Ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s own set of values and beliefs is superior to others’, has always had negative connotations. It is often cited as the main cause of many social problems, such as wars, oppression and slavery, among others.
For example, Hitler and the Nazis believed that the Aryan race is superior to the Jews. Hence there was the Holocaust, where millions of Jews died.
Furthermore, Catton (1960) talks about how ethnocentrism is an important part of patriotism. Hence, he said that “war is like magic”. People go to war not because they believe that it can provide solutions for their problems.
According to Charon (2007), ethnocentrism is defined as the “perception of others through the lens” of one’s own culture, followed by the judgment of others using the standard of one’s culture. To him, ethnocentrism is inevitable. It comes about naturally when a group of people share lives together till they develop a likeness among themselves in the way they relate to each other, in their language, in their values and other areas. In a nutshell, social interaction gives rise to ethnocentrism.
When linking ethnocentrism with social problems such as war, slavery and exploitation, Charon (2007) said that the former may encourage the latter, but it is also true that social problems give rise to ethnocentrism as well.
For example, the institution of slavery in many parts of the world was formed for economic gain, but it led to racism. Racism, “inspired by ethnocentrism”, is meant to “justify and protect the institution”.
However, ethnocentrism has its important functions as well.
Even though it may cause external conflicts, it creates internal unity. It also makes individuals feel more certain about their beliefs. Through providing individuals with a sense of belonging to a particular community, ethnocentrism enables social order. Societies need that kind of solidarity and order so as to continue (Charon, 2007).
Taking the example of Hitler and the Nazis again, after World War I, Hitler managed to unite the whole of Germany despite economic depression and low morale. He took advantage of the feelings of nationalism and led them to become a powerful aggressor in World War II.
Another example is Singapore. Singapore’s firm belief in the practice of pragmatism and meritocracy has seen the country make tremendous economic progress from being a Third World country to a First World nation.
Perhaps the best example to portray the good and bad of ethnocentrism is the bumiputra policy in Malaysia.
On one hand, the policy highlights the special status of the Malays and gives them special privileges that other races do no get to enjoy. This builds a sense of solidarity among the Malay race and cements the loyalty of Malays towards the country.
However, this policy has also led to racial tensions among other races, such as the demonstrations put up by the Indians who believe that the government is treating them unfairly and the offensive remarks made by an UMNO official about the Chinese. And the different political parties are using this racial tension to advance their political interests.
In a nutshell, ethnocentrism is a double-edged sword. It is inevitable and may even be beneficial to some extent, but it does not mean that we ignore its potential to do harm to society and other cultures.
Catton, W. (1960). The functions and dysfunctions of ethnocentrism. JSTOR. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://www.jstor.org/pss/798910.
Charon, J.M. (2007). Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective. (6th ed.). Belmont: Thomson.