults commonly refer to each other using playful nicknames that refer to their body size, body shape, or skin color. Neighbors and even strangers frequently stopped me on the street to comment on the color of my skin (It concerned some as being overly pale or pink—Was I ill? Was I sunburned?), the texture of my hair (How did I get it so smooth? Did I straighten my hair?), and my body size and shape (“You have a nice bust, but if you lost a little weight around the middle you would be even more attractive!”).

During my first few months in Brazil, I had to remind myself constantly that these comments were not rude, disrespectful, or inappropriate as I would have perceived them to be in the United States. On the contrary, it was one of the ways that people showed affection toward me. From a culturally relativistic perspective, the comments demonstrated that they cared about me, were concerned with my well-being, and wanted me to be part of the community. Had I not taken a culturally relativistic view at the outset and instead judged the actions based on my cultural perspective, I would have been continually frustrated and likely would have confused and offended people in the community. And offending your informants and the rest of the community certainly is not conducive to completing high-quality ethnography! Had I not fully understood the importance of body contact and physical proximity in communication in Brazil, I would have missed an important component of the culture.

ETHNOCENTRISM

Another perspective that has been rejected by anthropologists is ethnocentrism —the tendency to view one’s own culture as most important and correct and as a stick by which to measure all other cultures. People who are ethnocentric view their own cultures as central and normal and reject all other cultures as inferior and morally suspect. As it turns out, many people and cultures are ethnocentric to some degree; ethnocentrism is a common human experience. Why do we respond the way we do? Why do we behave the way we do? Why do we believe what we believe? Most people find these kinds of questions difficult to answer. Often the answer is simply “because that is how it is done.” They believe what they believe because that is what one normally believes and doing things any other way seems wrong.

Definition: ethnocentrism

The tendency to view one’s own culture as most important and correct and as a stick by which to measure all other cultures.

Ethnocentrism is not a useful perspective in contexts in which people from different cultural backgrounds come into close contact with one another, as is the case in many cities and communities throughout the world. People increasingly find that they must adopt culturally relativistic perspectives in governing communities and as a guide for their interactions with members of the community. For anthropologists in the field, cultural relativism is especially important. We must set aside our innate ethnocentrisms and let cultural relativism guide our inquiries and interactions with others so that our observations are not biased. Cultural relativism is at the core of the discipline of anthropology.

Cultural Relativism and Fieldwork

Objectivity and Activist Anthropology

Despite the importance of cultural relativism, it is not always possible and at times is inappropriate to maintain complete objectivity in the field. Researchers may encounter cultural practices that are an affront to strongly held moral values or that violate the human rights of a segment of a population. In other cases, they may be conducting research in part to advocate for a particular issue or for the rights of a marginalized group.

Take, for example, the practice of female genital cutting (FGC), also known as female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that is common in various regions of the world, especially in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Such practices involving modification of female genitals for non-medical and cultural reasons range from clitoridectomy (partial or full removal of the clitoris) to infibulation, which involves removal of the clitoris and the inner and outer labia and suturing to narrow the vaginal opening, leaving only a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid Anthropologists working in regions where such practices are common often understandably have a strong negative opinion, viewing the practice as unnecessary medically and posing a risk of serious infection, infertility, and complications from childbirth. They may also be opposed to it because they feel that it violates the right of women to experience sexual pleasure, something they likely view as a fundamental human right. Should the anthropologist intervene to prevent girls and women from being subjected to this practice?

Anthropologist Janice Boddy studied FGC/FGM in rural northern Sudan and sought to explain it from a culturally relativistic perspective. She found that the practice persists, in part, because it is believed to preserve a woman’s chastity and curb her sexual desire, making her less likely to have affairs once she is married. Boddy’s research showed how the practice makes sense in the context of a culture in which a woman’s sexual conduct is a symbol of her family’s honor, which is important culturally. [5]

Boddy’s relativistic explanation helps make the practice comprehensible and allows cultural outsiders to understand how it is internally culturally coherent. But the question remains. Once anthropologists understand why people practice FGC/FGM, should they accept it? Because they uncover the cultural meaning of a practice, must they maintain a neutral stance or should they fight a practice viewed as an injustice? How does an anthropologist know what is right?

Unfortunately, answers to these questions are rarely simple, and anthropologists as a group do not always agree on an appropriate professional stance and responsibility. Nevertheless, examining practices such as FGC/FGM can help us understand the debate over objectivity versus “activism” in anthropology more clearly. Some anthropologists feel that striving for objectivity in ethnography is paramount. That even if objectivity cannot be completely achieved, anthropologists’ ethnography should be free from as much subjective opinion as possible. Others take the opposite stance and produce anthropological research and writing as a means of fighting for equality and justice for disempowered or voiceless groups. The debate over how much (if any) activism is acceptable is ongoing. What is clear is that anthropologists are continuing to grapple with the contentious relationship between objectivity and activism in ethnographic research.

5. Janice Bodd, Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). ↵

Adapted From

"Doing Fieldwork: Methods in Cultural Anthropology" by Katie Nelson, Inver Hills Community College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology , 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0 .

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Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Learning outcomes.

  • Describe and give examples of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance and maintain a larger “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, the mug is most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favorite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.

