It’s easy to judge other cultures as being weird or gross, but doing so limits our ability to understand them. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses food preferences to illustrate how every culture has elements that shock or offend ethnocentric outsiders.
Growing up I thought everyone ate cinnamon rolls with their chili. Every fall my mom would make homemade cinnamon rolls and chili for our Sunday family dinners. Chili and cinnamon rolls were a regular item on our school hot lunch menu. Heck, chili and cinnamon rolls were so popular that a local chain of restaurants called Runza made it a meal deal. That’s right, where I’m from chili and cinnamon rolls are so popular we had to assign them a number to speed up the ordering process.
I was 30 years old when I discovered that chili and cinnamon rolls wasn’t a thing everywhere. I moved to Georgia and learned that people outside of the midwest thought this food pairing was, “disgusting!” However, I’d challenge that we can all agree that cinnamon rolls are delicious and therefore it’s always a good time to eat one, but let’s get back to the sociology. Taste and food preferences are elements of culture and my love for chili and cinnamon rolls and your disgust illustrates two important sociological concepts.
Ethnocentricity and Cultural Relativism
If you study culture long enough, you will come across something that shocks you. How you handle that feeling of shock will fall somewhere along a continuum with ethnocentricity on one end and cultural relativism on the other. A continuum describes the relationship between two extremes that gradually changes as you move from one end to the other. A dimmer light switch is a good example of a continuum. At the bottom the lights are all the way off, but as you slide the switch up the light gradually increases until you reach the top and maximum brightness.
At one end of our continuum is ethnocentricity. To be ethnocentric is to judge another culture using your cultural’s values and beliefs. In affect, an ethnocentric person says, “there is one right way to live and it’s the way the people of my culture live.” On the opposite end of the continuum is cultural relativity. To be a cultural relativist is to judge another culture with that culture’s values and not your own. In affect, a cultural relativist says, “there are many ways to live and my culture is just one of them.”
It’s hard to be a cultural relativist when another culture is doing something that you feel is morally wrong. However, it’s important to remember that all cultures do things that outsiders find morally wrong. Meaning that if you could see your own culture from the eyes of people from other cultures, you would likely find that your own culture does things that are hard to defend.
For instance, people in the U.S. and the government are quick to chastise countries like China for not allowing their citizens to be free and speak their mind. However, the U.S. incarcerates more of it’s citizens than any other country in the world. The point is, ethnocentric people only need throw a few stones before they discover that they live in a glass house.
See U.S. Culture Again For The First Time
Sociology implores its students to “see the familiar as strange.” This means that to study your own culture, you need to try to see it as strange (or as an outsider would). In this case let’s look at some food items that will be familiar to many U.S. residents as though they were strange or new to us. Here’s just two examples:
- Jell-O – Mmm Mmm! This gelatin dessert is the collagen skimmed off the top of boiled animal bones, skin, tendons, and ligaments. Then artificial coloring and flavoring are added to it.
- Chicken Nuggets – This staple of childhood in the U.S. is made by using high powered industrial blenders to puree chicken carcasses. Then the puree is excreted into nugget shapes, breaded, and fried.
Cultural relativity begs us to be humble about our own culture and remember that it too has idiosyncrasies, oddities, or morally dubious aspects. We should be cautious about judging other cultures as scientists because it is difficult if not impossible to judge something and deeply think about it at the same time. Withholding judgment, even if just for a moment, can help us to better understand the behavior of people who are different from us.
- Think about your culture. What are some things that are widely done within your culture that would likely be seen as odd, gross, or wrong to outsiders?
- Why is it hard to be a cultural relativist sometimes? Explain your answer.
- Watch this short clip of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown set in Iran. What do you think of the sauce they dip their pizza into? What sauces or condiments do people in the U.S. put on top of their pizza or dip their slices into? How would a cultural relativist look at these differences in Pizza?
- In 1948 the United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which outlines rights that the U.N. feels all people are entitled to (you can read them here). Where would universal human rights fall on the ethnocentricity to cultural relativism continuum? That is, are universal human rights ethnocentric, culturally relative, or somewhere in between? Explain your answer.
If you’re not familiar with the adage “those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” you can read more about it here. ↩
Photo Taken by Author (a life long Runza lover).