Ethnocentrism Essay

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Coined by William Graham Sumner in 1906, ethnocentrism is a type of bias that results from viewing one’s own ethnic group and culture as superior to others. In contrast to cultural relativism, an ethnocentric perspective holds its own ethnic group and culture as the universal standard by which to judge all other cultures.

At times, an ethnocentric sense of superiority is a conscious, arrogant attitude with respect to ”foreign” and ”strange” customs, norms, beliefs, values, and ideas – a self-righteous conviction that one’s cultural way of seeing and doing is the only way and the best way. Other times, ethnocentrism is an unconscious worldview that blinds one to alternative ways of living, thinking, acting, and being in the world, limiting one’s imagination about the scope of human possibilities.

In many cases, ethnocentrism is an unintended product of a cultural upbringing with little exposure to ethnic and cultural diversity. Often, it is compounded by xenophobia, which fears the unfamiliar and leads to prejudice and discrimination toward out-groups. Throughout human history, ethnocentrism in its extreme forms has led to violent conflicts and genocide.

Postmodern critics have discussed the ways in which ethnocentrism pervades many ”western” ideals of the Enlightenment and its faith in rationality and human evolutionary progress, coupled with the doctrine of Social Darwinism, which proposes that biological natural selection (misunderstood as ”survival of the fittest”) should be applied to human societies. According to this ethnocentric viewpoint, the strongest human societies should allow the weakest peoples to die out, or even kill them, to relieve the strain of a quickly multiplying human population on increasingly scarce resources.

”Orientalism,” discussed by Edward Said, is a particular kind of ethnocentrism that feminizes non-western cultures as ”exotic,” ”irrational,” ”emotional,” and everything that the west is not, in order to justify western colonial and imperial interventions. To be sure, ethnocentric elements have saturated the field of international development policies, programs, and practices, with ”first world” nation-states being held up as social, political, and economic models for the rest of the world to follow and imitate regardless of the diversity of cultural settings, histories, realities, and visions of what ”development” might mean to it.


  1. Escobar, A. (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking ofthe Third World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  2. Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. Pantheon, New York.
  3. Sumner, W. G. (1906) Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. Ginn, Boston, MA.

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