The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travelers pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture’s fare. Often, people in the United States express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine and think that it’s gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig, for example, while they don’t question their own habit of eating cows or pigs. Such attitudes are an example of  ethnocentrism , or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s own cultural norms. Ethnocentrism, as sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others,  and should therefore serve as the standard frame of reference.   Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Americans tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than on the “other” side. Someone from a country where dog meat is standard fare might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant—not on the menu, but as a pet and fellow patron’s companion. A good example of ethnocentrism is referring to parts of Asia as the “Far East.” One might question, “Far east of where?”

A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures and could cause misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, because they see them as uneducated or backward—essentially inferior. In reality, these travelers are guilty of  cultural imperialism , the deliberate imposition of one’s own ostensibly advanced cultural values on another culture. Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the sixteenth century, was often accompanied by a severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who were in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices. A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to a particular region.

Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all of the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration. In sociology, we call this  culture shock . A traveler from Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in class as other students ask questions—a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Chicago traveler was initially captivated by Montana’s quiet beauty and the Chinese student was originally excited to see a U.S.-style classroom firsthand. But as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture and adapt to its norms, they recover from culture shock.

Culture shock may appear because people aren’t always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger (1971) discovered this when he conducted a participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. Originally from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he’d never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. But the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Over the course of his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.

During his time with the Inuit tribe, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism.  Cultural relativism  is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. Practicing cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies—ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies—would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition. Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism, then, may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture they are studying.

Sometimes when people attempt to rectify feelings of ethnocentrism and to practice cultural relativism, they swing too far to the other end of the spectrum.  Xenocentrism   is the opposite of ethnocentrism, and refers to the belief that another culture is superior to one’s own. (The Greek root word xeno , pronounced “ZEE-no,” means “stranger” or “foreign guest.”) An exchange student who goes home after a semester abroad or a sociologist who returns from the field may find it difficult to associate with the values of their own culture after having experienced what they deem a more upright or nobler way of living.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for sociologists studying different cultures is the matter of keeping a perspective. It is impossible for anyone to keep all cultural biases at bay; the best we can do is strive to be aware of them. Pride in one’s own culture doesn’t have to lead to imposing its values on others. And an appreciation for another culture shouldn’t preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye.

Overcoming Culture Shock

Three female tourists carrying luggage are shown climbing a cobblestone hill.

During her summer vacation, Caitlin flew from Chicago to Madrid to visit Maria, the exchange student she’d befriended the previous semester. In the airport, she heard rapid, musical Spanish being spoken all around her. Exciting as it was, she felt isolated and disconnected. Maria’s mother kissed Caitlin on both cheeks when she greeted her. Her imposing father kept his distance. Caitlin was half asleep by the time supper was served—at 10 p.m.! Maria’s family sat at the table for hours, speaking loudly, gesturing, and arguing about politics, a taboo dinner subject in Caitlin’s house. They served wine and toasted their honored guest. Caitlin had trouble interpreting her hosts’ facial expressions, and didn’t realize she should make the next toast. That night, Caitlin crawled into a strange bed, wishing she hadn’t come. She missed her home and felt overwhelmed by the new customs, language, and surroundings. She’d studied Spanish in school for years—why hadn’t it prepared her for this?

What Caitlin hadn’t realized was that people depend not only on spoken words but also on subtle cues like gestures and facial expressions, to communicate. Cultural norms accompany even the smallest nonverbal signals (DuBois 1951). They help people know when to shake hands, where to sit, how to converse, and even when to laugh. We relate to others through a shared set of cultural norms, and ordinarily, we take them for granted.

For this reason, culture shock is often associated with traveling abroad, although it can happen in one’s own country, state, or even hometown. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1960) is credited with first coining the term “culture shock.” In his studies, Oberg found that most people found encountering a new culture to be exciting at first. But bit by bit, they became stressed by interacting with people from a different culture who spoke another language and used different regional expressions. There was new food to digest, new daily schedules to follow, and new rules of etiquette to learn. Living with these constant adaptive challenges can make people feel incompetent and insecure. People react to frustration in a new culture, Oberg found, by initially rejecting it and glorifying one’s own culture. An American visiting Italy might long for a “real” pizza or complain about the unsafe driving habits of Italians compared to people in the United States.

It helps to remember that culture is learned. Everyone is ethnocentric to an extent, and identifying with one’s own country is natural.

Caitlin’s shock was minor compared to that of her friends Dayar and Mahlika, a Turkish couple living in married student housing on campus. And it was nothing like that of her classmate Sanai. Sanai had been forced to flee war-torn Bosnia with her family when she was fifteen. After two weeks in Spain, Caitlin had developed a bit more compassion and understanding for what those people had gone through. She understood that adjusting to a new culture takes time. It can take weeks or months to recover from culture shock, and it can take years to fully adjust to living in a new culture.

By the end of Caitlin’s trip, she’d made new lifelong friends. She’d stepped out of her comfort zone. She’d learned a lot about Spain, but she’d also discovered a lot about herself and her own culture.

Further Research

In January 2011, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America presented evidence indicating that the hormone oxytocin could regulate and manage instances of ethnocentrism. Read the full article “Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism” here .

