Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism
Ethnocentrism is a perspective based on the belief that one's own culture is a universal norm. Because it works on the assumption that one's own culture is "normal," it promotes value judgments about cultures. Cultural relativism is an approach that posits that all cultures are equal in value and avoids viewing or judging a culture from the perspective of another culture. This approach emphasizes looking at a culture from the perspective of the culture itself. It is therefore the direct opposite of ethnocentrism. Using cultural relativism as a framework works to counteract the tendency people have to privilege their own culture and disparage other cultures.
The concept of cultural relativism developed from the work of pioneering anthropologists in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. One of these early researchers, German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), studied the cultures and languages of various groups. With his work, Boas sought to overturn the notion that certain cultures and races are superior or inferior, which was prevalent during his time. He argued for a new understanding that no culture is inherently better than another culture, just different.
Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are both viewpoints as well as practices. Taking one of these two perspectives of culture is fundamental to how people view cultures that are not their own. With an ethnocentric perspective, it can be challenging to understand or empathize with the beliefs, values, and norms of another culture. When people draw on cultural relativism, there is instead an opportunity to have a dialogue and to gain new understanding. Both ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are learned through the process of socialization. Similarly, both can be developed or undone over time. Ethnocentrism is a relatively normal stance for many people. Cultural values, beliefs, and norms shape how individuals see the world, including how they see other cultures. Cultural relativism involves a philosophical commitment to stepping outside one's own perspective and actively assuming a stance of neutral curiosity about other cultures.
One way to understand cultural relativism is to think about how values, beliefs, and norms related to food and animals vary across cultures. In some cultures, such as China and South Korea, some people eat dog meat. In many Western cultures, such as the United States and many European cultures, dogs are revered as beloved human companions. Westerners often react with discomfort or horror to the practice of eating dogs. When the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008, dog meat was banned from official Olympic restaurants. Chinese officials wanted to prevent controversy and make visitors feel comfortable. In the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, the government pushed for restaurants to not serve dog meat, but some refused to take it off the menu. The negative Western reaction to the practice of eating dog meat is an example of ethnocentrism. Westerners with this reaction judge cultures where eating dogs is common by the standards of Western culture. Taking a perspective of cultural relativism means understanding that dogs are seen differently in different cultures. It involves putting aside one's own feelings about dogs and thinking about how various animals are seen differently around the world. For example, dogs are generally seen as dirty in Arab cultures. In Jewish and Muslim traditions, pork is forbidden because it is considered unclean. Adopting a standpoint of cultural relativism allows thoughtful analysis of these various cultural meanings and practices and deters negative judgments and prejudice toward foreign cultures.
Sociologists encourage people to view cultures and societies from a standpoint of cultural relativism. This approach can be difficult, given the human tendency to make judgements, particularly judgements about what is right, wrong, or normal. Sociologists also make judgments, especially when their work addresses problems in society. However, they try to begin their examination of any culture or cultural group through the lens of cultural relativism. This allows them to take a scientific approach, studying and analyzing information about cultures, societies, and social behavior, before proceeding to draw conclusions.
Subcultures and Countercultures
The Amish-American Subculture
The hippie counterculture of the 1960s is a classic example. Members of this counterculture wanted to overturn numerous social and cultural norms, particularly around consumer behavior, sexual behavior, and ideas about age and youth. Countercultures often have political aims. The Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (AIM) also arose in the 1960s. These groups opposed broad social norms around race and sought to bring specific kinds of political change to society. The Black Panther Party pushed for changes in policing practices, criticizing police brutality against African Americans. It created community-based programs in African American neighborhoods, such as breakfast programs for children and transportation programs. Rejecting capitalism as a source of oppression, it called for fairer policies around issues such as housing and employment. AIM sought changes in federal policies impacting Native Americans. Some of its central goals included enforcement of broken treaties and recognition of the rights of Native people and fair laws and policies on social issues impacting Native Americans, including education, housing, and economic development.
Multiculturalism, a philosophical or political view that promotes cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity, is related to cultural relativism. The field of sociology was developed in part by thinkers who wanted to reform and improve society. Multiculturalism has come to be a widely accepted value within sociology, since it is understood as a viewpoint that contributes to improved relations between different cultural groups. This perspective holds that cultural differences are not negative but serve to enhance society through diversity in all the things that make up a culture: values, beliefs, norms, customs, etc. A multicultural society, then, is one that not only has different cultures living with one another, but also does so without much struggle.
Multiculturalism promotes respect for all cultures and cultural traditions. It values and celebrates cultural diversity. People who believe in multiculturalism see it as an approach that encourages members of different cultural groups to engage with and learn from one another. Multiculturalism often also supports the political position that society should make a special effort to acknowledge, understand, and protect the cultural differences of minority groups, whose practices and norms are different from those of the mainstream culture. For example, a multicultural approach to education might involve ensuring that students study texts by authors from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Policies based in multiculturalism allow or encourage people to wear clothing or accessories that are linked to their cultural identities, such as yarmulkes (skullcaps) worn by Jewish men. Opponents of multiculturalism include those members of society who believe that for a society to thrive, there should instead be assimilation, the process of adopting the practices of another culture to become a fully integrated member of mainstream society. The concept of assimilation has its roots in Eurocentrism, the practice of considering the history, culture, and traditions of western Europe as universal norms. Multiculturalism is in some ways a response to Eurocentrism, asserting that the norms and cultural products of other societies are equally valid and valuable as those from the western European tradition.