Most people feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings. That’s not wrong or unexpected. But it can become an issue when feelings of discomfort with the unfamiliar turn into beliefs that your worldview trumps all others.
This kind of ethnocentrism, or looking at other cultures through the lens of your own, can influence how you interact with others.
During international volunteer experiences, ethnocentric thinking can shape your perception of the communities you partner with and make that experience less meaningful.
What Is Ethnocentrism?
Ethnocentrism is a term used to describe the tendency to use one’s own cultural or ethnic group as a base measure against others. In simple terms, it’s using your own ethnic group as the standard, which can lead to the belief that your culture or ethnicity is superior to all the others and a biased or distorted view of groups outside of yours.
American sociologist William Graham Sumner has been credited with popularizing the term in his 1906 book Folkways, but the ideas behind the term are much older.
It’s generally accepted that the word, a combo of Greek words “ethnos,” or “nation,” and “kentron,” or “center,” evolved from ideas explored throughout the 18th century. It has appeared in German, French, and Polish philosophical texts.
While its roots are in social sciences like anthropology and social psychology, ethnocentric conversations are more common today in discussions around racism, European colonialism, and the effects of these comparisons.
An ethnocentric mindset can result in a lack of understanding and appreciation for cultural differences. It can lead to the perception that there is only one way “normal” or “right” way to do things, which can contribute to stereotypes, prejudice, and even discriminatory practices.
Examples of ethnocentrism are describing certain practices as “exotic,” “primitive,” “savage,” or “barbaric,” or turning your nose up at traditional foods of different cultures. It can look like assuming one’s own language is superior to others.
In travel or study abroad, language superiority applies most often to English speakers who default to English, whether they’re in China, India, or a country in Africa. Ethnocentrism in America can look like the belief that all newcomers should speak English and adopt Western traditions.
When it comes to international volunteerism, ethnocentrism can contribute to white saviorism, or the idea that certain communities need saving from privileged, often white, volunteers.
Let’s look at some specific impacts a bit more closely:
- Stereotyping: Generalized ideas about a cultural group can result in relying on stereotypes and biased perceptions of that group.
- Cultural Misunderstanding: Ethnocentrism can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what may be cultural norms and values for a group of people.
- Narrow Mindset: Biases behind ethnocentric attitudes may affect more inclusive and diverse societies where different cultures can coexist.
- Isolationism: The idea that your own culture is best can lead some to limit their exposure to other cultures altogether and adopt an in-group vs. out-group mindset.
- Global Tensions: Global isolationism can limit communication between countries and cause tensions based on a lack of understanding of a different point of view.
- Discrimination: The ugliest aspects of ethnocentrism can lead to justifications for discriminatory behavior against people from different cultural backgrounds.
How Ethnocentric Thinking Impacts Volunteering
Ethnocentric thinking can have impacts before a volunteer even leaves their home country. Volunteers may come in with certain values and expectations intact that are at odds with the communities they aim to partner with.
This can lead to misunderstandings and unintentional disrespect. It can create obstacles to effective communication between the volunteer and partner community members, making an experience much less meaningful for everyone involved.
This can happen in any volunteer setting. Ethnocentric thinking can impact attitudes and approaches closer to home, too, when volunteers assume they have nothing to learn from the subculture they’re “helping” at that moment.
At Global Medical Brigades, our holistic model supports volunteers from start to finish. That includes examining biases before our international programs begin.
Learn more about our Brigades and what we do as the largest student-led movement for global health.
Ethnocentrism vs. Cultural Relativism
While ethnocentrism looks at how similar other cultures are to your own, cultural relativism looks at how those cultural differences serve the needs of those groups.
It’s a common perspective among anthropologists and a growing branch of cross-cultural psychology. How do these traditional practices bring value to other cultures in positive ways and contribute to their social identity?
Cultural relativism comes from a place of learning instead of judgment. Cultural relativists see the value in understanding a culture within its own context and taking a more nuanced approach to traditions and beliefs.
This kind of approach supports cultural empathy and diversity. It allows people to examine their cultural biases and embrace differences in a more inclusive, respectful way.
Does cultural relativism imply approval for all cultural practices? Cultural relativism can imply approval for all cultural practices, but it depends on whether the approach is taking an absolute or critical approach.
Critical cultural relativism leaves room for asking questions about cultural practices when human rights issues are involved. A common example is the practice of female genital mutilation, which is still prevelant in some African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries.
Groups like the World Health Organization and UNICEF have labeled the practice a human rights violation, but cultural norms persist.
Ways to Combat Ethnocentrism
Taking on ethnocentrism starts with self-reflection. Some of our biases are so ingrained that it can be a challenge to come to new ideas from a place of understanding, let alone appreciation. Most people don’t know they’re being ethnocentric.
Here are a few ways to take on ethnocentrism if you think it may be an issue:
- Educate yourself. Prepare for a more ethical volunteer experience by learning about where you’re going. Develop an understanding for cultural traditions before you go. Choose to view the people, traditions, and cultures you will encounter through a lens of non-judgment, rather than trying to compare them to your own culture.
- Expect differences. Culture shock is normal. Before your big international trip or volunteer experience, expect those differences so that you can better appreciate them.
- Support inclusivity. Find ways to celebrate diversity at home beyond performative activism so that you can leave any ideas of in-group favoritism behind.
- Develop global empathy. Global empathy is about recognizing the value of contributions from other cultures as an extension of global citizenship.
- Watch your language. Use empowering language in volunteer experiences that correlates to learning and collaboration versus serving or saving.
- Recognize the global community. The more we interact with groups outside of our own, the more we appreciate cultural differences. This supports intergroup cooperation.
Global Brigades Is Doing Our Part, Too
In most cases, ethnocentric attitudes aren’t something people are aware of, so examining those attitudes can be difficult. At Global Brigades, we believe that education is an important step in practicing respect for other cultures.
On top of that educational piece, all of our programs come from a place of sustainability to ensure any gains we make in our partner communities are long-term.
How to Get Involved
Are you ready to get out of your bubble and support tangible change in global health?
If you’re unable to travel but interested in doing more, our Medical TeleBrigades may be a great fit for you.