Think It Over

  • Do you feel that feelings of ethnocentricity or xenocentricity are more prevalent in U.S. culture? Why do you believe this? What issues or events might inform this?

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Introduction to Sociology Lumen/OpenStax Copyright © 2021 by Lumen Learning & OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Cultural Relativism: Definition & Examples

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Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.

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Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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Key Takeaways

  • Cultural Relativism is the claim that ethical practices differ among cultures, and what is considered right in one culture may be considered wrong in another. The implication of cultural relativism is that no one society is superior to another; they are merely different.
  • This claim comes with several corollaries; namely, that different societies have different moral codes, there is no objective standard to judge how good or bad these moral codes are, and that the job of those who study cultures is not to compare these customs to their own, but to describe them.
  • Moral relativism claims that what is customary in a culture is absolutely right in that culture. Cultural relativism is not as strong, sometimes asserting that there is no real way to measure right or wrong.
  • Cultural relativism is contrary to ethnocentrism, which encourages people to look at the world from the perspective of their own culture.
  • While cultural relativism has been the subject of controversy — especially from philosophers — anthropological and sociological studies have led to a widespread consensus among social scientists that cultural relativism is true.

cultural relativism

Cultural relativism is the principle of regarding the beliefs, values, and practices of a culture from the viewpoint of that culture itself.

It states that there are no universal beliefs, and each culture must be understood in its own terms because cultures cannot be translated into terms that are accessible everywhere.

The principle is sometimes practiced to avoid cultural bias in research and to avoid judging another culture by the standards of one’s own culture. For this reason, cultural relativism has been considered an attempt to avoid ethnocentrism.

Cultural Relativism refers to the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and consequently not make judgments based on the standards of one’s own culture.

Implications

From the cultural relativist perspective, no culture is superior to another when comparing their systems of morality, law, politics, etc.

This is because cultural norms and values, according to cultural relativism, derive their meaning within a specific social context.

Cultural relativism is also based on the idea that there is no absolute standard of good or evil. Thus, every decision and judgment of what is right or wrong is individually decided in each society.

As a result, any opinion on ethics is subject to the perspective of each person within their particular culture.

In practice, cultural relativists try to promote the understanding of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to other cultures, such as eating insects and sacrificial killing.

There are two different categories of cultural relativism: absolute and critical. Absolute cultural relativists believe that outsiders must and should not question everything that happens within a culture.

Meanwhile, critical cultural relativism questions cultural practices regarding who is accepting them and why, as well as recognizing power relationships.

Cultural relativism challenges beliefs about the objectivity and universality of moral truth.

In effect, cultural relativism says that there is no such thing as universal truth and ethics; there are only various cultural codes. Moreover, the code of one culture has no special status but is merely one among many.

Assumptions

Cultural relativism has several different elements, and there is some disagreement as to what claims are true and pertinent to cultural relativism and which are not. Some claims include that:

Different societies have different moral codes;

There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code as better than another;

The moral code of one’s own society has no special status but is merely one among many;

There is no “universal truth” in ethics, meaning that there are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times;

The moral code of a society determines what is right and wrong within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society and;

It is arrogant for people to attempt to judge the conduct of other people. Instead, researchers should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.

Illustrative Examples

Food choices.

Cultural relativism does not merely relate to morality and ethics. Cultural relativism, for example, explains why certain cultures eat different foods at different meals.

For example, traditionally, breakfast in the United States is markedly different from breakfast in Japan or Colombia. While one may consist of scrambled eggs and pancakes and the other rice and soup or white cheese on a corn arepa, cultural relativists seek to understand these differences, not in terms of any perceived superiority or inferiority but in description (Bian & Markman, 2020).

Mental Illness

One of the biggest controversies concerning classification and diagnosis is that the ICD (the manuals of mental disorders) are culturally biased because they are drawn up and used by white, middle-class men. This means they tend to use definitions of abnormality that are irrelevant to all cultures.

For example, Davison & Neale (1994) explain that in Asian cultures, a person experiencing some emotional turmoil is praised & rewarded if they show no expression of their emotions.

In certain Arabic cultures, however, the outpouring of public emotion is understood and often encouraged. Without this knowledge, an individual displaying overt emotional behavior may be regarded as abnormal when in fact, it is not.

Cross-cultural misunderstandings are common and may contribute to unfair and discriminatory treatment of minorities by the majority, e.g., the high diagnosis rate of schizophrenia amongst non-white British people.

Cochrane (1977) reported that the incidence of schizophrenia in the West Indies and the UK is 1 %, but that people of Afro-Caribbean origin are seven times more likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic when living in the UK.

Hygienic Rituals

Another phenomenon explained by cultural relativism is hygienic rituals. Different cultures may use different modes or methods of disposing of waste and cleaning up afterward.

Ritualized ablution, or washing, also differs across cultures. Catholics may dip their fingers into blessed water and anoint themselves at church, and Jewish people may pour water over their hands in a specific way during Shabbat.

Although toilet and washing practices vary drastically across cultures, cultural relativists seek to describe these differences, noting that what is customary to culture is not necessarily “right” or “wrong.”

Cultural vs. Moral Relativism

Cultural relativism is a claim that anthropologists can make when describing how ethical practices differ across cultures; as a result, the truth or falsity of cultural relativism can be determined by how anthropologists and anthropologists study the world.

