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Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that one's ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one's own. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behavior, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity.[1]

The term ethnocentrism was coined by William G. Sumner, upon observing the tendency for people to differentiate between the ingroup and others. He described it as often leading to pride, vanity, beliefs of one's own group's superiority, and contempt of outsiders.[2]

Anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski argued that any human science had to transcend the ethnocentrism of the scientist. Both urged anthropologists to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in order to overcome their ethnocentrism. Boas developed the principle of cultural relativism and Malinowski developed the theory of functionalism as guides for producing non-ethnocentric studies of different cultures. The books The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia, by Malinowski, Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict and Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead (two of Boas's students) are classic examples of anti-ethnocentric anthropology.


Theoretical underpinnings

Ethnocentrism occurs when one culture or nation places itself at the top of an imagined hierarchy of cultures and nations and subsequently assigns other cultures and nations equivalent or lower value on that scale. The idea that Nation 'A' is intrinsically 'better' than any other is inculcated in the population until it becomes naturalized', that is, a commonly held belief that Nation 'A' has always been the best. It has never been any other way, and that all other nations can be judged according to the model Nation 'A' represents. Nation 'A' is the center and all other ethnicities must strive to emulate it in order to move up in the imaginary hierarchy.

An example ethnocentrism is provided by Elizabeth Spelman in her work 'Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought' in which she deems feminist legal theory as 'feminist ethnocentrism'. This is the belief in superiority of the feminist movement in that they speak for all women, which in reality, proves to be very different.

However, it is not unusual for people to consider that whatever they believe is the most appropriate system of belief or that however they behave is the most appropriate and 'natural' behavior. To be fair, a system of belief in which someone doesn't consider his or her own as the right one is inherently inconsistent, for it is admitting its own falseness. With this in mind, it is important to examine the bases for our beliefs regarding other cultures and nations: Emmanuel Levinas's philosophical 'Other'.

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