Unit Three Sociology: Culture and Ethnicity

Download 19.15 Kb.
Date conversion12.05.2016
Size19.15 Kb.

Unit Three Sociology: Culture and Ethnicity

  • the distinction between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

Reference: http://www.sociologyguide.com/basic-concepts/Cultural-Relativism.php


Cultural Relativism

This is a method whereby different societies or cultures are analysed objectively without using the values of one culture to judge the worth of another. We cannot possibly understand the actions of other groups if we analyse them in terms of our motives and values. We must interpret their behaviour in the light of their motives, habits and values if we are to understand them. Cultural relativism means that the function and meaning of a trait are relative to its cultural setting. A trait is neither good nor bad in itself. It is good or bad only with reference to the culture in which it is to function. Fur clothing is good in the Arctic but not in the tropics. In some hunting societies which occasionally face long periods of hunger to be fat is good; it has real survival value and fat people are admired. In our society to be fat is not only unnecessary but is known to be unhealthy and fat people are not admired.

The concept of cultural relativism does not mean that all customs are equally valuable, nor does it imply that no customs* are harmful. Some patterns of behaviour may be injurious everywhere, but even such patterns serve some purpose in the culture and the society will suffer unless a substitute is provided. The central point in cultural relativism is that in a particular cultural setting certain traits are right because they work well in that setting while other traits are wrong because they would clash painfully with parts of that culture.

*Custom: Convention (norm), a set of agreed, stipulated or generally accepted rules, norms, standards or criteria, often taking the form of a custom


  1. What is cultural relativism?

  2. Give one example of cultural relativism from the reading.

  3. What is a custom?

  4. What purpose do customs have in cultures?

  5. Give at least five examples of Australian customs. Eg. To shake hands when you meet for the first time, To say please and thank you…
    A good Reference is; http://www.immi.gov.au/living-in-australia/choose-australia/about-australia/au-customs/

  6. Give one example of a culture’s custom we would consider harmful.

  7. How might cultural relativism help us to better understand cultures different to our own?


Closely related to the concept of cultural relativity is the concept of ethnocentrism. The world ethno comes from Greek and refers to a people, nation, or cultural grouping, while centric comes from Latin and refers, of course to the centre. The term ethnocentrism then refers to the tendency for each society to place its own culture patterns at the centre of things. Ethnocentrism is the practice of comparing other cultural practices with those of one's own and automatically finding those other cultural practices to be inferior. It is the habit of each group taking for granted the superiority of its culture. It makes our culture into a yardstick with which to measure all other cultures as good or bad, high or low, right or wrong in proportion as they resemble ours.

Ethnocentrism is a universal human reaction found in all known societies, in all groups and in practically all individuals. Everyone learns ethnocentrism while growing up. The possessiveness of the small child quickly translates "into my toys are better than your toys" Parents; unless they are quite crude, outwardly discourage their children from verbalizing such beliefs. But in private, they may reassure their off spring that their possessions are indeed very nice. Much of the learning of ethnocentrism is indirect and unintended, but some of it is deliberate. History for example, is often taught to glorify the achievements of one's own nation, and religious, civic and other groups disparage their competitors openly. Among adults, ethnocentrism is simply a fact of life.

Once one becomes conscious of ethnocentrism, the temptation is strong to evaluate it in moral terms; to label it with epithets such as bigoted chauvinistic, and so on, and to imply that one who has not discovered and compensated for his or her ethnocentric biases is not worthy. This incidentally, is another form of ethnocentrism. The important point, however, is that ethnocentrism is one of the features of culture and , like the rest of culture , it needs to be evaluated in terms of its contribution to the maintenance of social order and the promotion of social change.

The functions of ethnocentrism in maintaining order are more apparent than those which promote social change. First, ethnocentrism encourages the solidarity of the group. Those in the group believe that one's own ways are the best. This encourages a "we" feeling with associates and strengthens the idea that loyalty to comrades is an important value. Positively, ethnocentrism promotes continuance of the status quo negatively, it discourages change.

Second, ethnocentrism hinders the understanding of the cooperation with other groups. If the ways of one's own group are best, there is little incentive to interact with inferior groups. In fact, attitudes of suspicion, disdain and hostility are likely to be engendered. Extreme ethnocentrism is likely to promote conflict, as the records of past wars, and religious and racial conflicts reveal.


  1. What is ethnocentrism?

  2. Give one example of ethnocentric behaviour.

  3. Where do our ethnocentric tendencies come from, according to the reading?

  4. Why might criticisms of ethnocentric behaviours be also considered ethnocentric?

  5. How does ethnocentrism promote ‘solidarity in [an ethnic] group’?

  6. How might ethnocentric thinking ‘hinder cooperation with other [ethnic] groups’?

  7. Think of five examples in Australian culture, either past or present, of ethnocentric behaviour.

  8. What is the relationship between ethnocentrism and wars?

  9. What is the relationship between ethnocentrism and social change*?

*Social Change: The process by which the patterns of society are altered, economically, socially and politically – usually in response to social movements. Eg. Civil Rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australia.

In simple terms… The difference between….

Cultural relativism is that notion that different habits, traits and values of an individual must be seen according to their relevance to his or her cultural values. Ethnocentrism, on the other hand, is the extreme opposite of cultural relativism. It makes a judgement of those habits, traits and values based on the notion that one’s own culture is superior…

The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2016
send message

    Main page