Ethnocentrism & cultural relativism

According to Wikipedia ethnocentrism is the act of judging another culture based on preconceptions that are found in the values and standards of one’s own culture. In the field of intercultural communication this is a major subject. Why? Well, because most of us can only respond to what we perceive based on our own frame of reference. This frame of reference is based on what we know, and what we know is our “own” culture.

I have written about this subject before in my blog on personal motivation which is actually part of one of my bigger scientific researches. I this blog I will continue on the subject with some more examples.

Ethnocentrism comes in steps, and a researcher that has put these steps into usable brackets is Milton Bennett. His model is called the “Bennett scale” or “Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” also known as DMIS.

These steps show an increasing sensitivity to difference. The steps denial, defense and minimization are considered ethnocentric. The steps acceptance, adaptation and integration are considered ethnorelative. What does this mean? Well, in the first 3 stages a person views its own culture as central to reality. In the last 3 stages a person can relate to the frame of reference of “the other” culture.

Step 1: Denial of difference
It’s safe to say that at this first step a person is just simply not interested in cultural differences, in fact they will try to avoid being confronted with cultures other than their own.

From Denial to Defense →
The person acquires an awareness of difference between cultures

Step 2:  Defense against difference
Individuals in this step see their own culture as the “most evolved one”, and therefore the best way to live. People in this stage often take part in some negative stereotyping towards other cultures. They will belittle and denigrate differences.

From Defense to Minimization→
Negative judgments are depolarized, and the person is introduced to similarities between cultures.

Step 3: Minimization of difference
People in this step recognize superficial cultural differences. Think food and customs. They like to express their tolerance, and assume they are no longer ethnocentric.

From Minimization to Acceptance→
The subject grasps the importance of intercultural difference.

Step 4: Acceptance of difference
In this step a person recognizes that their own culture is nothing more than a way of looking at life, just as many other equally complex worldviews. They understand how culture affects human experience and they are eager to ask questions and know more.

From Acceptance to Adaptation→
Exploration and research into the other culture begins

Step 5: Adaptation to difference
Individuals in this step understand other culture to the extend that they can behave in a variety of culturally appropriate ways. They can shift their frame of reference to another culture and effectively use the appropriate way of using empathy.

From Adaptation to Integration→
Subject develops empathy towards the other culture.

Step 6: Integration of difference
In the final step a person can see their own culture as not central to any other culture. Allowing this an individual can smoothly shift from one cultural worldview to the other.

In today’s society where many cultures live side by side in dense cities, the image of ones “own culture” simply becomes blurry, like the image on top of this page shows. Different versions of different cultures live more and more side by side and hopefully also more and more intertwined. There simply is no superiority of any culture above any other. Also, it’s important to apply a certain amount of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the theory that beliefs, customs, and morality exist in relation to the particular culture from which they originate and are not absolute.

An example of cultural relativism? Think about your own breakfast this morning, and then watch this video on breakfast:

That there is not “1 breakfast” makes sense right? Different availability, flavours and tastes per country seem very acceptable. So why not apply this to other cultural aspects when you come across them?

Or think about the exchange students I wrote about in my blog rethinking adaptation. How do international students handle culture shock, the acculturative stress and adaptation challenges?

Another simple example: ask your friends/colleagues/neighbours to draw a tree. You might get a palm tree, or a pine tree, or an oak tree. Depending on the dominant tree in the country of origin of your friends/colleagues/neighbours. Now would you ever say one tree is better than the others? Of course you wouldn’t! Now draw the line back to culture, can we ever speak of any superiority? Of course we cannot.