Saturday, July 14, 2012


: characterized by or based on the attitude that one's own group is superior

Ethnocentrism as a word in the English language, or any other language as far as I know, did not exist until it was coined in 1906 by the Sociologist William Sumner in his book, Folkways. It grew out of the question of cultural relativism first brought up in Anthropology by Franz Boas in 1887. Boas argued that as human cultures were so varied over time and location the behavior exhibited in them could only be understood relative to the cultural context in which it was found. Ethnocentrism is also intimately related to questions of race or national character.

You will note that both of these concepts only rose into prominence after the horrors of Western-European colonialism had raged for more than 400 years. I don’t believe the full importance of the role ethnocentrism played in both the motivation for colonialism, and the almost unbelievable brutality associated with it, has been fully appreciated or acknowledged. It is possible that if they had, things may have been somwhat different.But that is for another time and a more ambitious project (that I am currently working on).

It seems to be true that most people in most cultures tend to believe their own way of life is superior to others. It could be argued, however, that while American music, jeans, coca cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other products have spread so rapidly around the globe this might indicate otherwise. But the fact that so many people appear to want the material goods and technology of the U.S. (a bigger slice of the pie, so to speak), does not necessarily mean they want to truly be like us. Often foreign items introduced into a culture are modified and used in different ways and many adaptations can occur that do not change more important values and customs in the most fundamental ways. This can be seen in many cultures that have adopted certain features of American culture but still maintain their basic lifeways, and also in the failure of multiculturalism in most European nations. Although we in the U.S. do have occasional problems with immigrants who try to cling to their native traditions that conflict with American laws and customs, multiculturalism has not failed in the U.S. in the same way it has in Europe. This is probably due to the fact that we have a longer tradition of accepting a greater variety of different immigrations, we have a long tradition of being a kind of melting pot, and it is easier in many ways for immigrants to assimilate.

Be that as it may, what I wish to suggest here is that (1) ethnocentrism is still an active force in human affairs, especially Western-European ethnocentrism, and (2) ethnocentrism is so ingrained in the United States it has virtually been institutionalized. With respect to the first point, Germany has been criticized for not wanting to help countries like Greece and Spain. I am not the first person to observe this has to do with beliefs in (especially) Germany, but other Northern countries in Europe as well, about the relative inferiority of Southern countries. Greeks, Italians, and Spaniards are generally believed to be somewhat lazy, unwilling to work as hard as Northerners, are less well-organized and efficient, and so on. The concept of ethnocentrism has this element of inferiority built into it, as inferiority has to be the logical corollary of the belief in superiority.

With respect to the second point above, there has been expressed by some in the U.S. that we are in danger of becoming like Greece. In fact a Republican strategist, Rich Galen just argued that if States accept the Medicaid expansion they will end up like Greece, Spain, or Italy! This fear is not simply based on the fact that these countries are in financial difficulty, after all our own finances are not without serious problems. There is the obsessive and completely irrational fear of socialism (as these countries are supposed to represent), but there is also the lingering doubts about the inferiority of some groups as opposed to others. You will remember our immigration history has a lot to do with restrictive quotas for Southern Europeans, Asians, and others. Don’t forget the “Shanty Irish,” the “Dagos,” the Chinese and Japanese, and previously even Catholics and Jews. Now, of course, the greatest problem is the influx of those from south of the border. Immigration into European countries is quite different from our experience. Most of the immigration is relatively recent and was a response to shortages in countries like France and Germany as a result of WWII. And In some cases the influx has made substantial difference in the ratio of immigrants to the host populations. Our larger host population and our already vast diversity have made our immigration problem quite different.

In any case, I doubt there is any country more ethnocentric than the United States, although some smaller countries with completely homogenous populations, and perhaps even Japan, might be. We wear our ethnocentrism as a badge of honor. We boast constantly about American exceptionalism, America the beautiful, and being the great “Beacon on the Hill,” the richest nation on earth, about being the greatest democracy, about our military might, and about having to be the world’s policeman. We can’t be bothered to learn other languages, have no interest in other legal systems, and fear being “Europeanised.” We insist on spreading democracy around the world (whether anyone wants it or not), we have the best educational system, the best health care, the best products, are the greatest innovators, and, in short, are the crème de la crème, the apex of civilization, the top of the food chain, the “cat’s meow.” The fact that almost none of this is true, and if it was once true is not anymore, does not keep us from cherishing and repeating these American myths. I am compelled to remind you that “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

H. L. Mencken

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