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Ethnocentrism, the tendency to place one’s own tribe, race, or country at the center of human affairs as superior to others, can be exemplified by the Western colonialism of the past five hundred years. But ethnocentrism is hardly limited to the West; it can be found throughout the world in other cultures’ attitudes toward religious, racial, linguistic, and ethnic groups.
- Ethnocentrism in China
- East and West
Ethnocentrism has existed in virtually all societies in human history. To feel superior to other peoples requires that one is aware of others beyond one’s national or cultural boundaries. To feel superior to other peoples also requires that one knows enough about others to judge their civilization or way of life as inferior to one’s own. Therefore, for ethnocentrism to take root and flourish, engagement with the world outside is necessary. A society that lacks the economic, military, or human resources to step outside its borders and do business with other peoples, whether through trade, conquest, or otherwise, cannot easily be labeled “ethnocentric,” even if it is concerned primarily or solely with itself.
During the last two centuries Western colonialism placed much of the globe under the control of European countries or their transplants. Along with the political and military dimensions of colonialism, the colonizers often took it upon themselves to “improve” the subject peoples on the assumption that Western cultural values and social structures are superior to those of the subject peoples. The nineteenth-century English politician Thomas Macaulay justified, for example, the “anglicizing” of India on the grounds that “one shelf of a Western library” had more to offer than centuries of Eastern knowledge and literature. French colonizers regarded la mission civilisatrice (“civilizing mission,” the weaning of the natives from their primitive ways) as an integral part of their work in their colonies. Ethnocentrism certainly provided Europeans with a handy justification for their policies. Darwinist ideas during the late nineteenth century provided an argument to those people who believed that only the best, which generally meant their own nation, would survive and prosper over all others.
Ethnocentrism in China
Ethnocentric worldviews have not, however, been limited to European colonists in the modern era. The Chinese name for their country, the Middle Kingdom, encapsulates the historical perspective that all those people outside its borders were barbarians who lacked the skills and civilization of the Chinese. This perspective applied to the numerous tribes of Central Asia, most famously the Mongols, whom the Chinese regarded as a constant threat to their way of life. When the British came to China during the eighteenth century to trade, and their emissary George Macartney refused to kowtow to the emperor, clearly strong feelings of ethnic superiority existed on both sides. Chinese attitudes changed, however, during the nineteenth century as the country was subjected to military defeats and humiliating treaties, and Chinese intellectuals sought to introduce Western-style reforms and openly acknowledged the inadequacy of traditional Chinese ideas in dealing with the challenges at hand. Ethnocentrism is dependent on the power that a certain group exercises in regard to others. Ethnocentric views need to be asserted and displayed to those who are being looked down upon.
East and West
The discussion of ethnocentrism has taken a new turn during the last two decades with the appearance of the Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s ideas on Orientalism (an ethnocentric Western regard of Asian peoples) and the subsequent application of these ideas to areas beyond the scope of Said’s study. Western knowledge of and attitudes toward non-Western peoples, according to Said, have been linked to Western dominance and power, both during the colonial era and after. Western representations of the East have been, his argument goes, both the cause and the result of the unequal power relationship between the two during the last two hundred years. The East has been depicted as irrational, despotic, and backward in contrast to the rational, democratic, and progress-oriented West. Ethnocentric and racist attitudes have certainly played a role in this depiction. Although the point of Said’s accusations has been widely acknowledged in scholarship and efforts have been made to rectify it, Orientalism arguably continues unabated in the news and popular media.
Although most people would regard ethnocentrism as undesirable, its close derivatives, such as nationalism, are often viewed positively. The explanation for this difference lies in part in the conflation (fusion) of ethnocentrism and racism, with racism clearly being a negative trait. Nationalism, on the other hand, does not always imply a race-based affiliation, although it, too, limits itself to a certain group to the exclusion of all others.
Ethnocentrism does not, however, always require an international context. Within the borders of a state, one racial or cultural or religious group can exercise power over others. Although European or white domination over others comes immediately to mind, this is by no means the only example. The disenfranchisement or even persecution of religious, linguistic, and ethnic minorities is widespread in both Western and non-Western countries in the modern world. Although this phenomenon is often not called “ethnocentrism,” mainly because it is occurring within the same “people,” its characteristics and impact are not very different from those of ethnocentrism in an international context.
Today people see multiculturalism, whether voluntary or encouraged or required by a government, as a desirable attitude in dealings with members of other groups. It denotes an openness to and appreciation of other cultures. Multiculturalism, so defined, is the opposite of ethnocentrism. Multiculturalism is not a purely twentieth-century phenomenon. It was a component, perhaps by a different name, of the worldview of Romantics (proponents of a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating during the eighteenth century) such as the German philosopher and theologian Johann Herder, who respected and valued all cultures around the world, including “native” cultures that were evidently not at the same stage of historical development as those of the West. Multiculturalism in this case coexisted with a clear sense of being “above” certain other groups. Although modern multiculturalism is directed against biases, prejudices, and negativity toward other cultures, ethnocentrism, as an instinctual tendency to band together with people like oneself, may be hard to eliminate by social policy or decree. Perhaps the best hope lies in the interconnections and cross-cultural contacts that increasingly define our world and force us to recognize how critical members of other groups are to our own physical and even cultural well-being.
- Koepke, W. (Ed.). (1982). Johann Gottfried Herder: Innovator through the ages. Bonn, Germany: Herbert Grundmann.
- Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
- Smith, A. (1986). The ethnic origins of nations. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell.
- Spence, J. (1990). The search for modern China. New York: Norton.
- Wolpert, S. (2000). A new history of India. New York: Oxford University Press.