Ethnocentrism Essay

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The concept of ethnocentrism is as far-reaching as the formation of culture. The term was coined from the work of politics and social science professor William Sumner in describing how an individual from within any body of people will see a particular way of acting as fundamentally right. Ethnocentric behavior is displayed by individuals who will elevate their own cultural norms over those of other cultures. They will be familiar and feel closeness with certain practices within their own group, feel kinship with those who are allied to them, and will judge the different behaviors of those individuals who are from outside groups.

Ethnocentrism is not something which the individual is always self-conscious of; rather, many critics suggest that all humans function with varying degrees of bias, of which they are often unaware. Such a skew of perception can lead to the formation of xenophobic and racist modes of thought and practice within social and political institutions, and can lead to biased work being presented as objective within the social sciences.

Increasing consciousness and awareness of ethnocentric thought can decrease the occurrence of destructive behavior between groups. This is accomplished in a variety of techniques that allow individuals from within one group or culture to be critical of the way they picture others, allowing them to more accurately perceive differences in behavior as nonthreatening.

History of Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism was founded upon Sumner’s idea of “folkways”—a conception of the ways in which individuals act to serve the interests central to groups of which they are a part. His argument was then that the vast majority of social decisions made by an individual would be governed by these interests, and the individual would be influenced to comply with particular ways of doing. Sumner coined the term ethnocentrism to describe the behavior of the influenced individual: that they were acting in alignment with a group and that they would perceive their group as being superior to others. This definition of ethnocentrism framed it as something fundamental to the human experience, innate to the behavior of the individual, and prevalent within the formation of any society. Such a bias of preference to one’s own group was to be seen as ever-present and unavoidable, taught to each society’s young by their elders.

Scholarship on ethnocentric thought and behavior attributes its origin to various causes. Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam split the rationale behind these origins into four major categories:

  1. Ethnocentrism becomes manifest as a result of conflict between groups.
  2. Ethnocentrism is the result of forcing internalized psychological dissatisfaction onto the presence of the other.
  3. Ethnocentrism serves as a means of validation for the individual.
  4. Ethnocentrism occurs as an evolved human trait.

Ethnocentrism and Intergroup Dynamics

Sumner’s definition of ethnocentrism functions on a two-group perception of human social interaction, that individuals will perceive themselves as a part of an in-group and others as being a part of an out-group. In an attempt to control resources, humans will develop feelings of solidarity across their in-group, working to defend and protect assets. Conflict comes to rise when the out-group seeks access to the same resources as the in-group. Each group feels entitlement for the resources and is threatened by the presence of the other. As they build solidarity within their own ranks, conflict mounts between the two groups. As the in-group perceives the out-group increasingly as a threat and multiple conflicts develop, the in-group will begin to react to the out-group with sentiments of hostility and generalized prejudice.

Psychology and Ethnocentrism

The split between dominant in-groups and ostracized out-groups in recent history can be seen in terms of the exclusionary authoritarian personality. As studied by Theodor Adorno in the 1950s, and later developed in the work of Karen Stennner and Stanley Feldman in the 1990s and 2000s, authoritarians—those who highly value group authority and uniformity—are inclined to work from in-groups with positions of political power to establish out-groups as undesirable. Authoritarians are likely to perceive these “alien” out-groups in negative, intolerant language, and act out against them in a manner of general disdain. Such research in psychology intimates that ethnocentric thought is rooted in a particular authoritarian personality, although ethnocentric behavior is made manifest in other contexts.

Ethnocentrism and Identity

Social psychology also contributed to the understanding of ethnocentric thought and behavior. In his work in the 1980s on social identity theory, Henri Tajfel examined the ways in which favoritism plays out within groups with anonymous membership, low conflict, and no motivation for self-interest. By excluding factors present in authoritarian personality theory and group conflict, the resulting favoritism Tajfel observed could mainly be attributed to the individual’s need for recognition of a positive self-identity. The individual would then act as a group; without any greater community for identification or self-recognition, the individual would begin categorizing the others they encounter as similar and dissimilar to the identity they constructed for themselves, thus giving themselves a framework by which to read themselves and others as exhibiting various degrees of belonging. These experiments provide less example for the hostility that is faced by the out-group, but are a strong representation of the manner in which individuals are innately predisposed toward elevating the group to which they experience belonging. This is integral to the etymological construction of the term ethnocentrism, that an individual perceives his or her own ethnic group as the central and superior one. From this perspective, the individual develops particular manners of thought, and accordingly acts to exclude other groups and entitle their own community.

Biological Rationale for Ethnocentrism

Sociobiological approaches to evolution through the theory of natural selection engage with the ways in which ethnocentric behavior can be justified within the motives of a human seeking to ensure the survival of his or her tribe. Work such as that of Edward Wilson seeks to deduce whether or not ethnocentric behavior can reasonably be attributed to being a part of human nature. This theory engages with the notion of self-sacrifice, whereby such an act of heroic altruism would be detrimental to the surviving line of the individual; however, such an act would lead to the increased survival and reproduction of the tribe, showing that emotional investment and morality of shared kinship in a community would over time benefit the longevity and procreation of a line. Therefore, evolutionarily, individuals would see extending favor to their group and exclusion to those outside of it as beneficial and advantageous—thus, engaging in rationalized ethnocentric behavior.

