Exploring Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity in Sociology Courses
Teaching Sociology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 148-153
Introducing the idea of ethnocentrism, the tendency to judge other cultures by your own culture’s standards, is often difficult. While most people will on the surface admit that cultural diversity is normal and should be understood instead of judged, they still tend to see their cultural beliefs and practices as normal and view other cultural practices as deviations from the normal human actions and therefore weird and kind of silly. Although you can lead discussions about the horrors that ethnocentric thinking has allowed historically, and you can discuss how odd our way of life might seem to others, I always felt the need for a good activity to cement the concept. I had been using a great article (Miner, Horace. 1956. "Body Ritual among the Nacirema." American Anthropologist 58(3).)
which describes American cultural norms from an ethnocentric viewpoint (Nacirema is American Spelled backwards). Here’s a clip from the article;
“While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries.”
In this excerpt the article is describing our use of bathrooms. I ask the students to write up anwers to two questions (Before they are told the article is about Americans) Would you marry a member of the Nacirema? and How would you feel if you had to live among the Nacirema for a year. This usually gets the point across that any way of life can seem odd to an outsider, especially if no effort is made to understand the way of life.
The Article that I chose expanded this concept of outsider bias to include insider’s bias. The tendency to not really thinking about or see your own culture because it seems so natural to you. The Article includes the entire assignment description/outline and even offers some ideas of cultural practices to focus on (Status symbols, Political procedures or elections, Religious customs, Foods, Celebrations of holidays, Leisure activities, sports, Clothing or methods of beautification, etc.) and I plan to build it into my summer courses as a graded writing assignment.