Search Term Friday: Ethnocentrism and Politics

Frequent search terms bringing people to the blog are these:

ethnocentrism effect on politics
Terms like those link to a review I did back in 2010 discussing Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam's book  Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion. Us Against Them is a data-driven look at the effects of ethnocentrism upon American political discourse.

What is ethnocentrism?

Kinder and Kam define ethnocentrism as generalized prejudice, the propensity to separate the world into in-groups and out-groups. From Us Against Them:
...ethnocentrism is an attitude that divides the world into two opposing camps. From an ethnocentric point of view, groups are either "friend" or they are "foe." Ethnocentrism is a general outlook on social difference; it is prejudice broadly conceived.

We define ethnocentrism to be a way of thinking that partitions the world into in-groups and out-groups--into us and them.
As just described, ethnocentrism is the psychological tendency to separate our social worlds into "us" and "them." And as a part of this process we go on to attribute virtue to people similar to ourselves and vice to out-group members, people from different ethnic groups, nations, socioeconomic strata or belief systems. Consequently, we are ready to help in-group members and thwart out-group members. More from Kinder and Kam on these points:
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...
But what does it mean to say ethnocentrism is generalized prejudice?

We tend to think prejudice is group specific, and it can be. For example, one might have very negative feelings about a particular out-group (e.g., Whites, Blacks, gays, Muslims, etc.). However, the research on ethnocentrism has revealed that prejudices tend to cluster together. Thus, if we hear a person make a comment about people of color on welfare we can make a good guess about where this person stands on gay marriage or immigration reform.

What are the sources of ethnocentrism?

In Us Against Them Kinder and Kam show evidence that ethnocentrism, across ethnic groups, is generally independent of various political positions (e.g., party identification, views on limited government). Among Whites there are some slight trends. For example, among whites ethnocentrism is weakly correlated with political conservatism, a distaste for egalitarianism (e.g., social welfare to produce "fairness"), social distrust, and a desire for a more limited government.

Generally, however, ethnocentrism is a force in American life that is distinct from other, more commonly discussed, political variables. Consequently, Kinder and Kam argue that ethnocentrism needs to be examined as a political force in its own right if we are going to get a true and accurate sense of the dynamics involved in American policy debates.

Interestingly, ethnocentrism declines with increasing education. The most important factor appears to be college education. As Kinder and Kam summarize the data: "Based on these results, it would seem that education, and especially the experience associated with higher education, build tolerance and erode ethnocentrism."

The bulk of of Us Against Them is devoted to examining how ethnocentrism influences how certain Americans approach various policy issues and hot button topics. Kinder and Kam are keen to note that ethnocentrism does not have an effect on every political topic. Rather, ethnocentrism is activated when a particular political issue, or a media framing of the issue, is presented as an "us against them" conflict. Sadly, this "us against them" frame fits many of the issues currently facing America.

In Part 2 of Us Against Them (in Chapters 4-10) Kinder and Kam use two different measures of ethnocentrism to predict attitudes on a variety of political topics. Summarizing, ethnocentrism predicts the following:

  1. An aggressive, hawish foreign policy stance.
  2. Less empathy for foreign civilian casualties in Americn wars (e.g., the deaths of Iraqi women and children in the War on Terror).
  3. Less support for foreign aid and assistance.
  4. Support for anti-immigration policies and protective measures to preserve American culture from the effects of immigration.
  5. Opposition to gay rights.
  6. Opposition to policies, such as affirmative action, aimed at redressing historic inequalities between blacks and whites.
  7. Opposition to means-tested welfare (i.e., programs for low-income persons) such as Food Stamps or Medicaid.
  8. Support for social insurance welfare, such as Social Security and Medicare.

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6 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Ethnocentrism and Politics”

  1. Perhaps you've made a typo with #8? It doesn't fit with the litany of stereotypes listed above it.



  2. No, it's correct. Ethnocentrism among Whites predicts a split view regarding government spending on welfare, welfare for "us" vs. welfare for "them."

    Basically, government spending is okay so long as it is directed toward "us." It's government spending directed toward "them" that's the problem.

    "Big government," in this instance, is cipher and code for ethnocentrism.

  3. It's everywhere! It's everywhere! Ethnocentrism is one of the most significant sociological variables explaining much of our behavior and attitudes. Those trained to see objectively what is can use the concept to gain insight into much political, religious and class values and beliefs. In my part of the South the concept is deeply rooted in our politics and religion. Cultural encapsulation predicts the degree to which it is felt. I once heard a preacher (supposedly this was a slip of the tongue) quote: "For God so loved America that he gave…"

  4. "... it would seem that education, and especially the experience associated with higher education, build tolerance and erode ethnocentrism."

    Generally, true. However, with the increasing number of conservative colleges retreating even further to the Right, the term "Higher Education" often needs clarification. After all, we are living in a time when a conscientious, well read individual with only a High School diploma can trump a PH.D when it comes to understanding the rights of the individual and the health of society. The number of people with "degrees" whose goal is to dismantle Medicaid, and even worse, who hold to the view that the New Testament "Master/Slave" passages infer that slavery is not necessarily an evil is appalling. Many Christian colleges that at one time had student enrollments of which many were of politically liberal families, though religious conservatives, are now hot houses for the religious and political right wing.

    This nation is now going through a struggle for what it will recognize as "education". If it is to stay above a "young earth for white men" its children will need a love and hunger for books. And that usually comes from those that they actually have to turn the pages.

  5. Relatedly is spending associated with #1. "Big government" is okay when it's military spending.

    So, ethnocentrism is associated with "big government" being okay when it's Social Security and defense spending. But not okay when it helps, say, people of color.

  6. Which explains why Gal. 3:26-28 is so invisible, along with Rom. 14. Tribal instincts are perhaps the first syncretism.

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