The individual self-concept revolves around the person – separate from anything else. It’s the manner in which we perceive ourselves to be unique, autonomous and relatively in control of our own destiny. Generally speaking, this is the self-concept which often characterizes the achievement-oriented, ‘individualistic West’; everyone seeks their own happiness, and as long as their journey doesn’t infringe on those of others, that’s all that matters – to each their own. To give a concrete example, such a person, when asked who they are, will likely provide a CV of their accomplishments.
The social self-concept, on the other hand, defines the individual as a function of others. Thus, a person is no longer separate, but is part of a larger whole; intuitively, this implies then social responsibilities and orientations which include the safeguarding of social order and maintaining the well-being and continuity of the group – even to the detriment of one’s self. Here, when asked who they are, an individual will probably outline their heritage and social affiliations rather than hand out copies of their CV.
Finally, there’s the divine self-concept, in which our frame of reference moves far beyond ourselves and others towards a relation to some transcendental entity – for all sake and purposes, we will identify that entity as God, but it may well be other deities or spirits depending on one's beliefs. With one’s self now defined relative to God, so will one’s motivations and outlooks be in accordance to His divine will. When asked who they are, a person will disregard personal accomplishments and social standing in favor of one’s relation to God, to whom the two former elements may be irrelevant.
Fascinatingly, many of the contemporary issues present in multicultural societies arise as a function of misunderstanding these differences in self-concepts. For example, when a government bans head-scarves (hijabs), their assumption is that we all share an entirely individualistic self-concept and that the hijab, ultimately, is a personal choice even if, Muslims argue, it’s religiously prescribed. Nevertheless, if one listens closely, the uproar following hijab-bans are not because of the hijab per se, but rather Muslims feel their very self-concepts are under attack vis-à-vis the significance they ascribe to its divine configuration. Thus, while the government may effectively ban the hijab with the understanding that religion is a ‘personal choice’ within an individualistic model of the self-concept, Muslims feel confronted at their very core.
What is ethnocentrism? In academic discourse, ethnocentrism is one of the several processes in which a group sidelines and discriminates upon another group. Specifically, it implies an imposition of our worldview unto others, thereby judging them unfairly by standards they do not hold, and sidelining other interpretations of their practices. The following is a simple analogy to help clarify ethnocentrism, with Group A being the majority group in a country, and Group B being the minority group:
Group B like to dress their pets in fancy clothes (not to keep them warm, but to dress them up). Group A, however, believes that animals have a natural thermal insulation built-in, and thus prohibit the practice of pet-dressing. This prohibition hurts the individuals of Group B immensely; to them, their pets are perceived (read: loved) as family members, worthy of as much clothing as their own children. By means of the prohibition, Group A believes Group B should view their pets the same way they do - an animal with no familial relation and unworthy of such fashion. This prohibition profoundly troubles Group B, naturally, and we could assume that the ban will spark an endless furor on Group B’s part. The ethnocentrism in this example is the following: the imposition of one’s belief [animals are less-than-human creatures and should not be dressed] on others who view some animals differently [their pets are family members and deserving of the same courtesy they give the rest of the family].
I deliberately used such an odd example to highlight how things one group may perceive as trivial may be central in another group’s beliefs. Therein lies the danger and fallacy of ethnocentrism – it’s essentially human. As such, ethnocentrism has little do with ethnicity, and everything to do self-awareness. Why is this the case? By the very nature of our humanity, our minds cannot venture outside the confines of our own experiences; we cannot escape our subjectivity. We judge ourselves and others according to our own experiences and beliefs. Thus, even our ‘reasoning’ is subject to tunnel vision; as a philosopher once said, “the objective is subjective.” It’s only with great effort and introspection can we be made aware of our subjective limitations. However, we can never overcome them – we are only human, after all. But this limitation, when dismissed, is what inherently erects the boundary of interaction. Two people, unaware of the subjective boundary that exists between them, will never actually communicate with one another, but rather ‘speak by each other’ or otherwise oppress one another with their viewpoints. This ‘oppression of subjectivity’ will be the topic of an upcoming article.