The present world consists of a variety of unique cultures. The differences and similarities observed between various cultures determine the way the people of those cultures interact with each other. The way individuals perceive other cultural practices can be broadly segregated into two types – cultural relativism and ethnocentrism.
All people are the same; it’s only their habits that are different.
A culture consists of a group of people that possess specific traditions, language, belief system, customs, hierarchy, food, music, and literature. It may also possess subcultures within it, with their own unique and distinct characteristics. While each culture has specific and unique traits, there exist some traits that are found universally across all cultures of the world. Such characters are called cultural universals. Some examples of such universals include adorning one’s body with ornaments, concepts of privacy, respect, and morality, etc.
The unique qualities of each culture influences the reasoning of an individual and plays a role in shaping the way that individual perceives the world and other cultures in it. Based on this subjective perception of other cultures, two types of views emerge when one compares two or more cultures. They are cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. These views are based on how one judges other cultures that are not one’s own, and the practices and customs which are foreign in nature. These two viewpoints are essentially distinct but do share a few similarities between them.
What is Ethnocentrism?
William G. Summer, an American academic, introduced this term and defined it as “the technical name for the 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”. He further clarified that such a view would lead to a sense of pride, vanity, superiority over others, and contempt towards those that are not a part of that group. Ethnocentric individuals believe that their own ethnicity is centrally important and all other cultures and ethnicity must be judged according to the standards of their own culture. Distinctions are made between different cultures based on language, behavior, customs, traditions, religion, etc. These distinctions and subjective comparisons impart a cultural identity to each ethnicity.
What is Cultural Relativism?
The idea was formulated by Franz Boas; however, the term was later introduced by the social theorist, Alan Locke in 1924. Cultural relativism is a view that a culture must be judged according to its own cultural standards. It proposes that all cultures have their own merits and demerits, and hence are of equal value such that there is no concept of cultural superiority. For instance, a particular practice may seem immoral or unethical according to the beliefs of a different culture, but those same practices may be perfectly acceptable and normal with respect to its own culture. This concept was developed to attempt to overcome ethnocentric bias when conducting anthropological studies. It also proposes that no culture has the right to judge another culture’s customs and practices and that a culture must be understood in its own terms rather than by the standards of a foreign culture.
Similarities and Differences
❥ Both these viewpoints or concepts present extremist views, i.e. while ethnocentrism leans towards intolerance, cultural relativism leans towards incredibly high tolerance of cultural features.
❥ These views involve examining a culture and all its aspects and evaluating them. The basis for evaluation differs according to the view employed.
❥ Both views present negative connotations. Ethnocentrism in its extreme form gives rise to racism and supremacist (e.g., the holocaust), while cultural relativism allows the propagation of certain practices that violate basic human rights (e.g., the practice of female genital mutilation).
❥ In terms of sensitivity, ethnocentrism is insensitive to other cultures, while cultural relativism shows high cultural sensitivity.
Due to the extremist nature of both theories, anthropologists employ a strategy that is a sort of middle ground between these two viewpoints. This is so, because it is almost impossible to be unbiased while comparing cultures. The bias may be due to one’s own cultural beliefs or due to the individual’s understanding and perception of human rights and ethics. Hence, no theory is strictly enforced during cultural studies, therefore allowing one to understand another culture without the need to approve or disapprove of it.