Scholarship in sociobiology also discusses whether this social attribute is more of a learned behavior or an inherited one. Research by Gordan Allport supports the former assertion, attributing experiential and relational situations of learning as the method responsible for an individual being able to acquire particular attitudes. Research projects done in the hard sciences ranging from the mid-1980s to the present have also generated statistical models that suggest that genetics could contribute to the passing of conservatism from one generation to the next. This could imply that opinions that manifest as ethnocentric behavior are more prevalent in the biological makeup of certain populations, and also account for the ways in which ethnocentrism presents itself differently in disparate communities.

Ethnocentrism in Modern America

Ethnocentrism influences the manners in which individuals participate in a larger society, as they view entire bodies of people as superior to another. This creates a disparity of power and privilege between the in-group and what populations it perceives to be out-groups, based upon expressions and manifestations of identity such as race, culture, religion, sexuality, and gender. These divisions can be observed in U.S. society as the ways in which the in-group caters to the political system for its benefit over the benefit of others in an out-group, as evident especially in the formation of legal legislation, government policy, and access to public services.

Ethnocentrism and gender.

Although women are subject to oppression based on gender, research on ethnocentric thought implies that inequality with issues related to the women’s movement is not rooted in the same sentiments of disdain or hatred associated with ethnocentrism. Because gender is dispersed throughout communities, populations are more commonly invested in the support of women within their own groups. As a result of such omnipresence, women are not treated within modern American society as a group that is demonized. However, studies done on women’s groups associated with extremism or radical behavior have statistically shown these groups to be victims of such ostracism and construction as a threatening other, and thus are subject to ethnocentric thought in modern culture.

Ethnocentrism and race.

Ethnocentrism is observable in the ways in which racial and ethnic minorities lack equal access to resources and opportunity for upward mobility. However, such exclusion is not to be directly correlated or made interchangeable with the notion of racism. Racism, defined by William Wilson as being contingent upon motives for exploitation and exclusion, can be manifest as extreme application of ethnocentric thought, but is related to populations engaging in a more severe practice of acting power inequalities. Ethnocentrism, which has hereunto been defined as one population perceiving itself to hold superiority over and disdain for another for reasons imbued with intolerance of cultural difference, is not as invested in possession of a minority public as it is in emotional conceptions of superiority and general disdain for outside groups. However, ethnocentric thought as acted out by individuals who hold positions of significant influence in a society can lead to the formation of dualistic policy, which victimizes members of ethnic minority populations.

These practices are especially visible within statistics regarding the racial makeup of imprisoned populations, especially that of African American males, who are accountable for a disproportionately higher percentage of incarcerated inmates than their respective population size in the United States, as well as being subject to increased police brutality, serving longer prison sentences on average than white inmates, and being more often sentenced to the death penalty. Furthermore, populations of minority race and ethnicity are also observed as having less access to and involvement in multiple government assistance programs.

Ethnocentrism and sexuality.

Ethnocentrism has been observed in various studies as statistically being a highly contributing factor related to individuals holding opinions that discriminate against homosexual populations, particularly as holding opinions in opposition to marriage between same sex individuals, participation of homosexuals in the U.S. military, protection of gay and lesbian workers from job discrimination, and adoption of children by same-sex couples. This correlation between ethnocentric opinion and gay rights can further imply that ethnocentrism does engage with topics of morality in cases assigning moral superiority to populations acting as the in-group.

Frameworks for Overcoming Ethnocentric Bias

Given that ethnocentrism is but a contributing factor for the foundation of public opinion, awareness of its influence in consequences can decrease the ways in which in-groups, unintentionally or not, create public policy that discriminates against out-groups. In realizing how ethnocentric oversights constitute minorities as victims, repeated victimization can be intervened upon and prevented.

Charles Ridley suggests that these practices, especially within the racist treatment of individuals receiving social services, can be mitigated within a framework of five interventions, which can be applied to avoiding ethnocentrism as follows: First, the ones providing a service should not justify acting in a biased manner simply because they personally consider themselves to have good intentions. Second, training should be undergone to understand nuances of cultural difference, but should not be used to justify an idea of overarching understanding of all populations. Third, special attention should be given to the multiplicity of social factors that influence the behavior and quality of life of the individuals in the out-groups. Fourth, one should be wary of blaming the individuals within the out-group for their actions in lieu of understanding all contributing factors in the situation. And finally, individuals should not be solely treated as falling into discrete, dichotomous categorical relations—because it is that discretion that leads to the assignment of supremacy of one body of people over another.


  1. Booth, Ken. Strategy and Ethnocentrism. London: Croom Helm, 1979.
  2. Bowser, Benjamin P. and Raymond G. Hunt, eds. Impacts of Racism on White Americans. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
  3. Jarrett, Alfred A., ed. The Impact of Macro Social Systems on Ethnic Minorities in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.
  4. Kinder, Donald R. and Cindy D. Kam. Us Against Them. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  5. Ridley, Charles R. Overcoming Unintentional Racism in Counseling and Therapy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

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