Ethnocentrism is the name given to a tendency to interpret or evaluate other cultures in terms of one’s own. This tendency has been, perhaps, more prevalent in modern nations than among preliterate tribes. The citizens of a large nation, especially in the past, have been less likely to observe people in another nation or culture than have been members of small tribes who are well acquainted with the ways of their culturally diverse neighbours. Thus, the American tourist could report that Londoners drive on the wrong side of the street or an Englishman might find some customs on the Continent queer or boorish, merely because they are different. Members of a Pueblo tribe in the American Southwest, on the other hand, might be well acquainted with cultural differences not only among other Pueblos but also in non-Pueblo tribes such as the Navajo and Apache.
Ethnocentrism became prominent among many Europeans after the discovery of the Americas, the islands of the Pacific, and the Far East. Even anthropologists might characterize all preliterate peoples as being without religion (as did Sir John Lubbock) or as having a prelogical mentality (as did Lucien L?vy-Bruhl) merely because their ways of thinking did not correspond with those of the culture of western Europe. Thus, inhabitants of non-Western cultures, particularly those lacking the art of writing, were widely described as being immoral, illogical, queer, or just perverse (Ye Beastly Devices of ye Heathen).
Increased knowledge led to or facilitated a deeper understanding and, with it, a finer appreciation of cultures quite different from one’s own. When it was understood that universal needs could be served with culturally diverse means, that worship might assume a variety of forms, that morality consists in conforming to ethical rules of conduct but does not inhere in the rules themselves, a new view emerged that each culture should be understood and appreciated in terms of itself. What is moral in one culture might be immoral or ethically neutral in another. For example, it was not immoral to kill a baby girl at birth or an aged grandparent who was nonproductive when it was impossible to obtain enough food for all; or wife lending among the Eskimo might be practiced as a gesture of hospitality, a way of cementing a friendship and promoting mutual aid in a harsh and dangerous environment, and thus may acquire the status of a high moral value.
The view that elements of a culture are to be understood and judged in terms of their relationship to the culture as a whole–a doctrine known as cultural relativism–led to the conclusion that the cultures themselves could not be evaluated or graded as higher and lower, superior or inferior. If it was unwarranted to say that patriliny (descent through the male line) was superior or inferior to matriliny (descent through the female line), if it was unjustified or meaningless to say that monogamy was better or worse than polygamy, then it was equally unsound or meaningless to say that one culture was higher or superior to another. A large number of anthropologists subscribed to this view; they argued that such judgments were subjective and therefore unscientific.
It is, of course, true that some values are imponderable and some criteria are subjective. Are people in modern Western culture happier than the Aborigines of Australia? Is it better to be a child than an adult, alive than dead? These certainly are not questions for science. But to say that the culture of the ancient Mayas was not superior to or more highly developed than the crude and simple culture of the Tasmanians or to say that the culture of England in 1966 was not higher than England’s culture in 1066 is to fly in the face of science as well as of common sense.
Cultures have ponderable values as well as imponderable, and the imponderable ones can be measured with objective, meaningful yardsticks. A culture is a means to an end: the security and continuity of life. Some kinds of culture are better means of making life secure than others. Agriculture is a better means of providing food than hunting and gathering. The productivity of human labour has been increased by machinery and by the utilization of the energy of nonhuman animals, water and wind power, and fossil fuels. Some cultures have more effective means of coping with disease than others, and this superiority is expressed mathematically in death rates. And there are many other ways in which meaningful differences can be measured and evaluations made. Thus, the proposition that cultures have ponderable values that can be measured meaningfully by objective yardsticks and arranged in a series of stages, higher and lower, is substantiated. But, it should be noted, this is not equivalent to saying that man is happier or that the dignity of the individual (an imponderable) is greater in an industrialized or agricultural sociocultural system than in one supported by human labour alone and sustained wholly by wild foods.
Actually, however, there is no necessary conflict between the doctrine of cultural relativism and the thesis that cultures can be objectively graded in a scientific manner. It is one thing to reject the statement that monogamy is better than polygamy and quite another to deny that one kind of sociocultural system contains a better means of providing food or combating disease than another.
Cultural adaptation and Change
Ecological or Environmental Change
Every sociocultural system exists in a natural habitat, and, of course, this environment exerts an influence upon the cultural system. The cultures of some Eskimo groups present remarkable instances of adaptation to environmental conditions: tailored fur clothing, snow goggles, boats and harpoons for hunting sea mammals, and, in some instances, hemispherical snow houses, or igloos. Some sedentary, horticultural tribes of the upper Missouri River went out into the Great Plains and became nomadic hunters after the introduction of the horse. The culture of the Navajos underwent profound change after they acquired herds of sheep and a market for their rugs was developed. The older theories of simple environmentalism, some of which maintained that even styles of myths and tales were determined by topography, climate, flora, and other factors, are no longer in vogue. The present view is that the environment permits, at times encourages, and also prohibits the acquisition or use of certain cultural traits but otherwise does not determine culture change. The Fuegians living at the southern tip of South America, as viewed by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle, lived in a very cold, harsh environment but were virtually without both clothing and dwellings.
