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Ethnocentrism is a term that passed from the social sciences into broader English discourse during the twentieth century. In current usage, it means culturally biased judgment, i.e., applying the frame of reference provided by one’s culture to an object, action, person, or group of a diﬀerent culture. The term as introduced by William Graham Sumner in his seminal treatise Folkways (Sumner 1906) was explicitly sociological and included biased judgment as one of several features in a theory linking group solidarity with intergroup antagonism as a universal characteristic of human societies. Sumner’s theory inﬂuenced research on ethnic relations and nationalism during the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. Later, the critique of Sumner by Merton and Rossi (1957) gave attention to the concept of ethnocentrism as problematic in social research, and LeVine and Campbell (1972) used the term as a rubric under which to review theories of intergroup relations and attitudes and to construct a framework for comparative research on the subject. By the end of the century, however, interest in ethnocentrism as a sociological concept had waned, even as the adjective ‘ethnocentric’ was commonly used as a descriptor or epithet in discussions of intercultural attitudes.
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Sumner’s brief but dense and multifaceted discussion of ethnocentrism in Folkways remains a primary source of theory on this subject. Although Sumner acknowledged previous work by the Austrian sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz, and Coser (1956) has cited Marx and other earlier theorists for certain aspects of ethnocentrism, Sumner himself may have coined the term ethnocentrism (as well as ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’) and was responsible for endowing it with wide-ranging theoretical implications for the social sciences:
The conception of ‘primitive society’ which we ought to form is that of small groups scattered over a territory. … A group of groups may have some relation to each other … which draws them together and diﬀerentiates them from others. Thus a diﬀerentiation arises between ourselves, the we-group, or in-group, and everybody else, or the others-group, outgroups. The insiders in a we-group are in a relation of peace, order, law, government and industry, to each other. Their relation to all outsiders, or others-groups, is one of war and plunder, except so far as agreements have modiﬁed it … .
… Sentiments in the in-group and towards the out-group. The relation of comradeship and peace in the we-group and that of hostility and war towards others-groups are correlative to each other. The exigencies of war with outsiders are what makes peace inside, lest internal discord should weaken the we-group for war. These exigencies also make government and law in the in-group, in order to prevent quarrels and enforce discipline. Thus war and peace have reacted on each other and developed each other, one within the group, the other in the intergroup relation. … Sentiments are produced to correspond. Loyalty to the group, sacriﬁce for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, war likeness without—all group together, common products of the same situation. These relations and sentiments constitute a social philosophy. It is sanctiﬁed by connection with religion.
… Virtue consists in killing, plundering, and enslaving outsiders.
… Ethnocentrism is the technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it. Folkways correspond to it to cover both the inner and the outer relation. Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exalts its own divinities, and look with contempt on outsiders. Each group thinks its own folkways the only right ones, and if it observes that other groups have other folkways, these excite its scorn. Opprobrious epithets are derived from these diﬀerences. ‘Pig-eater’, ‘cow-eater’, ‘uncircumcised’, ‘jabberers’, are epithets of contempt and abomination. The Tupis called the Portuguese by a derisive epithet descriptive of birds which have feathers around their feet, on account of trousers. … For our present purpose the most important fact is that ethnocentrism leads a people to exaggerate and intensify everything in their own folkways which is peculiar and which diﬀerentiates them from others. It therefore strengthens the folkways (Sumner 1906, pp. 12–13).
This passage shows both the scope of Sumner’s discussion—covering attitudes and stereotypes as well as social relationships, organizational features and warfare—and his commitment to the theory that ingroup–outgroup dynamics generate internal solidarity and cultural coherence as well as hostility and warfare. Sumner claimed these dynamics and the concomitant attitudes to be universal in human societies, although he was aware that not all peoples were warlike. Social scientists before and after Sumner discovered many of the same phenomena in their own research, but his inﬂuential passage became a point of reference for subsequent social theory and research on war and peace, ethnic relationships, and intergroup conﬂicts and attitudes.
