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Differentiate Two Distinctive Features of Cultural Anthropology, Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

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Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance and maintain a larger “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, the mug is most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favorite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.

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The two ideas we're going to discuss are ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. During the early days of contact between different cultures, ethnocentrism was the norm. Ethnocentrism is the idea that one's own culture is the main standard by which other cultures may be measured

An ethnocentric is concerned with how similar others' cultural practices, symbols, and beliefs are to their own. For instance, Ethan is an ethnocentrist; he considers others' beliefs and practices to be savage or corrupt, or he is often confused by other people's cultures. Very often, people that are ethnocentric don't know they are using their culture to judge another's. The culture of an ethnocentric person is considered the 'normal' way that things are done, just as Ethan believes. A competing idea, cultural relativism is the belief that the culture of people serves particular needs and must be looked at in terms of the world the people inhabit. This is often the perspective of social scientists who work with people and is the result of the work of anthropologist Franz Boas. For instance, Casey is a cultural relativist; she prefers to look at other cultures in terms of what their practices bring to them. She believes that if a tribe paints their faces for religious ceremonies, there must be a good reason why they do that. Is there a practical reason for it, or is it symbolic? If symbolic, where do the symbols come from? These questions allow a closer examination of the practices of others than ethnocentrism. This doesn't imply that a relativist, like Casey, doesn't have strong beliefs of her own. Rather, other cultures are simply not judged with reference to one's own culture. Again, this often has to be trained into people.

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Taking into account such simple and comprehensible definitions, it is possible to say that the ideas of cultural relativism are rather opposite to the ideas of ethnocentrism (Ned-Seelye and Seelye-James, 1995, p 70). Without any doubts, ethnocentrism affects considerably the international affairs. Lots of people truly believe that America is one of the countries with too high idea of ethnocentrism

Of course, American ethnocentrism is known to many countries: some countries admire America’s power and abilities, however, some other countries cannot still understand what makes this country so powerful and dislike it a bit. “The image of the ugly American prevalent in the 1960s has become increasingly rare. Although an occasional traveler still behaves as if the world owes him or her tribute as an American.” (Stewart & Benneth, 1991, p 161) It is quite possible that Americans can do certain things better than the other countries. The Americans believe that they are able to do everything better: make films, create songs, dance, communicate, carry wars, etc.

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Generally speaking, an example of cultural relativism might include slang words from specific languages (and even from particular dialects within a language)

For instance, the word “tranquilo” in Spanish translates directly to “calm” in English. However, it can be used in many more ways than just as an adjective (e.g., the seas are calm). Tranquilo can be a command or suggestion encouraging another to calm down. It can also be used to ease tensions in an argument (e.g., everyone relax) or to indicate a degree of self-composure (e.g., I’m calm). There is not a clear English translation of the word, and in order to fully comprehend its many possible uses, a cultural relativist would argue that it would be necessary to fully immerse oneself in cultures where the word is used.

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Grulan, S. A. & Mayers, M. K. (1988). Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective. Zondervan.

Ned-Seelye, H. & Seelye-James, A. (1995). Culture Clash: Managing in a Multicultural World. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Stewart, E. C. & Benneth, M. J. (1991). American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Intercultural Press.

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