Many sociologists and anthropologists have conducted such studies, leading to widespread consensus among social scientists that cultural relativism is an actual phenomenon (Bowie, 2015).

Moral relativism, meanwhile, is a claim that what is really right or wrong is what that culture says is right or wrong. While moral relativists believe that cultural relativism is true, they extend their claims much further.

Moral relativists believe that if a culture sincerely and reflectively adopts some basic moral principle, then it is morally obligatory for members of that culture to act according to that principle (Bowie, 2015).

The implication of moral relativism is that it is absolutely necessary for someone to act according to the norms of the culture in which they are located.

For example, when asking whether or not it is ethical to bribe government bureaucrats, a moral relativist would look for the answer in the norms of how people within their country deal with bureaucracy.

If people bribe government officials, then the moral relativist would consider bribery not to be wrong in that country.

However, if people do not normally bribe bureaucrats, offering them a bribe would be considered morally wrong.

A cultural relativist would posit that while bribery is an ethical norm in the cultures where it is practiced, it is not necessarily morally right or wrong in that culture (Bowie, 2015).

Cultural Relativism vs. Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world largely from the perspective of one’s own culture.

This may be motivated, for example, by the belief that one’s own race, ethnic, or cultural group is the most important or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups.

Ethnocentrism can often lead to incorrect assumptions about others’ behavior based on one’s own norms, values, and beliefs (Worthy, Lavigne, & Romero, 2021a).

Cultural relativism, meanwhile, is principled in regarding and valuing the practices of a culture from the point of view of that culture and avoiding making judgments stemming from one’s own assumptions.

Cultural relativism attempts to counter ethnocentrism by promoting the understanding of cultural practices unfamiliar to other cultures. For example, it is a common practice for friends of the same sex in India to hold hands while walking in public.

In the United Kingdom, holding hands is largely limited to romantically involved couples and often suggests a sexual relationship.

Someone holding an extreme ethnocentrist view may see their own understanding of hand-holding as superior and consider the foreign practice to be immoral (Worthy, Lavigne, & Romero; 2021a).

Controversy

Cultural Relativism has been criticized for numerous reasons, both theoretical and practical.

According to Karanack (2013), cultural relativism attempts to integrate knowledge between one’s own culture-bound reality. The premise that cultural relativism is based on that all cultures are valid in their customs is vague in Karanack’s view.

Karanack also criticizes cultural relativism from a theoretical perspective for having contradictory logic, asserting that cultural relativism often asserts that social facts are true and untrue, depending on the culture in which one is situated.

Nonetheless, cultural relativism also has several advantages. Firstly, it is a system that promotes cooperation. Each individual has a different perspective that is based on their upbringing, experiences, and personal thoughts, and by embracing the many differences that people have, cooperation creates the potential for a stronger society.

Each individual definition of success allows people to pursue stronger bonds with one another and potentially achieve more because there are no limitations on a group level about what can or cannot be accomplished (Karanack, 2013).

Secondly, cultural relativism envisions a society where equality across cultures is possible. Cultural relativism does so by allowing individuals to define their moral code without defining that of others. As each person can set their own standards of success and behavior, cultural relativism creates equality (Karanack, 2013).

Additionally, Cultural relativism can preserve cultures and allow people to create personal moral codes based on societal standards without precisely consulting what is “right” or “wrong.”

However, it can do so while also excluding moral relativism. This means that the moral code of a culture can be defined and an expectation implemented that people follow it, even as people devise goals and values that are particularly relevant to them.

Lastly, cultural relativism has been praised for stopping cultural conditions — the adoption of people to adapt their attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs to the people they are with on a regular basis (Karanack, 2013).

Despite these advantages, cultural relativism has been criticized for creating a system fuelled by personal bias. As people tend to prefer to be with others who have similar thoughts, feelings, and ideas, they tend to separate themselves into neighborhoods, communities, and social groups that share specific perspectives.

When people are given the power to define their own moral code, they do so based on personal bias, causing some people to follow their own code at the expense of others (Karanack, 2013).

Nonetheless, cultural relativism promotes understanding cultures outside of one’s own, enabling people to build relationships with other cultures that acknowledge and respect each other’s diverse lives.

With cultural relativism comes the ability to understand a culture on its own terms without making judgments based on one’s own cultural standards. In this way, sociologists and anthropologists can draw more accurate conclusions about outside cultures (Worthy, Lavigne, & Romero, 2020).

Bian, L., & Markman, E. M. (2020). Why do we eat cereal but not lamb chops at breakfast? Investigating Americans’ beliefs about breakfast foods. Appetite, 144, 104458.

Bowie, N.E. (2015). Relativism, Cultural and Moral. In Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (eds C.L. Cooper and ). Culture and Psychology. (2021). Glendale Community College.

Brown, M. F. (2008). Cultural Relativism 2.0 .  Current Anthropology, 49 (3), 363-383.

Cochrane, R. A. Y. M. O. N. D. (1977). Mental illness in immigrants to England and Wales: an analysis of mental hospital admissions, 1971.  Social psychiatry, 12 (1), 25-35.

Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (1994). Abnormal Psychology . New York: John Willey and Sons.