Ethnocentrism as a process simultaneously promoting ingroup solidarity and outgroup hostility has been described at diﬀerent levels, in many places and historical periods, not only by sociologists and anthropologists but also by political scientists, historians, and journalists. It is as familiar now, particularly in ethnic politics, as it was in Sumner’s time. But Sumner’s theoretical claims have been criticized and largely rejected by sociologists and anthropologists. Merton and Rossi (1957), in formulating the sociological theory of reference groups, pointed out that individuals often belong to, or wish to belong to, more than one group, making the ingroup–outgroup boundary ambiguous and the outgroup often an object of admiration rather than contempt. They argued that the ethnocentrism syndrome as Sumner formulated it should be seen as a special case of human intergroup relations rather than universal, as he claimed.
Anthropologists have been similarly critical. Describing many parts of the world where ethnic groups do not have bounded territories and individuals and groups change ethnic aﬃliation, anthropologists cast serious doubt on generalizations presuming that human groups have clear boundaries and stable membership (Leach 1954, Barth 1956, 1969, Goody 1956, Moerman 1965, LeVine and Campbell 1972, pp. 81–113). Furthermore, the threat-dependent ethnic and national identities that Sumner assumed were products of a natural human tendency have increasingly been seen by anthropologists as deliberately constructed by leaders to gain adherents and seize power. Finally, it now seems likely that the intense nationalism and threatening military competition of the Western world in 1906 predisposed Sumner and his readers to accept ethnocentrism as a universal fact of human social life in advance of the comparative evidence. With better evidence and a diﬀerent experience of international relations, we are less inclined to accept his theory.
Thus the sociology of Sumner’s ethnocentrism syndrome, viewed in the light of recent evidence and newer perspectives, seems a dated fallacy of early twentieth century social science. The central problem has been that without clear and stable boundaries between ingroup and outgroup, the question of whether ingroup solidarity and outgroup hostility are consistently interdependent cannot be unequivocally answered. Group boundaries, if they ever were clear, have become more and more blurred as international migration and communication have intensiﬁed. Sumner’s concept, as he generalized it, is not an accurate guide to the real world, but the question arises, if Sumner’s formulation of the ethnocentrism syndrome has no merit as social theory, why does it seem so familiar as ethnographic description? How it is that, despite globalization, the contemporary world produces so many examples of conﬂict between ethnic groups diﬀering in language, religion, and other customary practices, with mutual disparagement and threat-dependent solidarity escalating to intergroup violence? Answering this question through social research requires the investigation of the ethnocentrism syndrome as a contingent historical phenomenon, examining in detail how the ideological and organizational patterns to which Sumner called attention have emerged in particular cases and how long they have lasted.
The term ethnocentrism remains in use to refer to culturally biased judgment, the act of applying the frame of reference from one’s own culture to someone or something belonging to another culture. The Dictionary of Anthropology (Barﬁeld 1997, p. 55) deﬁnes ethnocentrism as ‘the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others, which is often accompanied by a tendency to make invidious comparisons. In a weaker form, ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at other cultures through the ﬁlter of one’s own cultural presuppositions.’ As in Sumner’s examples in the passage quoted, ethnocentric judgments are usually derisive epithets, in which outgroup practices that deviate from ingroup norms form the basis for an insulting characterization: ‘pig-eaters,’ ‘uncircumcised,’ ‘jabberers.’ This can reﬂect a naıve form of ethnocentrism, called phenomenal absolutism by Segall et al. (1966), in which a person unreﬂectively takes his own culture’s values as objective reality and automatically uses them as the context in which he judges less familiar objects and events. Alternatively, it can reﬂect a judgment made with full knowledge of cultural variability, but with an equally or even more scornful attitude. An ethnocentric judgment can be treated as a cognitive phenomenon, but it has emotional component as well. In its cultural form it is usually called an ethnic stereotype. Such stereotypes were intensively studied in American social psychology before and after World War II, up to the mid- 1950s (Allport 1954). Since then, there has been relatively little research on ethnic stereotypes, but the concepts of ethnocentrism and stereotypes are still widely used in the mass media, in programs of training in intercultural communication, and in public discussions of racial prejudice and ethnic relations. The teaching of anthropology, through publications as well as in the classroom, is often justiﬁed by its role in reducing the ethnocentric attitudes of Western populations.
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