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Cultural Comparisons Ethnocentrism

Cultural Comparisons Ethnocentrism Culture Cultural comparisons Ethnocentrism Ethnocentrism is the name given to a tendency to interpret or evaluate other cultures in terms of one’s own. This tendency has been, perhaps, more prevalent in modern nations than among preliterate tribes. The citizens of a large nation, especially in the past, have been less likely to observe people in another nation or culture than have been members of small tribes who are well acquainted with the ways of their culturally diverse neighbours. Thus, the American tourist could report that Londoners drive on the wrong side of the street or an Englishman might find some customs on the Continent queer or boorish, merely because they are different. Members of a Pueblo tribe in the American Southwest, on the other hand, might be well acquainted with cultural differences not only among other Pueblos but also in non-Pueblo tribes such as the Navajo and Apache. Ethnocentrism became prominent among many Europeans after the discovery of the Americas, the islands of the Pacific, and the Far East.

Even anthropologists might characterize all preliterate peoples as being without religion (as did Sir John Lubbock) or as having a prelogical mentality (as did Lucien Lvy-Bruhl) merely because their ways of thinking did not correspond with those of the culture of western Europe. Thus, inhabitants of non-Western cultures, particularly those lacking the art of writing, were widely described as being immoral, illogical, queer, or just perverse (Ye Beastly Devices of ye Heathen). Cultural Relativism Increased knowledge led to or facilitated a deeper understanding and, with it, a finer appreciation of cultures quite different from one’s own. When it was understood that universal needs could be served with culturally diverse means, that worship might assume a variety of forms, that morality consists in conforming to ethical rules of conduct but does not inhere in the rules themselves, a new view emerged that each culture should be understood and appreciated in terms of itself. What is moral in one culture might be immoral or ethically neutral in another. For example, it was not immoral to kill a baby girl at birth or an aged grandparent who was nonproductive when it was impossible to obtain enough food for all; or wife lending among the Eskimo might be practiced as a gesture of hospitality, a way of cementing a friendship and promoting mutual aid in a harsh and dangerous environment, and thus may acquire the status of a high moral value.

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The view that elements of a culture are to be understood and judged in terms of their relationship to the culture as a whole–a doctrine known as cultural relativism–led to the conclusion that the cultures themselves could not be evaluated or graded as higher and lower, superior or inferior. If it was unwarranted to say that patriliny (descent through the male line) was superior or inferior to matriliny (descent through the female line), if it was unjustified or meaningless to say that monogamy was better or worse than polygamy, then it was equally unsound or meaningless to say that one culture was higher or superior to another. A large number of anthropologists subscribed to this view; they argued that such judgments were subjective and therefore unscientific. It is, of course, true that some values are imponderable and some criteria are subjective. Are people in modern Western culture happier than the Aborigines of Australia? Is it better to be a child than an adult, alive than dead? These certainly are not questions for science. But to say that the culture of the ancient Mayas was not superior to or more highly developed than the crude and simple culture of the Tasmanians or to say that the culture of England in 1966 was not higher than England’s culture in 1066 is to fly in the face of science as well as of common sense.

Evaluative grading Cultures have ponderable values as well as imponderable, and the imponderable ones can be measured with objective, meaningful yardsticks. A culture is a means to an end: the security and continuity of life. Some kinds of culture are better means of making life secure than others. Agriculture is a better means of providing food than hunting and gathering. The productivity of human labour has been increased by machinery and by the utilization of the energy of nonhuman animals, water and wind power, and fossil fuels.

Some cultures have more effective means of coping with disease than others, and this superiority is expressed mathematically in death rates. And there are many other ways in which meaningful differences can be measured and evaluations made. Thus, the proposition that cultures have ponderable values that can be measured meaningfully by objective yardsticks and arranged in a series of stages, higher and lower, is substantiated. But, it should be noted, this is not equivalent to saying that man is happier or that the dignity of the individual (an imponderable) is greater in an industrialized or agricultural sociocultural system than in one supported by human labour alone and sustained wholly by wild foods. Actually, however, there is no necessary conflict between the doctrine of cultural relativism and the thesis that cultures can be objectively graded in a scientific manner. It is one thing to reject the statement that monogamy is better than polygamy and quite another to deny that one kind of sociocultural system contains a better means of providing food or combating disease than another.

Cultural adaptation and Change Ecological or Environmental Change Every sociocultural system exists in a natural habitat, and, of course, this environment exerts an influence upon the cultural system. The cultures of some Eskimo groups present remarkable instances of adaptation to environmental conditions: tailored fur clothing, snow goggles, boats and harpoons for hunting sea mammals, and, in some instances, hemispherical snow houses, or igloos. Some sedentary, horticultural tribes of the upper Missouri River went out into the Great Plains and became nomadic hunters after the introduction of the horse. The culture of the Navajos underwent profound change after they acquired herds of sheep and a market for their rugs was developed. The older theories of simple environmentalism, some of which maintained that even styles of myths and tales were determined by topography, climate, flora, and other factors, are no longer in vogue.

The present view is that the environment permits, at times encourages, and also prohibits the acquisition or use of certain cultural traits but otherwise does not det …


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