All cultures are ethnocentric. The most well-known trace of this is the frequency with which the languages of a people have a word to designate themselves which means something like “the men” or “humans.” That is, these cultures linguistically think of themselves as humanity itself, in exclusion to all those others viewed as barbarians or even inhuman.
To form an analogy using data from psychoanalysis, it is as if living cultures and peoples were deeply narcissistic, or moved by certain self love.
It is clear that any psychologist would state the need for a minimum of self love, that is, narcissism, to be able to survive in society. The problem arises when this narcissism becomes somewhat pathological in nature. The pathology of ethnocentrism is called nationalism and racism.
For millennia societies tended to be relatively homogeneous in their ethnic constitution. The Portuguese case is a good example of this. When Arabs and Jews were expelled, little or nothing remained as a different minority. Ethnocentrism thus tends to establish itself within mentalities.
Small isolated groups tend towards ethnocentrism in accordance with the lack of knowledge as to how the other presents itself. Diversity is external and as such tends to be considered as threatening. Narcissism requires that we love ourselves as ourselves and, as a result, we distrust the other as a potential threat to our own integrity.
It is certainly the case that in the individual narcissism is a basic prerequisite for survival. Without a minimum of self love nobody would be able to carry on. The same is true of societies. But it is also the case with the individual that narcissism may be a threat to this same integrity in so far as, when taken to the extreme, it isolates the individual from the surrounding reality and places him/her within a closed, delirious world.
It is the same with societies and groups. The social expressions of narcissism, which are nationalism or racism, are based on exactly the same mental isolation which is the cause and the effect of the lack of knowledge of the other.
It was not just European culture which, through its ethnocentrism, ignored and dominated all others, when not colonially annihilating them. It has already been stated that all cultures are ethnocentric. On the eve of its global domination, Europe also gave rise to the subject of anthropology, with its eternal vocation being that of studying cultural alterity. It has of course been the case that, originating in countries with colonial empires, its functions extended to the administration of these diversities which the colonial system controlled.
However, the greatest error to be corrected from an early stage within anthropology was precisely that of ethnocentrism. In other words, what was sought was the understanding of a diverse culture based on the mentality which formed it and not to explain it through the very mental categories, values and cognitive abilities exclusively belonging to the dominant culture of the actual external observers.
In such a situation, ethnocentrism acted as a filter and an obstacle to understanding that which was carried out differently in a cultural manner by the other. All of the anthropologists’ effort consisted in trying to overcome this obstacle.
The problem consists of the following: each individual is located within a cognitive context which is what enables him/her to understand their surrounding reality. The tabula rasa that Descartes mentioned does not exist. Nobody is without a view of the world, and values and cognitive abilities which delineate conceptual frameworks to the exclusion of many other possible others. All of this makes it conceptually disarming to understand the alterity of which the cultural and social other consists. There is always a distance to bridge when one's intention is to understand other possible worlds. This distance is called ethnocentrism. It forms an element which can never be fully overcome. It does not, however, stop the mutual effort required to achieve this.
In contemporary societies, and in particular European and those which, as with the Portuguese case, have had a long history of ethnic and cultural homogeneity, the more recent migratory movements have affected them and created new challenges which have not always been easy to resolve.
Societies in which minorities were almost non-existent, have seen themselves suddenly, at the historical level, submerged by new members, bringing new conceptual worlds with them, whether these be religious, axiological or cultural. This new experience of daily closeness to alterity necessarily knocks holes in the traditional ethnocentric vision of the world. Sameness now becomes rarer in a social world composed of diversity.
There is however a question which is worth bearing in mind in considering the new challenges to which traditional ethnocentrism is nowadays subjected. This deals with the question of our essential identity. Amartya Sen talks of this in his writings.
Ethnocentrism presupposes the existence of a shared identity by a certain number of individuals. It is the case that nobody possesses a single identity but rather multiple identities such as class, gender, religion, etc. As Amartya Sen has written “None of these can be considered as the single identity or category or the singular belongingness of that person.”
Each person necessarily makes multiple belonging choices from their different identities according to their circumstances, as one becomes more pertinent at any given moment.
Starting from the individual, Sen argues that there are as many differences as identities which unite them. The illusion of a single identity is no more than this, indeed, an illusion and its restated affirmation results above all in the “neglect - and denial - of the role of reasoning and choice, which follows from the recognition of our plural identities.”
In contemporary societies - and probably since time immemorial - ethnic identities tend to be pluralistic, thus making their restriction difficult, which is the basis of ethnocentrism. In any event the individual nowadays has the ability to make a choice between the multiple ways offered to them to differentiate their identity, to choose that which best serves him/her or even different choices in accordance with how the person wishes to integrate him/herself at any given moment.
Amartya Sen has also stated that “in one way or another, we truly belong to many different groups and each one of these collectives can provide us with a potentially important identity.”
Ethnocentrism in many circumstances hides a hierarchization of identities subordinated to one another and the distance between them is above all that which mutually annuls their respective exclusivities. The “barbarian”, the “savage” or the “primitive” are conceptually expelled from the domain of what is human in an action which forgets, as has been stated above, the multiplicity of identity to which all, without exception, are ultimately subject.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et Histoire. Paris, Éditions Gonthier, 1961.
Amartya Sen, Identidade e Violência. A ilusão do destino. Lisboa, Tinta da China, 2007. (Originally published as: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time), New York, W. W. Norton, 2006)