Kanarek, Jaret (2013) “ Critiquing Cultural Relativism ,” The Intellectual Standard: Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 1.

Spiro, M. E. (1992). Cultural relativism and the future of anthropology .  Rereading cultural anthropology , 124, 51.

Tilley, J. J. (2000). Cultural relativism .  Hum. Rts. Q. , 22, 501.

Worthy, L. D., Lavigne, T., & Romero, F. (2020). Self and Culture. Culture and Psychology .

Zechenter, E. M. (1997). In the name of culture: Cultural relativism and the abuse of the individual .  Journal of Anthropological Research, 53 (3), 319-347.

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87 Cultural Relativism Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

🏆 best cultural relativism topic ideas & essay examples, 🎓 good research topics about cultural relativism, ⭐ simple & easy cultural relativism essay titles, ❓ cultural relativism discussion questions.

  • Significance of Cultural Relativism: Nature and Reason As a matter of fact, Montaigne shows that the value of a culture can only be assessed within the context of the users and how members of the society identify the significance of their culture.
  • How to Avoid Ethnocentrism – Essay on Promoting Cultural Relativism In an effort to understand ethnocentrism which is defined as, the tendency to believe that one’s cultural beliefs and their culture’s ethnic values to be superior to others. We will write a custom essay specifically for you by our professional experts 808 writers online Learn More
  • Stoning in the Twenty-First Century: The Dangers of Cultural Relativism This is another issue that should be considered by people who believe that ethical norms should be assessed within the context of a culture.
  • Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism: America and Other Countries In order not to become self-absorbed, it is necessary to train the sense of cultural relativism in the society and make certain differentiations between the idea of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism.
  • Cultural Relativism and Cultural Values Cultural relativism is the study of the part that values play in shaping cultures in different societies. It is clear that the values held by each different culture create the foundations of their moral structure.
  • Body Ritual Among the Nacirema: Cultural Study For instance, the research by Professor Linton is qualitative in the aspect that it tries to unearth the cultural practices and belief system of the Nacirema people.
  • Cultural Relativism and Ethics: Ethical Issues and Context Indeed, this implies that ethical issues are out of bounds to outsiders in a given culture and it can only be analyzed within the context of the culture in question.
  • James Rachel’s Speech About Cultural Relativism James Rachels argues that this theory considers all the cultural practices to be good and valued according to the view of their adepts. Cultural Relativism is a good theory that enables people to learn various […]
  • Philosophy Issues: Universalism versus Cultural Relativism That being the case, “cultural relativism” is a concept that sees everything to be right or wrong depending on the idea of “cultural expression”.
  • James Rachels’ The Challenge of Cultural Relativism Essay The article “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism” by Rachels explores the issue of ethics. According to Rachels, cultural relativism fails to support the existence of universal moral standards.
  • Ending Cultural and Cognitive Relativism in Special Education The article discusses the negative effects of postmodernism and the need to end it. For instance, there is peaceful coexistence among different religions, races, and ethnic groups because of the willingness of each group to […]
  • Cultural Relativism: Values and Practices The capacity of a country to adhere to these right, as a form of universal necessity for their citizens, can be used as a means of judgment and is often the measure by which countries […]
  • Is Cultural Relativism a Viable Way to Live? This paper aims to discuss the viability of such ethical theory as relativism in the context of the mentioned issues. From the relativist standpoint, such practice is the expression of the different cultural norm which […]
  • Cultural Relativism: Living in Harmony With Nature Relativism calls on to perceive the nature and its inhabitants as neighbors; if it goes about the animals people should try not only to respect but also to protect them from dangerous influence of the […]
  • Cultural Relativism and Subjectivism In its turn, this implies that the carriers of particular culture must be able to operate with highly abstract categories, as it is namely such their ability that creates preconditions for the emergence of civilization […]
  • Cultural Relativism Postulates and Norms The main thrust of cultural relativism is the recognition of the equality of cultural values created and attained by different people.
  • Subjectivism and Cultural Relativism: Objections and Differences The key difference is that relativism relates the human experience to the influence of culture, while subjectivism states that right and wrong is a matter of personal opinion.
  • Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism Differences There are several ways to learn the importance and impact of culture, and the two most common approaches are cultural relativism and ethnocentrism.
  • Researching of Moral and Cultural Relativism It is difficult to say there was an objective moral truth in this situation because the decision was not made independently of their beliefs and feelings.
  • Ethics Studies: Cultural Relativism If the jury applied the subjectivism theory of ethics to the case, the judgment would be based on the feelings of the two individuals and nothing more.
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  • Alexander Gavin’s Dilemma: Cultural Relativism and Business as Usual
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  • Cultural Relativism and Its Impact on Society
  • Problems With Cultural Relativism in Anthropology
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  • Term Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism
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  • The Issues Surrounding Cultural Relativism
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  • Ethical and Cultural Relativism Comparison
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  • Ethics, Cultural Relativism, and Subjective Relativism
  • Cultural Relativism and the Divine Command Theory
  • Anthropological Gender and Sexuality: Cultural Relativism
  • The Two Philosophical Approaches to Ethics: Analyzing Ethical Absolutism and Cultural Relativism
  • Cultural Relativism and Ethical Quagmires
  • Moral Theory: Cultural Relativism
  • Cultural Relativism and Ideological Policymakers in a Dynamic Model With Endogenous Preferences
  • The Cultural Perspective and Cultural Relativism
  • Cultural Relativism of Human Rights
  • Where Do Human Rights and Cultural Relativism Meet?
  • What Is an Example of Cultural Relativism?
  • What Is Cultural Relativism, and Why Is It Important?
  • What Is Cultural Relativism in Your Own Words?
  • What Is an Example of Cultural Relativism in the Philippines?
  • What Is Wrong With Cultural Relativism?
  • Which Is More Objective: Cultural Relativism or Ethnocentrism?
  • What Is the Difference Between Utilitarianism and Cultural Relativism?
  • What Are the Place of Feminism and Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights?
  • What Difference Between Subjectivism and Cultural Relativism?
  • What Similarities and Differences in the Two Worldviews, Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism?
  • Is Ethnocentrism More Objective Than Cultural Relativism?
  • How Do We Play Out in Everyday Life Cultural Relativism?
  • How Is Cultural Relativism Affect the Moral Values of People From Other Cultures?
  • How Is Cultural Relativism Impact the Cultural Perspective?
  • How Is the Connection Between Cultural Relativism and the Moral Code of Society?
  • What Is the Advantage and Disadvantage of Cultural Relativism?
  • What Are the Strength and Weaknesses of Cultural Relativism?
  • How Does Cultural Relativism Preserve Human Culture?
  • What Is the Connection Between Cultural Relativism and Religious Relativism?
  • What Is the Threat to Ethics That Cultural Relativism Poses?
  • What Is Cultural Relativism, and How Can It Shape Our Understanding of Culture?
  • What Are the Consequences of the Cultural Form of Ethical Relativism in Morals?
  • What Can Be Said for Cultural Relativism?
  • What’s Appealing About Cultural Relativism?
  • How Is Ethical and Cultural Relativism Compared and Contrasted With Ethical Absolutism?
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Ethnocentrism And Cultural Relativism Essay Examples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: America , Supreme Court , Criminal Justice , Diversity , Morality , Belief , Behavior , Culture

