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Stay Objective

Excellent example of paper 1 by Katie Mayer Fall 2009.

Stay objective: that should be the number one rule in sociology. In practicing any kind of sociological study, it is essential to view a culture from an impartial point of view. How can sociologists hope to understand how any society or group functions if they judge them by their own cultural standards? They cannot. However, maintaining objectivity is easier said than done, and it is easy to make ethnocentric judgments without realizing it.

According to James Henslin's The Essentials of Sociology, ethnocentrism is "a tendency to use our group's ways of doing things as a yardstick for judging others" (37). This tendency is ingrained in us since birth, as we are taught that our group's ways of doing things are the best ways. We internalize our culture's norms to such an extent that we see all other cultures through our own cultural lens and judge them by our own standards. Oftentimes we don't even realize we hold biases until we interact with other cultures.

Daniel Quinn also illustrates this idea in the novel, Ishmael. Ishmael teaches his students that every culture has a "story." This "story" is everything we've ever been taught about how the world has come to be how it is. As Ishmael says, "this explanation covers everything, including the deterioration of the ozone layer, the pollution of the oceans, the destruction of the rain forests, and even human extinction - and it satisfies them." (Quinn 44) This is another way of describing how a culture ingrains in us certain ideas and norms that we don't even realize are there.

This very human inclination is seen all over the world. For example, the Western feminist reaction to Muslim women holds an ethnocentric conflict. Many feminists see Muslim customs like veiling, burqas, and segregated weddings as oppressive and strive to "free" these women from their "struggles." While laws that allow husbands to rape or otherwise harm their wives are clearly a violation of international human rights laws, these customs fall into a cultural gray area. A particularly large debate has surrounded the burqa - Westerners view this practice as a symbol of Muslim women's' oppression by men, solidify their position as second-class citizens, and strip them of an identity. Many feminists and other Westerners hope to help Muslim women escape this custom. However, Muslim women don't always see it that way, nor do they want to be "freed." This particular group of Westerners is judging these Muslim women's customs using their own cultural "yardsticks." In reality, it is impossible for anyone outside of the Muslim world to really know what it means to wear a burqa. While these Western feminists are merely trying to help Muslim women become "free," they are basing this "freedom" off of Western standards, which is not fair. This cultural divide causes Muslim men and women to feel negatively about Westerners and vice versa (Guardian).

Sociologists must not fall into this ethnocentric trap. It is necessary for them to keep their natural tendency toward ethnocentricity in check when studying other cultures; otherwise it is impossible to truly understand them. This objectivity is called "cultural relativism." It should be the goal of sociologists to see a culture for it's many different parts, and to avoid making judgments based on personal opinion.

Practicing cultural relativism can be very difficult. Our culture is so much a part of who we are that it's hard to look beyond what we consider "right" and "wrong" and see another culture for what it is. For example, I believe that animal sacrifice in ceremony is wrong, because in my culture it is not acceptable to torture or kill animals unless they are used for nourishment. But some Hindu and Islam groups, as well as other groups, still practice animal sacrifice today. To me, the practice is cruel. To these groups, animal sacrifice is seen as an important and necessary ceremony. If I were a sociologist studying animal sacrifice, I would need to practice cultural relativism to truly understand what the ritual means, who participates in it, and the nature of the act. This would require putting away my anger, withholding my own opinions while recognizing other viewpoints about these rituals, and witnessing these rituals without protest. I would still be able to believe that it is wrong, but it would be unfair to judge these cultures based on my own values. There is a very fine line to walk, and the reason it is so difficult is because our cultures rest so deeply within each of us (Henslin 39).

Why is practicing cultural relativism necessary? For one, it is impossible to understand others or ourselves without noticing how culture affects us. We are not born with values or opinions or personal style - we get those things through culture, without even realizing it. Like Ishmael says, the "story" in any culture is omnipresent (Quinn 44), and most of the time we don't even realize we're being told it. Thus, sociologists are faced with a difficult task. They must first find out how our culture has ingrained itself in us, and then manipulate that knowledge to move outside of our culture as much as possible and maintain objectivity when studying other cultures. Everyone sees the world in different lights, and if we are to understand one another, it is necessary to let go of the way we see things and see it another way. Biases cloud understanding, willingness to learn, and can give the public false ideas about other cultures (as shown in my earlier example about Muslim women and the West).

Ethnocentrism can be a barrier for understanding one another and for working together towards a common future. Sociologists must strive to step outside of what they know, because understanding a culture on it's own terms is the only fair way to study it.

Works Cited

Guardian Staff. 2009. "Can Western Feminism Save Muslim Women?" Guardian.uk.co.

Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Pearson: New York.

Quinn, Daniel. 1992. Ishmael. Bantam: New York.