Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

Given this ‘upside down’ map, consider how the map of the world as we normally see it is ethnocentric. Source
Ethnocentrism – from the Greek ‘ethnos’ and centre

The term was coined in the late 19th Century by the German sociologist Gumplowicz, and soon after popularised by the American sociologist Sumner (Bizumic 2014). Most commonly ethnocentrism is described as a belief that:

  • One’s own ethnic group or culture is at the centre of everything
  • One’s own group is superior to other groups, and all other groups are scaled and rated in reference to it (Etinson 2018, p. 210)

What is often called ethnocentrism’s antithesis, cultural relativism, is meant to overcome ethnocentrism and evolutionist beliefs that there are superior and inferior races and cultures.

Here is a simple explanation of ethnocentrism from Khan Academy, with the example of eating insects.

Everyone is susceptible to ethnocentrism. Like in the video above it can occur in more innocuous ways when we’re like ‘Ewww that’s so weird they do that!,’ but ethnocentrism also occurs in the form of colonialism where people are forced to assimilate into another culture because their culture is deemed morally and otherwise inferior and wrong (Etinson 2018, p. 18).

Another way ethnocentrism is described is not that it is a belief in itself, but that it is a bias that affects the process of forming or maintaining beliefs (Etinson 2018, p.213) . This bias may kick in when:

  • Someone attempts to interpret and evaluate a phenomenon occurring in another culture with limited cultural experience and understanding of that culture
  • Someone projects their cultural experience into a foreign cultural practice blinding them to the underlying values of that practice, which may actually familiar
  • Someone exoticises a foreign culture and over-emphasises differences, sometimes in order to justify colonial domination – two good examples are the early anthropological myth of the ‘noble savage’, and Saïd’s ‘orientalism’
  • Someone dogmatically holds onto a culturally held belief or opinion, for example the role of human activity in causing global warming, despite evidence to the contrary (Etinson 2018, pp. 214-218).

Anthropocentrism - from the Greek 'anthropos' - 'human being' and centre

Gumplowicz compared the term ethnocentrism to geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the centre of the universe, and anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are the most important entity on the earth and in the universe (Etinson 2018).

And while I think ethnocentrism a really important concept to think through in anthropology, if we are to think about the current anthropology we also need to be thinking seriously about anthropocentrism (which I wasn’t introduced to until third year anthro).

But what is anthropology without humans at the centre? … Simply, it exists!

This is what I wish I knew about in first year—the multispecies turn, and more-than-human anthropology. It’s an anthropology that fights against anthropocentrism and the false dichotomy between humans and Nature that follows. Humans and human culture does not exist outside of nature. Humans are entangled is ecological relations with all sorts of non-human beings. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World about the matsutake mushroom is one popular example of an ethnography about these entanglements. In an age that some are calling the Anthropocene we, as anthropologists, need to be more aware than ever of our anthropocentrism!


References:

Bizumic, B 2014, ‘Who Coined the Concept of Ethnocentrism? A Brief Report’, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 3-10.

Etinson, A 2018, ‘Some Myths about Ethnocentrism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 96, no. 2, pp. 209-224.

See also:

Sarah and my post on the ‘Anthropo Scene’ Part I and Part II

Dyan’s post on cultural relativism

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