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Surveys, Statistics, and Ethnocentrism

September 5, 2012

“That’s pretty ethnocentric of you!”

That’s the charge that one classmate leveled against another during a graduate course studying healthcare systems around the world. The second classmate made this accusation after the first one had commented that statistics and surveys about various aspects of healthcare in different countries around the world should not always be taken at face value. Instead, she insisted, the reports and statistics should be closely evaluated and interpreted before accepted as being “accurate.”  She cited West Africa as an example saying that often times culture dictates that a child is not considered to be a person until he or she is given a name and that names are often not given until weeks or even months after birth.

So, was the first student being ethnocentric to question the “accuracy” of these reports?

In order to answer that question, we first need to take a couple of steps.

First, we need to define ethnocentrism. Popularly, people tend to think of ethnocentrism as the being the same as racism — as thinking that “my culture is better than your culture.” While a feeling of superiority is certainly often part of ethnocentrism, it is imprecise to think of ethnocentrism merely as racism. Cultural Anthropologist and Missiologist Paul Hiebert defined ethnocentrism as,

“the tendency of people to judge other cultures by the values and assumptions of their own culture.”

Notice two aspects to Hiebert’s definition. First, it is a “tendency of people” – it’s human nature. All people everywhere tend to think of themselves as “us,” and the rest of the world as “them.” Ethnocentrism is hardwired into human nature. Second, the central aspect of ethnocentrism is the “judging of other cultures by the values and assumptions of their own culture.” The judging – not the verdict of that judgment — is the key. In other words, the act of judging another culture by one’s own cultural assumptions and values is what characterizes ethnocentrism. Assuming that “they” think about things in the same way that “we” think about things is the core of ethnocentrism.

In answering our above question, our second step is to evaluate what each of the students meant by their statements. The first student said that they should not assume that other cultures, societies, and cultures are accurate when compared to an American understanding of these same concepts. Do the surveys and statistics from country X mean the same thing as American statistics when reporting statistics regarding things like birthrates, death rates, diseases, etc? The first student says, “No.” There is no implication of superiority in this statement – she was simply stating that the two groups may not have had the same understanding of the concepts involved in the study. In other words, inaccurate in the mathematical/data gathering sense does not equal wrong in the moral sense. Inaccurate simply means that one set is not equal in type and kind to the first set. The first student wanted to add a qualitative aspect to the quantitative data that had been gathered. Was she being ethnocentric?

Meanwhile, the second student said that assuming other cultures, societies, and countries don’t think about life, death, surveys, and statistics like Americans was “ethnocentric” (by which he meant racist and bigoted). This student was willing to accept the surveys and statistics from another country without any critical evaluation. He just assumed that they gathered data and thought about life, death, and disease in the same way that Americans do.

So, was the first student being ethnocentric?

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