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Ethnocentrism can be understood as the disposition to read the rest of the world, those of different cultural traditions, from inside the conceptual scheme of one's own ethnocultural group. The ethnocentric attitude assumes that one's own ethnic Weltanschauung (worldview) is the only one from which other customs, practices, and habits can be understood and judged. Ethnocentrism thus is conceived critically as involving overgeneralizations about cultures and their inhabitants, others' or one's own, on the basis of limited or skewed, if any, evidence. So the notion of ethnocentrism is conceived as a profound failure to understand other conceptual schemes, and, by extension, practices, habits, expressions, and articulations of others on their own terms. Standing inside our own conceptual schemes, we are blinded even to the possibilities of other ways of thinking, seeing, understanding, and interpreting the world, of being and belonging—in short, other ways of worldmaking.

It would seem to follow, as many definitions in fact insist, that ethnocentrism is a claim about the superiority of one's own culture or ethnic standing. While this is perhaps a strong presumption in many ethnocentric claims, we should be careful not to make it definitionally so. One can imagine claims of inherent and inescapably culture-bound judgments about ethnically ascribed others, about inherent differences, without assumption or assertion of cultural superiority. If there is any coherence to the concept, "differentialist ethnocentrism" must factor into any working definition of the term as well.

As an analytic concept, ethnocentrism took hold only in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the word did not appear in authoritative dictionaries until the mid-1970s. The reasons are not unrelated to the conceptual history of the term racism. While invocation of the notion of "race" in regard to human beings (and by extension, discussion of racism) became a taboo subject in Europe in the wake of the Holocaust, concerns around racism, socially and analytically, emerged forcefully in the United States. The anthropological concern with culture turned increasingly to the language of ethnicity, reinforced by the emergent hold of area studies and liberal distribution of development aid as an arm of geostrategic politics in the face of colonial liberation and the Cold War. The romance with ethnicity seemed more respectful than the legacy of race, its faux universalism enabling an easy evasiveness. At the same time, the concept of ethnocentrism—largely descriptive and individualist in analytic disposition—could offer a liberal contrast to the more critically pressing concept of "institutional racism," with its sociostructural connotations, emergent in the late 1960s (Carmichael and Hamilton). Indeed, proponents of ethnocentrism today will often claim both racism and colonialism as sub-species of ethnocentrisms. But this would seem to undercut the sociohistorical specificities of both racisms and colonialisms.

Billboard erected on California's Highway 99 during the Depression. Practitioners of ethnocentrism assume that their own ethnic worldview is the only one from which other customs, practices, and habits can be understood and judged. HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEthnocentrism - Definition, Universalizing Ethnocentrism, Conclusion, Bibliography