Cultures don’t meet, people do: Ethnocentrism and essentialism

By Arjan Verdooren

There is a goal that virtually all methods and models of intercultural communication have in common – explicitly or implicitly. This goal is countering ‘ethnocentrism’: the tendency to assume one’s own worldview as normal and natural, and judge others on the basis of this worldview. Ethnocentrism is associated with closed-mindedness, inflexibility and feelings of superiority: things that can safely be considered bad for intercultural interactions. My argument is however that an emphasis on avoiding ethnocentrism is not always enough to improve intercultural communication in today’s world.

Intercultural methods, models and approaches aim to make trainees aware of their own cultural socialization and of other cultural views and habits.

The fight against ethnocentrism is closely related to the history of interculturalists’ main concept: culture. Until it was adopted by cultural anthropologists in the late 19th century, ‘culture’ was mainly equated with ‘civilization’. In the era of colonialism, it was commonplace to think certain groups had more ‘culture’ than others. The belief that non-western groups were less ‘civilized’ then often served as a legitimization for colonial oppression and subjugation. After studying groups outside the western world, cultural anthropologists came to the revolutionary conclusion that these did not have less culture, but entirely different ones. This became an important argument for decolonisation; if ‘they’ were not less civilized, but fundamentally different, colonial powers had no business ruling and exploiting them. Cultural differences hence became a strong argument to argue for more equality and justice among different ethnic and national groups.

It was this same concept of culture that was adopted by interculturalists: a concept that assumes clear boundaries between groups and an inescapable influence of cultures on their members. The vast majority of intercultural methods, models and approaches aim to decrease trainees’ ethnocentrism by making them aware of their own cultural socialization and of other cultural views and habits. In their rightful enthusiasm to take on trainees’ ethnocentrism, interculturalists thus emphasize the importance of culture for human experience and the cultural differences between groups.

Ethnocentrism: thinking your ‘worldview’ is the only logical one. But who decided what was up or down on the world map?

This approach to culture however is nowadays often criticized for being essentialist. This is the tendency to attribute an unchangeable, self-evident essence to a phenomenon or group that explains and determines their behaviour. Essentialism, like ethnocentrism, can also be considered to be a human tendency. It entails the need to categorize, generalize and simplify and to take given categorizations (like nationality, ethnicity or race) for granted. Depending on the approach to culture they propagate, interculturalists can however contribute to these essentialist pitfalls or oppose them.

It is important to emphasize that this discussion takes place in a world that is quite different from that of the early anthropologists. Perhaps it once made sense to imagine the world as a sort of archipelago of separate cultural islands, where contact was the exception, but it definitely does no longer. In today’s world with frequent interaction, interdependence and exchange between different ethnic, national and religious groups, the dangers of essentialism become much more apparent.  Portraying cultures as clearly bounded, homogeneous entities can then lead people to believe that they are essentially different from one another. Such an understanding of culture can then play into stereotyping, us-them thinking, and making people uneasy or even hostile towards intercultural contact.

Interculturalism, that often involves labelling and categorizing groups, can then even be counterproductive to the early anthropologists’ ideals of equality and freedom. Consider the statement, for example, from a Dutch (social-democratic) alderman, about responding to problems with Moroccan-Dutch youngsters. Since they were from a shame-culture, he said, there should be policies to ‘humiliate them in front of their own people’. It should need no further argument that a state policy to openly humiliate citizens based on their ethnicity, would be a really bad thing. Note that the distinction between ‘shame-cultures’ and ‘guilt-cultures’ is one that is regularly championed by interculturalists. The supposed ‘essence’ of a group can just as easily be used to argue for tolerance and acceptance as for exclusion and unequal treatment, something we should be very wary of.

In sum, an approach to intercultural communication and competence for today’s world should actively aim to overcome essentialism as much as ethnocentrism. It is not enough to warn people not to stereotype and that there are exceptions to categories and dimensions. In my opinion, this does not lead to fighting essentialism but to being half-essentialist at best. An approach that takes the dangers of essentialism as well as ethnocentrism equally seriously should aim to uncover similarities between people as much as differences. It should encourage people to be aware of their own norms and preferences, without stereotyping others. It should approach people as products as well as producers of culture that can exchange, negotiate, expand or revise their cultural repertoires – or sometimes ignore them completely. It should show that there can be other factors and phenomena at work in intercultural interactions than those described by dimensional models and that – perhaps the biggest blindspot in intercultural theory – not even all these factors have to do with culture.




Diversity Competence: Cultures don’t meet, people do, by Edwin Hoffman and Arjan Verdooren, is available now from the CABI Bookshop.



Photo credits: Pixabay

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