Ethnocentrism is a cultural attitude or viewpoint that takes a particular ethnic group or culture as the standard or center of reference for evaluating other ethnic groups or cultures. It may have moral, epistemological, aesthetic, social, and political dimensions.
According to The Random House College Dictionary (2010), ethnocentrism is “the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture,” or “a tendency to view alien groups or cultures from the perspective of one’s own.”1
According to Robert LeVine and Donald Campbell (1972), ethnocentrism may also be described as an “an attitude or outlook in which values derived from one’s own cultural background are applied to other cultural contexts where different values are operative.”2
One argument that may therefore be made against ethnocentrism is that it may lead to misinterpretation of the beliefs and practices of cultures different from one’s own. If one takes one’s own culture as a standard or center of reference for interpreting the beliefs and practices of other cultures, then one may misinterpret the meaning of the beliefs and practices of those cultures. The habits and practices of other cultures may have a different meaning from the same or similar habits and practices in one’s own culture.
Another argument that may be made against ethnocentrism is that is it may be based on an attitude of cultural superiority or an attitude that one's own culture is somehow more advanced and civilized than other cultures. It may therefore express disrespect of people who belong to other cultures, and it may deny the importance of cultural pluralism to the development of a democratic and truly pluralistic society.
Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may be a rejection of any efforts to promote multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism. Thus, it may become a kind of cultural or linguistic imperialism. It may become an effort to enforce the use of only one language, the language of the dominant ethnic group or culture, in public discourse. It may become an effort to eradicate bilingual or multilingual education. It may become an effort to accord second-class citizenship to those who are not native speakers of the culturally dominant language of a society.
Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may be a form of cultural chauvinism (perhaps a zealous and unquestioning advocacy of the virtues of one’s own culture, as well as a denial that one’s own culture has any possible faults or shortcomings), and it may also be a form of cultural exceptionalism (an attitude that one's own culture is morally, aesthetically, or politically exceptional and should therefore be regarded as a moral, aesthetic, or political standard for other cultures).
Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may be based on racism. It may express a particular racial or ethnic group’s attitude of superiority in relation to other racial or ethnic groups, and it may lead to a particular group’s efforts to subordinate other racial or ethnic groups it views as inferior.
Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may tend to promote right-wing nationalism, militarism, and xenophobia. It may lead to efforts to prevent immigration to a country, and to efforts to expel immigrants and foreigners from a country. It may also, in the most extreme cases, lead to military aggression, ethnic violence, forcible appropriation of land from ethnic groups or indigenous communities, genocide, and ethnic cleansing (by mass murder, deportation, and forcible displacement of local populations).
LeVine and Campbell (1972) explain that the fixity or fluidity of ethnic boundaries may depend on such factors as the degree to which ethnic communities are culturally similar or dissimilar, the degree to which they are (geographically or socially) proximate to or remote from one another, the degree to which they change or remain the same in their linguistic and cultural characteristics, and the degree to which community members agree or disagree about the assignment of community labels or boundaries.3
Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartman (2007) also explain that ethnicity and race may overlap, and that these two social categories may share many features in common (such as group identity based on putative common ancestry, on claims of shared history, and on shared symbols of peoplehood).4 Racial groups may be, but are not necessarily, ethnic groups,5 and ethnic groups may sometimes be ascribed the same kinds of characteristics as are ascribed to racial groups.6 Each of the commonly designated racial groups may include multiple ethnicities (for example, white Americans of European descent include British Americans, Irish Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, and other ethnic groups). Many individuals also identify themselves as biracial or multiracial or multiethnic.
Richard Burkey (1978) explains that relations of domination or subordination between racial or ethic groups may be established or maintained by the use of racial or ethnic discrimination, by racist or anti-ethnic ideology, and by inequitable institutional practices. A means of rectifying such relations is the promotion of racial and ethnic group integration, and another means of rectifying such relations is the promotion of social and cultural pluralism.7
1Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, 2010.
2Robert A. LeVine and Donald T. Campbell, Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes, and Group Behavior (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1972), p. 1.
3Ibid., pp. 81-109.
4Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartman, Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 2007), p. 33.
5Ibid., p. 26.
6Ibid., p. 33
7Richard M. Burkey, Ethnic & Racial Groups: The Dynamics of Dominance (Menlo Park: Cummings Publishing Company, 1978), p. 2.