Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


MAY 12, 2010 12:06AM

Incredulity of Privilege I: Ethnocentrism

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I've been thinking quite a bit about the concept of the "Incredulity of Privilege," a phrase I first encountered on White Coat Underground. It's the idea that we all have a hard time stepping outside of our own experiences and imagining how life is different for Others. I mentioned this concept once in a previous post regarding misogyny. The healthcare debate in the US is another (one of many) good example: everyone I know who is opposed to expanding access to healthcare already has great access and/or subsidized insurance themselves and has never had to struggle to find and pay for coverage on the private market. Because they have never experienced this horrific form of social darwinism, they don't recognize access to healthcare as a problem. 


I want to explore incredulity of privilege in a series of posts examining a variety of cultural constructs.  I think ethnocentrism is a good place to begin because the two concepts are closely related. Where incredulity of privilege is the difficulty recognizing that one's own position of privilege perpetuates disadvantage and discrimination, ethnocentrism is the intrinsic, almost unconscious, belief that one's own culture and demographic represent the pinnacle of human achievement. Enjoy...


Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own cultural paradigms are superior to those of other cultures.  I don't like to think of myself as ethnocentric, but this Wikipedia description is an uncomfortable, if only occasional, fit.  It's a fallacy of thinking that I actively struggle against.


“The psychological underpinning of having ethnocentrism appears to be assigning to various cultures higher or lower status or value by an ethnocentric person who then assumes that the culture of higher status or value is intrinsically better than other cultures. The ethnocentric person, when assigning the status or value to various cultures, will automatically assign to their own culture the highest status or value. Ethnocentrism is a natural result of the observation that most people are more comfortable with and prefer the company of people who are like themselves, sharing similar values and behaving in similar ways.”


We all have a natural tendency to insulate ourselves in an echo chamber and ignore different or dissenting paradigms.  That’s not to say that ethnocentrism is always a bad thing. There may be evolutionary precedents for tribalism


“Tribalism has a very adaptive effect in human evolution. Humans are social animals, and ill-equipped to live on their own. Tribalism and ethnocentrism help to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations may fray. This keeps individuals from wandering off or joining other groups.”


All humans assign cultural boundaries to sort out our complex world.   Of course we all believe that our own tribe is superior.  When we encounter a cultural trait that is “better” than an existing homolog in our own culture, we incorporate the new trait and it becomes the new cultural norm for our group.  This is one way in which cultures adapt and evolve.  


I enjoy exploring the underpinnings of mainstream Western norms, and I really enjoy trying to view my own cultural eccentricities through the lens of anthropology (with a tone of self-deprecating humor, I hope...).  It is very tempting to self-sort into peer groups that are comprised of very similar individual members--thus creating an echo chamber that reinforces our biases.  Surrounding ourselves with with people like us who share our values and support our views feels really good because this reinforces our beliefs. Unfortunately, our perspective is very limited if we don't occasionally try to step outside our own tiny microcosms and open our minds. It's difficult and frightening to seriously consider opposing viewpoints that call our own certitude into question. 


Ethnocentrism is an appropriate artifact of social strata; however it can be inappropriate and even slightly maladaptive when broadly applied against diverse cultural paradigms.  Dr. Amy Tuteur has recently posted a fascinating series about the natural childbirth (NCB) movement and its impact on mothers who don't follow the current NCB protocols. The comment sections are always really interesting. 


I got into a minor dust-up recently with another commenter, Rambling Family Manager, here.  We both brought our own incredulity of privilege and ethnocentrism to the exchange.  In my opinion, she was translating her own positive experience with natural childbirth into a goal all women should aspire to and supporting this position with claims that are not supported by science. She had a terrible epidural experience with her first child and was fortunate to have relatively easy natural births with her second and third children.  She believes that nearly all women can achieve her personal childbirth ideal using the Bradley method as she did.  I interpreted this stance as both ethnocentric and informed by the incredulity of privilege--she had a terrible epidural experience and relatively easy natural births, therefore most epidurals are awful and most natural births using the Bradley method are awesome. 


I'm not opposed to natural childbirth, and in fact I think women should be supported in their individual birth decisions with the caveat that they don't knowingly endanger their unborn child in order to prove some sort of political point. However, I am opposed to making new mothers feel awful about healthy outcomes or circumstances completely beyond their control. I don't think women should judge each other about childbirth (or about many other parenting-related issues).  Here's what I believe:


The biology surrounding childbirth is complicated.  Even under the best of circumstances the process can be intimidating.  Doctors and hospitals can be unsettling. Just as women come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so do their pelvises.  Each pregnancy is different.  A mother may have a safe and relatively pain-free birth the first time and later struggle with a painful high-risk birth in a subsequent pregnancy.  Like skin color or eye color, childbirth is just another manifestation of human variation and should be free from external bias. 


