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1.5 Understanding Others

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    Cultural Intelligence and Cultural Competency

    In a culturally diverse society, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to interact effectively with others. Our ability to communicate and interact with each other plays an integral role in the successful development of our relationships for personal and social prosperity. Building cultural intelligence requires active awareness of self, others, and context (Bucher, 2008). Self-awareness requires an understanding of our cultural identity including intrinsic or extrinsic bias we have about others and social categories of people. Cultural background greatly influences perception and understanding, and how we identify ourselves reflects on how we communicate and get along with others. Active awareness of others broadens one’s sociological imagination to see the world and others through a different lens and understand diverse perspectives.

    Three concepts that characterize cultural competence are self-awareness, education, and interaction (Young Adult Library Services Association - YALSA). Self-awareness involves recognizing the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others. Education relates to an individual’s ability to fully integrate members of diverse groups into services, work, and institutions in such a way that the lives of the individuals being served and those of the people delivering service are enhanced. Interaction concerns understanding and respecting cultural backgrounds other than one’s own through engaging with individuals from diverse ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic strata.

    Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

    People have a tendency to judge and evaluate each other on a daily basis. Assessing other people and our surroundings is necessary for interpreting and interacting in the social world. Problems arise when we judge others using our own cultural standards. Sociologists call the practice of judging or evaluating others through our own cultural lens, ethnocentrism. This practice is a cultural universal. People everywhere think their culture is true, moral, proper, and right (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). By its very definition, ethnocentrism creates division and conflict between social groups whereby mediating differences is challenging when everyone believes they are culturally superior and their culture should be the standard for living.

    The ethnocentrism of Europeans, and then later Euro-Americans, led to an ideology, based primarily on the low-technology hunter-gatherer lifestyle and animistic religion of the Native Americans, that the Native Americans were inferior, "savages," and sub-human. As discussed further in Chapter 5.1, this ideology eventually led to “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” philosophy which began with such events as the Trail of Tears in the 1830's and culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. The “butchering” at Wounded Knee as Black Elk describes it (Neihardt, 1932) marked the last battle between Native Americans and the military forces of the United States. However, there were still skirmishes between farmers and ranchers and Native Americans as late as the 1920's. In fact, the term “Redskin” comes from a bounty set aside by the United States government for any Indian found outside a reservation without papers. The policy was for Indians “dead or alive” and the bloody, red, skins of the Indians brought as much bounty as a body. An extension of this ethnocentrism is found in another ideology popularized by the educator William Henry Pratt, "kill the Indian, save the man." Operationalized in the treatment of Native American children during the boarding school era, any cultural aspect of one's Native American nation (e.g., language, food, dress, religion, hairstyle, etc.) was replaced with Euro American ways (i.e. English language, Christianity, etc.). Children were punished for attempting to practice the culture and language of their ancestors.

    In contrast, cultural relativism is understanding a culture on its own terms. From a culturally relativist lens, judging a culture by the standards of another is objectionable. It seems reasonable to evaluate a person’s values, beliefs, and practices from their own cultural standards rather than to judge against the criteria of another (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Learning to receive cultural differences from a place of empathy and understanding serves as a foundation for living together despite variances. Like many aspects of human civilization, culture is not absolute but relative suggesting values, beliefs, and practices are only standards of living as long as people accept and live by them (Boas, 1887). Developing knowledge about cultures and cultural groups different from our own allows us to view and consider others from their cultural lens.

    Countless anecdotal stories from various parts of the U.S. reveal that people speaking a language other than English have been shouted at to "speak English here!" Consider an even more controversial issue such as female circumcision or female genital mutilation. From a culturally relativist lens, female circumcision is a rite of passage in some cultures and confers a sense of identity and participation in one's community, as described in a biographical account, Aman, by a Somali woman. However, this Somali woman would view a Westerner referring to this cultural practice as female genital mutilation as ethnocentric. This example reveals how challenging it can be to consider different cultural practices that may be in conflict with one's own values. Still, the tool of cultural relativism is an important one that students of sociology can consider when developing a deeper understanding of ethnicity.


    1.5 Understanding Others is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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