What is ethnocentrism in human geography

Ethnocentrism: what it is, causes and characteristics

Fa t no one wants to admit that they had a bad culture, but most would say that their culture is undoubtedly involved. How curious i t e since 99% of the world population


Almost no one wants to admit that they had a bad culture, but most would say that their culture is without a doubt the best. How curious is it that 99% of the world's population was lucky enough to be born in the best place on earth?

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one's own culture is the main reference against which things can be judged. Basically, it's about judging foreign cultures based on the stereotypes, beliefs and perspectives that have been imposed on us for as long as we can remember.

In the following, we will delve into this concept, understand its causes and consequences, and contrast it with the idea of ​​cultural relativism.

  • Related article: "What is Cultural Psychology?"

What is ethnocentrism?

Is ethnocentrism in the strict sense the tendency of a person or group of people to interpret reality in terms of their own cultural parameters.

Usually this practice is related to a tendency to think that one's ethnic group and all of its cultural characteristics are superior to the ethnic characteristics of others. That is, it means giving your own culture a higher value than others and using your own patterns to judge the culture of others.

For practical reasons, ethnocentrism is a universal value. In every culture in general and in every person in particular, beliefs can be observed that extol the endogroup and demonize, or at least discredit, the cultures of other people, regardless of which limit is to be defined between their own culture and that of others (p. 22) e.g. Catalan culture against Castilian culture, Spanish culture against French culture, European culture against African culture ...). This is because almost everyone thinks they were born in the best of culture.

This belief can have all kinds of consequences. The "softer" ones would mean that they don't bother to learn about other people's traditions or do not risk trying the gastronomy of other countries as it is too exotic and harmful to health. However, ethnocentrism has been linked, though not necessarily, with more serious consequences throughout history, such as racism, xenophobia, and ethnic and religious intolerance.


There is much research, both from anthropology and the social sciences, that suggests that ethnocentrism is a pattern of behavior and learned thinking. Individuals would acquire the belief that they regard other cultures as inferior or even inferior if they develop in their cultural context of origin.

It should be understood that No individual, no matter how hard they try, is separate from their culture. Whatever it is, culture will permeate the characteristics of the individual, particularly his personality, individual history and knowledge. As one grows and develops more relationships with the other members of the endogroup, the individual usually shows greater loyalty to them and is loyal to socially imposed norms.

Ethnocentrism, in turn, has an important intergenerational component, ie it is passed on from generation to generation. The stereotypes and perspectives of the world, however wrong or exaggerated they may be, are strengthened and encouraged over time and passed on from father to son and even become an important part of their own culture.

Basically, an important part of culture can be degrading other cultures. This can be seen in many languages ​​that use stereotype-based expressions, as would be the case with Spanish when using sentences like "Do the Indian" (Do antics), "Deceit like a Chinese" (Deception complete), " Work "would be used like a negro" (work hard and exploited), "play Swedish" (pretend ignorance) or "be dumber than Lepe" (particularly poor intelligence), among others.

From the field of social psychology, two theories have been shown as possible explanations for the phenomenon.

First of all we have the theory of social identity. This suggests that ethnocentric beliefs are caused by strong identification with one's own culture, which creates a positive and idealized vision of it. In order to maintain this positive vision, people tend to make social comparisons with other ethnic groups as if it were a competition and view them from a more critical and derogatory perspective.

On the other hand, we have realistic conflict theory, which assumes that ethnocentrism occurs due to the perception or experience of a real conflict between two or more ethnic groups. This occurs when a culturally dominant group perceives new members belonging to a foreign culture as a threat.

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At first glance, ethnocentrism seems to be a trend that has negative consequences. This applies insofar The assumption that other cultures are inferior to one's own can motivate actions aimed at ending the outgroup. In fact, it is ethnocentric visions that are responsible for the great misfortune of mankind, such as the Holocaust, the Crusades or the expulsion of North American Indians from their country. In all of these events, the dominant cultural group has negatively emphasized the cultural characteristics of others and thus justified ethnic cleansing.

And as surprising as it may seem, ethnocentrism can have positive consequences and act as a defense mechanism to preserve one's own culture. An example of this would be not to tolerate traditions and languages ​​outside the territory, as this could in the long run mean a process of cultural substitution and eventual elimination of the previous culture.

In certain scientific fields, it is also thanks to ethnocentric ideas, regardless of the continent, that the creation of a single culture worldwide has been avoided. Not a few cultures have disappeared since the globalization of the world, mainly because they want to adopt a homogeneous pattern of behavior worldwide. In response to globalization and the creation of a single culture, the different cultures of the world have cultivated ethnocentric ideas so that even the youngest ones who take refuge in the idea that their culture is better can continue to exist.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Anthropology has tried to examine all cultures in the world as objectively as possible. It is for this reason that this science has fought against the ethnocentric vision as it is not possible to study a culture and everything related to it and see it as something inferior or more primitive. Given that it is common for anthropologists to use participant observation to learn more about a culture, an ethnocentric bias would weigh on their study and prevent them from learning about the ethnic group in question.

As mentioned earlier, ethnocentric behaviors that are neither racist nor xenophobic are a universal pattern. Everyone shows this tendency to a greater or lesser extent and cannot avoid thinking that their culture of origin is better and that of others is strange. It is difficult to be European and not see the cultures of other continents as more primitive and wild, or from the other direction it is difficult to be Japanese and not see Europeans as dirtier and more chaotic.

In contrast to the idea of ​​ethnocentrism is cultural relativism, its most opposite vision. This stream of thoughts, which is more likely to be understood as a correct anthropological course of action, means accepting the idea that no culture should be judged by another's standards. For example, we cannot judge African tribal cultures from a European, Western, White and Christian perspective, as the other culture will always "lose".

However, full acceptance of the cultural characteristics of the ethnic group studied carries the risk of accepting behaviors that are unacceptable regardless of their culture, as they violate human rights, individual freedom and ethics. For example, if we are extremely culturally relativistic, we can stoning in Islamic countries (“it's their traditions”), bullfighting (“art is something very relative”) or cutting women (“it's their culture and we have to respect them ”) justify.