Nowadays, ethnocentrism is a rather wide-spread phenomenon in all social sciences, as well as being a major social problem experienced both in the United States and all over the world. This notion prevails in researches of separate cultures and nations as it is deemed to be an integral part of human beings. However, the degree of ethnocentrism varies depending on external and internal circumstances, which is also in the focus of many contemporary studies. The topicality of the issue under consideration is associated with the rapid process of ongoing globalization and multiculturalism connected therewith. Currently, the USA may be considered as one of the most multiethnic nations that values diversity in all respects, yet ethnocentrism is a notion contradictory to diversity due to their inherently opposite natures. Therefore, studies of ethnocentrism and ways to combat and decrease it in everyday life have become of utmost importance. At the same time, it is essential to note that ethnocentrism has not only negative outcomes, but also positive ones in addition to being natural for members of a particular culture, but it should be present to a reasonable extent and it should not interfere with effective communication with representatives of other ethnic groups. Thus, with a view to finding some ways on how to combat ethnocentrism in the modern world, it seems reasonable to define the notion and discuss its positive and negative impacts.
The notion of ethnocentrism dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and it is traditionally supposed that William Graham Sumner was the one who coined the term in 1906. In his book focusing on the notion, Sumner offered a general meaning “of provincialism or cultural narrowness” whereby a representative of one cultural group tends to socialize with and readily accept people who are like him, i.e. “ingroup” mates, while rejecting those who are unlike, i.e. coming “outgroup”. Hence, Sumner is credited with inventing the terms of ethnocentrism, ingroup, and outgroup and popularizing these terms within social sciences. Although the overwhelming majority of social scholars agree that Sumner was the first who researched the phenomenon of ethnocentrism and called it as such, not everyone upholds this view. Hence, there are other possible options as to the authorship of the term, including McGee and Gumplowicz. Difficulties with determining the original author of the term are explained by the fact that ethnocentrism is a very ancient phenomenon and it has been mentioned under other names for many centuries. McGee is mentioned as a possible author of the term by the Oxford English Dictionary though he used it in the form of an adjective “ethnocentric”. Nowadays, there is however solid evidence that Gumpowicz used the term ethnocentrism in his works published in German at least several years earlier that his American colleagues. Hence, the German social scientist referred to the concept of “Ethnocentrismus” in 1879 and later throughout the 1880s, coining the term by analogy to anthropocentrism and geocentrism. His primary meaning of the term consisted in a belief of a particular cultural or ethnic group in the centrality of that group and the fact that it is superior and extraordinary. Anyway, all early social scientists agree on the definition of ethnocentrism “as a belief that one’s own group is of central importance and better than any other”. The definition has remained largely the same with slight variations till modern times.
At the same time, it should be noted that ethnocentrism is a natural and significant phenomenon deeply engrained into the psyche of human beings. Ethnocentrism is tightly interconnected with such notions as stereotype and prejudice, which are in turn “firmly grounded in the ways in which humans commonly perceive, categorize, learn, and remember”. The link between ethnocentrism has been acknowledged since the emergence of the term itself, being in a focus of scientists’ attention especially in the middle of the 20th century when Gordon Allport proclaimed that “prejudice … is lockstiched into the very fabric of personality”. Since then, social scientists have attempted to either prove or disprove this statement by studying explicit and implicit ethnocentrism and associated concepts. Explicit ethnocentrism stands for beliefs about one’s cultural or ethnic group in relation to other groups that are direct and conscious, i.e. a person is aware of these beliefs when asked about them or at least when confronting some situation in life and realizing how these beliefs impact behavior. In turn, implicit ethnocentrism is a rather vague notion that is difficult to grasp as it means implicit and unconscious beliefs that a person may not be aware of, but that still affect behavior.
No matter whether implicit or explicit ethnocentrism prevails in a personality, presence of this phenomenon as an individual psychological disposition is natural. It is a means of interacting with and adapting to the environment. Nowadays, there are different scales developed with a view to measuring ethnocentrism. For instance, one of such scales is called GENE and it measures individuals’ feelings about their culture. Besides, ethnocentrism has both negative and positive outcomes. In terms of its positive outcomes, it serves as a foundation for patriotism and readiness of a person to sacrifice for the sake of the group’s well-being. Moreover, ethnocentrism is vital for construction and maintenance of an individual’s cultural identity and assists with determining his/her worldview and cultural beliefs. In terms of negative outcomes, it can result in misunderstandings, emergence of prejudice, stereotypes, and negative attitudes toward other ethnic groups and cultures. In an extreme case, it can promote isolationism and unwillingness to learn about others, ultimately leading to rigidity and inflexibility in thinking and behavior. Another negative outcome of ethnocentrism is the lack of tolerance and acceptance for diversity and multiculturalism, which can really complicate living in a modern highly globalized world and especially in such multiethnic countries as the USA.
Ethnocentrism and the extent to which it is developed in representatives of different groups vary depending on the culture, environment, and gender. Past studies have shown that males tend to be more ethnocentric in most cultures than females, while Japanese and Romanians are among the most ethnocentric nations. Besides, ethnocentrism is connected with intercultural communication competence and sensitivity, being an obstacle to them in case it is highly developed. In fact, ethnocentrism and intercultural sensitivity may be deemed somewhat opposing phenomena, which is proved by the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. According to the model, there are six developmental stages that individuals undergo when moving from ethnocentrism to intercultural sensitivity. The first three stages are those of “denial, defense and minimization” and are regarded to be ethnocentric. The other three stages are of “acceptance, adaptation and integration” and are called “ethno-relative”. Thus, if a person wants to become culturally sensitive and succeed in intercultural communication, one has to move beyond ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism.
Ethnocentrism is present in people’s daily lives even when they do not realize it. The most vivid examples of this concern traffic rules in the UK so that most Americans say that people in Britain drive on the wrong side of the road. An example from my personal experience is related to a Chinese wedding when a bride chose to wear a red dress that in her culture symbolizes happiness and good fortune, but many guests representing other cultures talked a lot about her choice. They claimed that she should have worn a white or at least ivory dress even without realizing that they were promoting ethnocentric prejudice with such commentaries. Therefore, sometimes it is necessary to combat ethnocentrism, but scientists have not suggested an effective way to do that. It has however been proved that first-hand experience is the most efficient and productive way of combating ethnocentrism. Nevertheless, prior to engaging in active interaction with representatives of other cultures, it is advisable to learn something about these cultures so as not to inadvertently insult interlocutors. Hence, lectures on multiculturalism and diversity are needed in educational institutions and teachers should teach children and adolescents to be open-minded and tolerant. Travelling and living in other countries can also be beneficial for development of intercultural sensitivity. In any case, the first step on the road towards combating ethnocentrism should be acknowledgement of its existence and taking of a respective test to measure it. Without acknowledging that it is an integral part of a personality, people will not be able to move beyond the ethnocentric stages of their development towards tolerance and acceptance of multiculturalism and diversity of all kinds.
Withal, ethnocentrism may be concluded to be a complicated and significant social problem that exists to varying extents all over the world. It is a natural phenomenon and it has a lot of positive impacts, which is why it cannot and should not be totally eliminated. However, its manifestation in the extreme negative instance should be avoided and combatted with a view to promoting multiculturalism and diversity, especially in such globalized and multiethnic country as the USA. Although there is no universal method of combating negative outcomes of ethnocentrism, it is known for sure that personal experience and communication with representatives of various cultures can be extremely beneficial. Besides, it is essential to acknowledge existence of prejudice and stereotypes caused by ethnocentrism before even attempting to combat them.