Words: 1400

Published: 01/01/2020

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More than often, culture is learned, shared and patterned in the society through aspects of enhancing unified cultural institutional change throughout interactions among individuals. Nonetheless, diverse cultures exist in a social environment allows for increased constant interactions between internal and external cultural values that articulates in the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism (Spade & Ballantine, 2012). Even though, it is not easier to accept the beliefs, values and practices of other cultures it is essential not to become judgmental and harsher towards any specific cultural value and norms. More noticeably, ethnocentrism and cultural relativism remains as ways in which individuals from different cultures can understand the perceptions of different cultures that should be grounded in the empirical reality and perceptions with increased relations to socio-cultural differences.

Ethnocentrism is considered as the tendency in which individuals undertake to judge other cultures according to the criteria of an individual’s own culture depending on the level of correctness of their way of life especially those from primitive cultures. In most cases, ethnocentrism makes individuals to either judge others as positive, negative or extremely negative based on their cultural differences (Spade & Ballantine, 2012). On the other hand, cultural relativism is mainly characterized by the idea that different cultures or ethnic groups have to be appraised based on the basis of its own values and norms of behavior. As a result, cultural relativism is more likely to give rational decisions as compared to ethnocentrism as it is based on different cultures as it is not based on the basis of another culture (Ballantine & Roberts, 2012).

As a matter of fact, both ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are similar because they give different perspectives on diverse cultures based on the behaviors and beliefs of other people raised in other cultures. In addition, as measures of cultural differences both ethnocentrism and cultural relativism is based on the notion that allows individuals to view different habits, traits and values of an individual based on relevance another set of different cultural values.

In most cases, ethnocentrism makes individuals to always view their own culture to be more superior to any other culture as they measure other communities’ values, beliefs and practices in relation to their own culture. As a result, ethnocentrism as a way of perceiving different cultures can lead to cultural misinterpretation as it often misrepresents communication between human beings (Ballantine & Roberts, 2012).

On the other hand, cultural relativism remains rational as it enhances the concept of importance of a particular cultural idea as it acknowledges that it varies from one society to another. As a result, cultural relativism allows individuals to view people from different cultures based on varied ethical and moral standards that remain relative to what a particular culture believes to be good or bad, right or wrong. More importantly, cultural relativism allows sociologists to look at a culture and understand it as much as possible before making judgments in accordance with values, norms and morals of a particular culture (Spade & Ballantine, 2012). As a result, cultural relativism gives a wider perspective of diverse cultures, in terms of attaining the finest possible understanding of diverse cultures.

In addition, cultural relativism seeks to understand an individual based on their own culture while ethnocentrism bases itself centrally on an individual’s use of their cultural norms, morals, as well as values to judge and compare other cultures. As a result, individuals tend to view their way of life based on their practices and behaviors in which we think, live and act as correct even though, it indicates a clear deviance from the fact that the internal norms is seen as wrong in other cultures. More significantly, the perspective of other cultures depends on the different three levels of cultural perspective of ethnocentrism that is either a positive one, a negative one, or an extreme negative one. This is because positive ethnocentrism remains coherent, this is because it seeks a point of view that is widely accepted as it is based on an individual’s way of life that remains preferable to all others, as it gives a wider perspective that acknowledges others based on the initiative that there is nothing erroneous with feelings that define different cultures.

