The term ethnocentrism was coined by William Graham Sumner in 1906 when he saw the tendency among people to differentiate between in-group and out-group. It can be understood as the view of perceiving one’s own culture as better than anyone else’s culture in terms of language, behaviors, religion, customs, etc. This is because each individual, born in a particular culture grow up to absorb the values and beliefs of their own culture and develop the idea of what ‘normal’ is, viewing their own cultural code as the norm. Keeping in mind these preconceptions found in one’s own culture, when people come in contact with other cultures, cultures with different values, beliefs, and behaviors, they often fail to understand or acknowledge the unique nature of other cultures. They tend to compare, evaluate and even judge from their own point of views. This act is known as ethnocentrism. Rather than seeing other cultures through that culture’s point of view, people often think of them as not normal. Many sociologists argue it as causing a biased understanding of other cultures as it is difficult to understand somebody else’s viewpoint. Yet, this biasness can be recognized and controlled.
Ethnocentrism often leads to serious social problems like racism, colonialism, etc. In the contemporary world, it is seen as a common feature in almost all the cultures by many sociologists. However, in anthropology, the term ‘cultural relativism’ is often used as an antithesis to ethnocentrism. The concept of ethnocentrism is hard to define for its centrality in various disciplines which limits its utility as well. William Graham Sumner came up with two different definitions for the term. First, it can be used for the view whereby one’s own group is considered the center of everything while the other groups are evaluated with reference to it. The second definition highlights the idea of cohesion, solidarity, and togetherness within the in-group, defending its own interests against the out-groups which are considered inferior to them.
Ethnocentrism can be called explicit when it is able to invoke feelings about outsiders, whereas it is implicit when it inhibits the tendencies to feel for the outsiders. It can have both advantages and disadvantages. It is advantageous in the sense that it helps us to develop a love for the nation, culture, traditions, and values. It generates pride and self-confidence among the people of the group and creates a self of belonging and unity within the community. The disadvantage is the disliking of the other cultures as well as discriminating them because they are different. Sociologists and anthropologists are of the view that almost all the people are ethnocentric in at least some part of their lives, most of the time without even realizing it.
Although there is no fixed reason as to what causes ethnocentrism, social and biological theories are developed to explain this. The social identity is approach is one of them that suggest that a person becomes ethnocentric due to his strong identification with his own culture. According to the realistic conflict theory, ethnocentrism occurs due to a perceived conflict between groups.