I jumped into the fray with exasperation about what I perceived as Rambling Family Manager's judgement of women who birthed differently than she did. I had an awesome epidural experience with my first child and an incredibly painful labor with my second when the epidural didn't arrive on time (pitocin--dilation from 3cm to pushing in under 20 minutes).  My own incredulity of privilege stems from my positive personal experience as well as much anecdotal evidence that many women who have epidurals have a positive experience.  (If I do this again and my OB suggests pitocin, I will not consent until the anesthesiologist standing in my room prepped to tap my spine.) None of this means that I freaked out, or that I couldn't manage the pain in other ways, just that I strongly prefer the epidural. I also pointed out that my own experience contradicts the NCB meme that all OBs coerce women into accepting epidurals out of some sort of profit motive or egotistical abuse of power leading inevitably to surgical birth. If this were true the epidural I asked for in advance would have been ready to go when I was ready for it, and if all epidurals lead inevitably to C-section, my first child would not have torn up my labia upon his exit.  


Rambling Family Manager responded to me in a way that I interpreted as condescension, which is evidence of my own ethnocentrism. She claims not to practice and to rarely experience the type of judgmental interaction that I ascribed to her, and was therefore unaware that her comments might come across as condescending.  To her credit, she invited me to comment on her own blog about the dust-up. Here's an excerpt from my comment: 


I think it's possible to say in a respectful way: "Oh, I did it differently, and isn't that interesting...." rather than: "Oh, I did it differently, therefore you did it wrong...."


The problem is that ethnocentrism can prevent us from accepting difference as equally valid (or even possibly better). I tried to articulate something similar on a different Tuteur comment thread. I'll paraphrase: It's possible to embrace the dominant cultural paradigm while still cutting yourself and others some slack. We're all imperfect and just doing the best we can. 



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I think that some cultures are superior to others.

In fact, if you don't, maybe you should find one that is better.

I think the FGM thing put me over the edge on this one. Plus, people seem to like American culture a lot. We should go with it.
By 'you' I don't mean YOU ... I mean, 'one'.

I like blue state liberals. Shoot me.
Hey Nick! Thanks for the comments!

I totally agree about the FGM thing. I also agree that some cultures are better than others--especially regarding human rights. It's true that "one's" own culture is not necessarily superior on all fronts.
Or that we shouldn't try to evaluate their practices with an open mind or avoid evaluating our own with skepticism.

Thanks for stopping by!
It was late... second paragraph of my comment responding to Nick should read:

A given culture can be superior in certain ways, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's superior in all ways. We should all try to evaluate the cultures of Others with an open mind and evaluate our own with skepticism.
Incredibly, incredulity is actually only the practice of the credulous.

Incredulity of privilege- being unwilling to admit or accept facts obvious to a neutral third party, manifests itself in the worst of right and left, those unable to see past their own naive reality, unable, due to a lack of what they purport to have on their side, truth, to see the proverbial forest through the trees.

While the hypocrisy of such practitioners on the right has bright light shined on it, as it represents actual steps taken to prevent equality of other groups, an honest observer can see, as per your natural birth example, that the far left, and zealots of any stripe, can share in this blatant form of fascism.

nice work, rated.
Hi AU! Another great post as usual. I apologize in advance for quoting at such length from J.K. Rowling's speech to Harvard grads in 2008, but it fits perfectly. Her theme was imagination:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

...And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

I do think tribalism--both xenophobia (out-group hostility) and ethnocentrism (in-group favoritism)--are rooted in evolutionary psychology. Given the complex adaptations of the human brain and the fact that most of our internal working models and cognitive structures are 10,000 years old, I think much of our behavior comes from that old chestnut, survival. In a paper I did a couple years ago, I tied xenophobia to psychology's attachment theory (an adapted system that keeps infants in close proximity to their caregivers). Ethnocentrism is more complicated because it involves altruism, a confounding principle if there ever was one to evolutionary biologists. EO Wilson has a new idea coming out soon in Nature that expounds on his multilevel selection theory, which he says supplants the current kinship model, and may better explain why some individuals, at risk to their own fitness (always measured in reproductive capacity, or fecundity), behave in a way to increase survival benefits for others.

At any rate, I always loved Rowling's speech. A thoughtful acquaintance once mentioned in passing, in connection with our high schoolers at the time, that understanding that other people do not have the same experience that we ourselves have is the mark of maturity. I thought that was profound. And I think the trait itself is actually quite rare.
Oahusurfer: Thanks for the comment! Thanks for pointing out that extremists on both sides are guilty.

It's snowing today where I live, so doing almost anything in Oahu sounds wonderful...

Lainey: Thanks! Awesome comment and quote. This bit was my favorite Rowling bit:

"Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. "

Also, I hadn't thought about the ethnocentrism/autism connection before. I read a couple of EO Wilson's books many years ago--Consilience was one. I'm looking forward to learning about his new model. Hopefully you will post something when Nature publishes it?
Enjoying the discussion and looking forward to the rest of the series.

When I started doing some deep re-thinking of this issue several months ago, it was while reading various idiotic misogynist comments on some blog posts, and I kept seeing the same things over and over, a complete inability to see things as "the other". I understand that it's not easy (at least for me), but to be a good human being, you have to be able to exhibit actual empathy.
Pal MD!! One of his posts inspired this series. He writes really interesting blogs here and here.

Thanks so much for the inspiration and for taking the time to read and comment.