Perhaps, the American culture tends to have increased levels of ethnocentrism as compared to cultural relativism as individuals had increased tendency to view their own culture as being superior and apply their cultural values, norms, beliefs and behavior when judging individuals who initially lived or were raised in other cultures (Spade & Ballantine, 2012). In most cases, the idea of not giving diverse cultures an equitable opportunity, propagates as it remains a measure that make Americans become judgmental and harsher towards any specific cultural value and norms (Ballantine & Roberts, 2012). Even though, ethnocentrism seems to discriminate and rationalize individuals from different cultures it is essential to understand that the perceptions of different cultures is grounded in the empirical reality and perceptions with increased relations to socio-cultural differences. On the other hand, it is indispensable to consider that behavior of Americans in terms of other individuals’ standards remains relevant because it is normal for individuals to view actions that take place in other cultures from the codes of their native culture. As a result, there should always remain a perception that gives an assumption of fairness.

More importantly, ethnocentrism has an increased level of influence within the society as it contributes to social solidarity among individuals from the same culture as it creates a sense of value and community especially among the American people who share a cultural tradition (Spade & Ballantine, 2012). However, there is increased likelihood that individuals who judge other based on their relatively familiar expectations and their opinions and customs focus on being right, true, proper, natural and moral. As a result, most of the individuals who interact with the different American culture find the different behavior and beliefs that individuals hold as strange, unnatural, immoral and savage. In most cases, ethnocentrism seeks to believe that individuals who come from other cultures have primitive cultures, as they relate their own way of lives with that of individuals from other cultures. In addition, individuals from the American culture create an instant tendency to believe that some cultures remain more backward in their lack the technology and consumerism in their practices.

Arguably, cultural relativism allows individuals to view people from different cultures based on varied ethical and moral standards. In fact, this remain relative to what a particular culture believes to be bad or good, wrong or right (Spade & Ballantine, 2012). As a result, cultural relativism, as opposed to ethnocentrism allows individuals from within the American culture and outside to look at different cultures and understand each as much as possible before making judgments in accordance with values, norms and morals of a particular culture (Ballantine & Roberts, 2012). More considerably, cultural relativism is mainly characterized by the idea that different culture or ethnic group differ and as a result, has to be appraised based on the center of its own norms and values of behavior. In most cases, cultural relativism is more likely to give rational decisions as compared to ethnocentrism as it is based on different cultures as it is not based on the basis of another culture.

Conclusively, it is essential to always be rational based on judgment given on an individual’s belief, behavior, values and norms to ensure uniformity. In most cases, it is essential to apply the measures of uniformity based in cultural relativism into practice as it easily allows all the nations to develop unique sects of ethnic, as well as cultural norms. As a result, the level of biasness and lack of uniformity from such cultural values that vary depending with individuals from one ethnic group to the other can enhance increased superiority of diverse cultures. More significantly, it is necessary to understand that ethnocentrism gives a tendency in which individuals undertake to judge other cultures according to the criteria of their own culture depending. Without a doubt, cultural relativism is more likely to give rational decisions as compared to ethnocentrism as it is based on different cultures as it is not based on the basis of another culture.

Ballantine, J. & Roberts, K. (2012). Our social world: introduction to sociology. Los Angeles: Sage Publishers.

Spade, J. & Ballantine, J. (2012). Schools and society: a sociological approach to education. Los Angeles: Sage Publishers.

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Home Essay Examples Sociology Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

  • Category Sociology
  • Subcategory Race and Ethnicity
  • Topic Ethnocentrism

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How is Culture Defined?

What if someone told you their culture was the internet? Would that make sense to you? Culture is the beliefs, behaviors, objects, and other characteristics shared by groups of people. Given this, someone could very well say that they are influenced by internet culture, rather than an ethnicity or a society! Culture could be based on shared ethnicity, gender, customs, values, or even objects. Can you think of any cultural objects? Some cultures place significant value in things such as ceremonial artifacts, jewelry, or even clothing. For example, Christmas trees can be considered ceremonial or cultural objects. They are representative in both Western religious and commercial holiday culture.

In addition, culture can also demonstrate the way a group thinks, their practices, or behavioral patterns, or their views of the world. For example, in some countries like China, it is acceptable to stare at others in public, or to stand very close to others in public spaces. In South Africa, if you board a nearly empty bus or enter a nearly empty movie theater, it is regarded as polite to sit next to the only person there. On the other hand, in a recent study of Greyhound bus trips in the US, a researcher found that the greatest unspoken rule of bus-taking is that if other seats are available, one should never sit next to another person. Numerous passengers expressed that “it makes you look weird”. These are all examples of cultural norms that people in one society may be used to. Norms that you are used to are neither right nor wrong, just different. Picture walking into a nearly empty movie theater when visiting another country, and not sitting next to the only person in the theater. Another person walks up and tells you off for being rude. You, not used to these norms, feel confused, and anxious. This disorientation you feel is an example of culture shock.

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Cartoon showing two people in an empty movie theater. One person is saying ‘you’re a jerk’ to the person who sat far away from him.

What is Cultural Relativism?

