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Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize how the anthropological concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are applied to sociology. 

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In today's lesson, we're going to talk about some concepts that are traditionally associated with anthropology, but are still very important in sociology. These are cultural universals and the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

So let's get started right away, defining cultural universals. Cultural universals are simply cultural patterns that are found in all human societies. Religion and the uncertainty of death; this is an example of a cultural universal. Universally, humans have striven to answer this question of what happens after we die.

And they've done so in many different ways. Think of the myriad religions that humans have-- they've developed to answer this question, to put themselves at ease about death. Even Native Americans, who had no contact with European Westerners, had their own cosmological religious systems in place when the Europeans arrived. So we see how all cultures universally strive to answer this question, but they do so in different ways.

Closely related to cultural universals is this concept of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the attitude that our own culture is superior to others, and that our values, beliefs, and behaviors are more "correct" than other cultures. So you could say, your religion is wrong; your culture's backwards. You're ignorant; you're stupid. We're smart; we're cultured; we're more refined. These are ethnocentric kinds of statements.

This way of thinking, though, although to be avoided, has its place in the evolution of human society. It's a natural outgrowth of human social evolution, because we're social animals. And we can't survive unless we're in groups. So group identification is an important part of our survival. This Us v. Them mentality, then, stems from the fact that humans grow together in groups.

But that doesn't excuse us from being just ethnocentric bigots. We need to temper these natural impulses. And we do that through a similar concept-- cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is this idea that is often paired against ethnocentrism. Cultural relativism is the view that a culture needs to be understood on its own terms, from within, and judged by its own standards, rather than by those of an outside observer.

Often we engage in cultural relativism and ethnocentrism at the same time, as we're negotiating the world around us. These aren't mutually exclusive concepts, where you're either a culture relativist or you're either an ethnocentrist. Think about times that you have traveled internationally, if you've done that, or even traveled to another state, and engaged in another form of culture.

I'm thinking of a recent trip to Argentina, where I was upset that I could never get any food between three and five in the afternoon, and that dinner came much closer to 10:00, even midnight. I was staying with a friend of mine, there, who moved to Argentina for a relationship. So I had a close, first-hand look at the culture, because I was meeting all these Argentines. And I was frustrated that everything was always closed between 3:00 and 5:00 for siesta.

And so my natural ethnocentric reaction was that-- aw, this isn't right; this is worse. What are these people doing? Sleeping! They're lazy.

But really, no-- you have to pull that back and relativize the culture, relative to your own, and judge it by its own standards. And when I did that, I found that the siesta actually served a lot of important social function. All of the Argentines would come over to the apartment, and we'd all hang out, and sip mate tea, and things like that, during this period. So it was a crucial time for maintaining and building social relationships.

So then, when you see that pattern of cultural behavior, judged by its own standards, from within, it doesn't appear so backwards and out of touch.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on ethnocentrism and cultural relativism as well as cultural universals. Thank you very much, and have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Cultural Relativism

The view that a culture needs to be understood on its own terms, from within, and judged by its own standards, rather than by those of an outside observer.

Cultural Universals

Cultural patterns that are found in all human societies.


The attitude that our own culture is superior to others and that our values, beliefs, and behaviors are "more correct."