Culture is contagious, as a prominent anthropologist once remarked, meaning that customs, beliefs, tools, techniques, folktales, ornaments, and so on may diffuse from one people or region to another. To be sure, a culture trait must offer some advantage, some utility or pleasure, to be sought and accepted by a people. (Some anthropologists have assumed that basic features of social structure, such as clan organization, may diffuse, but a sounder view holds that these features involving the organic structure of the society must be developed within societies themselves.) The degree of isolation of a sociocultural system–brought about by physical barriers such as deserts, mountain ranges, and bodies of water–has, of course, an important bearing upon the ease or difficulty of diffusion. Within the limits of desirability on the one hand and the possibility of communication on the other, diffusion of culture has taken place everywhere and in all times. Archaeological evidence shows that amber from the Baltic region diffused to the Mediterranean coast; and, conversely, early coins from the Middle East found their way to northern Europe. In aboriginal North America, copper objects from northern Michigan have been found in mounds in Georgia; macaw feathers from Central America turn up in archaeological sites in northern Arizona. Some Indian tribes in northwestern regions of the United States had possessed horses, originally brought into the Southwest by Spanish explorers, years before they had ever even seen white men. The wide dispersion of tobacco, corn (maize), coffee, the sweet potato, and many other traits are conspicuous examples of cultural diffusion.
Diffusion may take place between tribes or nations that are approximately equal in political and military power and of equivalent stages of cultural development, such as the spread of the sun dance among the Plains tribes of North America. But in other instances, it takes place between sociocultural systems differing widely in this respect. Conspicuous examples of this have been instances of conquest and colonization of various regions by the nations of modern Europe. In these cases it is often said that the culture of the more highly developed nation is imposed upon the less developed peoples and cultures, and there is, of course, much truth in this; the acquisition of foreign culture by the subject people is called acculturation and is manifested by the indigenous populations of Latin America as well as of other regions. But even in cases of conquest, traits from the conquered peoples may diffuse to those of the more advanced cultures; examples might include, in addition to the cultivated plants cited above, individual words (coyote), musical themes, games, and art motifs.
One of the major problems ofethnology during the latter half of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th centuries was the question How are cultural similarities in noncontiguous regions to be explained? Did the concepts of pyramid building, mummification, and sun worship originate independently in ancient Egypt and in the Andean highlands and in Yucat?n or did these traits originate in Egypt and diffuse from there to the Americas, as some anthropologists have believed? Some schools of ethnological theory have held to one view, some, to another. The 19th-century classical evolutionists (which included Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H. Morgan, among others) held that the mind of man is so constituted or endowed that he will develop cultures everywhere along the same lines. Diffusionists–those, such as Fritz Graebner and Elliot Smith, who offered grand theories about the diffusion of traits all over the world–maintained that man was inherently uninventive and that culture, once created, tended to spread everywhere. Each school tended to insist that its view was the correct one, and it would continue to hold that view unless definite proof of the contrary could be adduced.
The tendency nowadays is not to side categorically with one school as against another but to decide each case on its own merits. The consensus with regard to pyramids is that they were developed independently in Egypt and the Americas because they differ markedly in structure and function: the Egyptian pyramids were built of stone blocks and contained tombs within their interiors. The American pyramids were constructed of earth, then faced with stone, and they served as the bases of temples. The verdict with regard to the bow and arrow is that it was invented only once and subsequently diffused to all regions where it has been found. The probable antiquity of the origin of fire making, however, and the various ways of generating it–by percussion, friction, compression (fire pistons)–indicate multiple origins.
Evolution of culture–that is, the development of forms through time–has taken place. No amount of diffusion of picture writing could of itself, for instance, produce the alphabetic system of writing; as Tylor demonstrated so well, the art of writing has developed through a series of stages, which began with picture writing, progressed to hieroglyphic writing, and culminated in alphabetic writing. In the realm of social organization there was a development from territorial groups composed of families to segmented societies (clans and larger groupings). Sociocultural evolution, like biologic evolution, exhibits a progressive differentiation of structure and specialization of function.
A misunderstanding has arisen with regard to the relationship between evolution and diffusion. It has been argued, for example, that the theory of cultural evolution was unsound because some peoples skipped a stage in a supposedly determined sequence; for example, some African tribes, as a consequence of diffusion, went from the Stone Age to the Iron Age without an intermediate age of copper and bronze. But the classical evolutionists did not maintain that peoples, or societies, had to pass through a fixed series of stages in the course of development, but that tools, techniques, institutions–in short, culture–had to pass through the stages. The sequence of stages of writing did not mean that a society could not acquire the alphabet without working its way through hieroglyphic writing; it was obvious that many peoples did skip directly to the alphabet.