Have you ever seen or eaten food from another country, such as dried squid or fried crickets and think of it as weird and gross? This is an example of ethnocentrism! That means you use your own culture as the center and evaluate other cultures based on it. You are judging, or making assumptions about the food of other countries based on your own norms, values, or beliefs. Thinking “dried squid is smelly” or “people shouldn’t eat insects” are examples of ethnocentrism in societies where people may not eat dried squid or insects.

Cartoon showing a person offering another man some deep fried crickets. The man who is being offered the crickets says ‘um, I think I’ll pass.’

Is ethnocentrism bad or good? On the one hand, ethnocentrism can lead to negative judgments of the behaviors of groups or societies. It can also lead to discrimination against people who are different. For example, in many countries, religious minorities (religions that are not the dominant religion) often face discrimination. But on the other hand, ethnocentrism can create loyalty among the same social group or people in the same society. For example, during the World Cup or Olympics, you may tend to root for your own country and believe that the players or teams representing your country are much better. National pride is also part of ethnocentrism.

To avoid judging the cultural practices of groups that are different to yours, we can use the cultural relativism approach. Cultural relativism refers to not judging a culture to our own standards of what is right or wrong, strange or normal. Instead, we should try to understand cultural practices of other groups in its own cultural context. For example, instead of thinking, “Fried crickets are disgusting! ” one should instead ask, “Why do some cultures eat fried insects?”. You may learn that fried crickets or grasshoppers are full of protein and in Mexico, it is famous Oaxaca regional cuisine and have been eaten for thousands of years as a healthy food source!

Cartoon showing a person offering another man some deep fried crickets. The man who is being offered the crickets asks to know more about them.

Some people worry that the concept of culture can also be abused and misinterpreted. If one culture behaves one way, does that mean all cultures can behave that way as well? For example, many countries and international organizations oppose the act of whaling (the fishing of whales) for environmental reasons. These environmental organizations say that there are not many whales left and such fishing practices should be stopped. However, other countries argue that whaling is a cultural practice that has been around for thousands of years. Because it may be part of a country’s oceanic culture, this country may say that such a cultural practice should not be opposed based on cultural differences, say, by an inland country that does not understand. Who gets to define what a moral cultural behavior is? Is whaling immoral? Two different cultures may have very different answers, as we saw in the above example. Another more extreme instance would be female genital cutting in some parts of the world. Locally, it is argued that the practice has cultural roots, but such a practice has raised concerns among many international human rights organizations.

Anthropologists say that when we think about different cultures and societies, we should think about their customs in a way that helps us make sense of how their cultural practices fits with their overall cultural context. For example, having several wives perhaps makes economic sense among herders who move around frequently. Through such an understanding, polygamy makes cultural sense.

What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Linguistic Relativism) and How does It Impact Us?

In the 1930s, two anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, noticed that the Hopi Indians in the United States had no words to differentiate between the past, present, and future. This was a surprising discovery. In English, we can easily think of tense and know what time frame someone is referring to. The two scholars found that the way language is used affected the way we think about and perceive the world. In other words, worldviews and cultural influences are largely embedded within the language we use, even if we are saying things like coffee. When we talk about coffee in the US, we would think of a large mug, and the coffee would come from a pot of coffee. When Europeans talk about coffee, they are most likely thinking about little espresso cups filled with strong coffee.

How a language affects the way we think about the world is called linguistic relativism or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Linguistic relativism means that there are certain thoughts we have in one language (e.g. English) that cannot be understood by those who exist in another language context (e.g. Spanish). The way we think is also strongly affected by our native languages. For example, the Inuits (northern aboriginals) have dozens of ways to convey the word snow. In English, how many ways can you think of to express snow? Maybe four or five ways? Snow, flurry, sleet,…?

Let’s think about another everyday example. Imagine that we are watching an American teen movie on TV. The main character walks into the high school cafeteria, and sees the students sitting in a particular arrangement: the jocks, the mean girls, the nerds, the band geeks, the stoners, the goths. If you went to an American high school, you may immediately understand what the groupings mean. However, even among those of you that did go to an American high school, the definition of mean girls may be completely different. Now think, on the other side of the world, a high school student watching this movie in China would be very confused. If you try to explain these groupings to someone outside the linguistic cultural context, it becomes very difficult. Why are people in bands geeks? What is a stoner, can someone be both a nerd and a stoner at the same time?

So, learning a language does not mean only learning words. It also means that we need to learn the cultural contexts that are embedded in the language itself. Languages reflect our cultural experiences. For example, if you hear someone say that ginger is warm food, and melons are chilly food, in English, it may make little sense. However, for those who are well-versed in Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine will likely understand that warm foods would be good for the sniffles or even rheumatoid arthritis, while chilly foods would be good for constipation or mouth ulcers. Sometimes doctors in a US hospital are confused when Chinese language speakers express pain symptoms in English as hot and cold. These are all examples of cultural and linguistic differences and the importance of understanding language and culture.

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Home / Essay Samples / Sociology / Race and Ethnicity / Ethnocentrism

The Concepts of Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

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Anthropology , Race and Ethnicity

Cultural Relativism , Ethnocentrism

  • Words: 481 (1 page)

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Introduction, ethnocentrism, cultural relativism.

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