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Introduction to Sociology



January 20, 2005


As it is defined, ethnocentrism is the practice of judging another culture by the standards of one’s own culture. This means that people believe and feel in the superiority of one's own ethnic group over other groups. On the other hand, cultural relativism is defined as the practice of evaluating a culture by its own standards. It means that people who practice cultural relativism require understanding unfamiliar values and norms from other culture and suspending or stopping judging them with the standards of one’s own culture.
To better understand these two concepts here are examples of different perspectives from two opposing ethnic groups; in this case, the view of Panamanians and Chinese living in the same community in the Republic of Panama. First you will see how ethnocentrism is practiced in these two cultures. Then you will see how cultural relativism might be used in this two ethnic groups.

Note that the following statements do not apply to all Panamanians or Chinese. These statements are just used to show how ethnocentric people act in a diverse community. In addition, I may say that these statements are the result from my own experience since I was born in this country and may not be taken as completely true statements.

Chinese people living in Panama have a perspective where they assume that Panamanians are economically not stable. They believe that the money Panamanians earn in a week or a month is wasted in parties every weekend. They also assume that this happens because Panamanians are lazy people who complain about unemployment and do not try to find jobs; they wait for help from the government instead. In addition to this, since Panamanians are not economically stable, Chinese believe that they never pay the bills and debts on time. Also, Chinese people judge black Panamanians as shoplifters and thieves because of the way they look, and behave. They presume that these Panamanians, who wear loose-fitting jeans and large size sweater, might be thieves.
From the perspective of Panamanians, they assume that Chinese people are gamblers. Every weekend or night after working they go to the casino to gamble and they do not leave the casino until they lose everything or win a large amount of money. They will also borrow large amount of money from other Chinese and this will bring them a great debt that may cost their lives if they can not pay the debt on time. Panamanians also suppose that Chinese people smoke a lot everyday. Chinese male people smoke a pack of 20 cigarettes every day; therefore, this makes their body thin and their skin pale. Panamanians believe that Chinese people are stingy and not generous because they do not give to charity but gamble in casinos.
As you see in the examples, ethnocentrism is all about prejudging other cultures and believing that one’s own culture is superior. Now, to avoid the practice of ethnocentrism, people need to understand the values and norms of other cultures in order to practice cultural relativism. I will use the example above to explain the way cultural relativism is used.
First, Chinese people have to know that economically not stable Panamanians might have a job, but the wages of this job is not enough to make them economically stable. Also, Chinese people have to learn that Panamanians are sociable people who go out with their friends and family; not every weekend but at least one day a week. In addition, Chinese people need to learn that people, who wear loose-fitting jeans and large size sweater, are not thieves. And the appearance does not make someone thief.
Second, Panamanians need to understand that gambling is something that some Chinese people practice for entertainment or distraction. This also applies to those Chinese who smoke, and smoking is not the cause of pale skin or thin bodies. Panamanians have to consider that Chinese people are not stingy, but they save money for their family and future generations.
According to the definition of cultural relativism, people need to understand unfamiliar values and norms from other culture and evaluate them by their own standards. This is why Panamanians and Chinese can not say what behavior is wrong or right without understanding the standards of the culture.
In conclusion, the practice of either, ethnocentrism or cultural relativism has impacts in relationships between different ethnic groups. If people only practice ethnocentrism, this will take them to prejudge other cultures. As a result, it may create conflicts and hatred between ethnic groups and consequently racism and genocide. On the other hand, if people just practice cultural relativism, people can not judge the behavior of other cultures in cases where those seem inappropriate. In addition, it also makes people incapable to judge the behaviors of other cultures in cases where it is necessary. It is not easy to say which concept is better, because both have weak points as described previously. However, we must know that when facing a new culture, we have to resist making prejudgments about the new culture and think first about ours as other might see it.


Macionis, John J. Society: The Basics 7th Edition. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. 2004

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