Us Against Them: Part 2, The Origins of Ethnocentrism

What are the origins of ethnocentrism? Again, Kinder and Kam define ethnocentrism as the psychological tendency to separate our social worlds into "us" and "them." From Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion:

Ethnocentrism is a mental habit. It is a predisposition to divide the human world into in-groups and out-groups. It is a readiness to reduce society to us and them. Or rather, it is a readiness to reduce society to us versus them. This division of humankind into in-group and out-group is not innocuous. Members of in-groups (until they prove otherwise) are assumed to be virtuous: friendly, cooperative, trustworthy, safe, and more. Members of out-groups (until they prove otherwise) are assumed to be the opposite: unfriendly, uncooperative, unworthy of trust, dangerous, and more. Symbols and practices become objects of attachment and pride when they belong to the in-group and objects of condescension, disdain, and (in extreme cases) hatred when they belong to out-groups. Ethnocentrism constitutes a readiness to act in favor of in-groups and in opposition to out-groups...
A nice example of this, per my picture above, is the desire to take back "our" country. Apparently, we take it back from "them."

So where does ethnocentrism come from? In Us Against Them Kinder and Kam review four classic accounts:
1. Actual group conflict
Ethnocentrism arises when real-world groups compete over scarce resources. For example, concerns over immigration (i.e., "those people") might intensify during periods of high unemployment.

2. A symptom of an authoritarian personality
Psychological research in the 1950s found that prejudices tend to be highly correlated. That is, people who are suspicious of, let's say, Jews, also tend to be suspicious of other out-groups: Blacks, gays, Hispanics, etc. What could explain this "generalized prejudice" (i.e., ethnocentrism)? It was argued that a certain personality type--the authoritarian personality--drove this generalized suspicion of out-groups. The authoritarian personality has been described as a rigid adherence to traditional values, a moralistic condemnation of those who violate "traditional" norms, a preoccupation with power, a disdain for empathy/charity, a cynical attitude about human nature and the general view that the world is a dangerous place.

3. The expression of social identity
Social psychological research suggests that identity is inherently a sense of "belonging." We define who we are in relation to some group. This process of social categorization causes us to accentuate the similarities amongst in-group members while accentuating our differences with out-group members.

4. A mental predisposition acquired through natural selection
Group selection accounts of human evolution have suggested that natural selection would have rewarded in-group favoritism and altruism. If so, in-group bias may be an evolved psychological trait.
Overall, Kinder and Kam see truth in all these theories and suggest that a general theory of ethnocentrism should incorporate them all while addressing their limitations. For example, while actual group conflict can be a source of ethnocentrism, a great deal of of group "conflict" is more imagined than real. Fears of "those people" taking "our" jobs might be legitimate in certain cases, but it can also be a symptom of paranoia. A full account of ethnocentrism would have to explain the paranoia (imagined group conflict) along with the legitimate Malthusian struggles between groups. As another example, any genetic account of ethnocentrism will need to consider how social learning and education modify or eliminate our innate inclinations.

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5 thoughts on “Us Against Them: Part 2, The Origins of Ethnocentrism”

  1. Are you familiar with Delli Carpini and Keeter? Currently reading for a graduate Public Choice economics course, but dealing with some of the same issues.
    Can we frame the fear of the other in contrast to voluntary cooperation and gains from trade?
    It seems solidarity arises primarily within thin markets, and generates thick cultures; whereas thicker markets erode culture and make socially-pressured solidarity less important.
    I am currently thinking about usury laws within these contexts.
    Nathanael Snow

  2. See also Robin Hanson, whom I'd suspect you'd like to read.
    Two days ago he cites a new experimental econ paper:
    "One might argue that empathy is good because it promotes cooperation. But a striking experiment in the latest AER shows the dark side of cooperation; better cooperation within teams that fight each other can lead to far more destruction and waste."
    Robin's blog is here:

  3. This reminds me of a piece you posted previously on the different reasons for/against torture, that the trains of logic in each case were rooted in a more fundamental emotional orientation. I wonder if you would say that all politics is basically emotional identification with one side or the other. People say that they are using reason and speaking from principle, but aren't they really just justifying emotional dispositions already in place. For example, the war protest which was so intense around Cindy Sheehan during the Bush Admin. (we could find some interesting ethnocentric posters from this movement) has lost a great deal of steam now that a democrat is in the White House, even though he continues the war effort in increasing ways. Where are all the principled people against war from that movement? I am sure there are still some around but it does not have near the intensity and organization and interest that it had before a democrat got the White House.

    On the other hand, when Bush and the Republican congress were involved in record spending (at that time), where was the Tea Party intensity and movement? My bet is that when a republican gains the White House, the Tea Party will lose its steam, just like the war protest. It looks obvious to me that people are driven more by emotional identification than principles or objective reason. Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck are increasingly becoming mirror images of one another. No one wants to concede a point of discussion. It feels like the political arguments are coming from the need for emotional identification and for certain kinds of drama arising from it.

  4. Well, doc, it's a good thing you announced about 10 days ago that you were to tone down the political rhetoric.

  5. I don't understand why this isn't simply called "emotional immaturity." Because, in Western society, there will always be people you disagree with. And those people will sometimes (*gasp*) be in power. Human history reveals that even when one group consolidates the power, it does not guarantee success. And such an ideal is antithetical to the basis of the Founding Fathers, who believed in dispersing power because they (correctly) distrusted human motives.

    Yet the struggle continues on, needlessly.

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