Ethnocentric Assumptions

May 15, 2013 | By More

Ethnocentrism is the belief and feeling that one’s own culture is best. This means anthropologists must become totally objective when they apply themselves to their field work taking caution to not impose their own cultural beliefs on to another society’s culture. Anthropologists must be able to adapt and detach themselves when trying to understand another culture. If they are unable to be open-minded they may view another culture through judgmental eyes and this might askew the research being completed.

In the excerpt “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” anthropologist Richard Lee integrates himself into the culture of the !Kung of Africa. These groups of Bushmen live a primitive life and lack many of the resources Lee possesses. After a yearlong study Lee decided it was best to participate in a !Kung Bushmen version of Christmas which called for the slaughtering of an ox. “The Christmas ox was to be my way of saying thank you for the cooperation of the past year; and since it was to be our last Christmas in the field, I was determined to slaughter the largest, meatiest ox that money could buy, insuring that the feast and trance dance would be a success” (14).  Lee was set on the idea of purchasing the largest ox possible; he felt because it was such large game there could not be anything wrong with this.

After he purchased the ox Lee received a totally opposite reaction from the members of the group. It seemed that no matter who he talked to the news was all the same. He received no positive feedback and many of the comments seemed to be harsh and attacking in nature. “’Perhaps you have forgotten that we are not few, but many. Or are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck? That ox is thin to the point of death’” (15). This caused doubt to grow in Lee and his confidence in this large ox seemed to be thinning. For a brief moment he even convinced himself that one of the Bushmen was up to no good and basically swindled him. He quickly wrote it off however and took a major blow to his confidence in whether the ox would be enough to support such a large group of people.

Finally the day came where the ox was to be slaughtered and men eagerly came to help with the process. After the first incision Lee realized that his ox was not thin and old but rather proved his theory correct about having fat and enough meat for everyone. The Bushmen in attendance still badgered and criticized him. “’You call that fat? This wreck is thin, sick and dead!’ And he broke out laughing. So did everyone else. They rolled on the ground, paralyzed with laughter. Everybody laughed except me; I was thinking” (17). He later concluded that they were joking with him the whole time and were purposely giving him a hard time about the ox.

Lee’s belief was that larger is better and he may have been using his own cultural beliefs at this instance. The problem for him was that the Bushmen continually challenged his perspective stating they believed otherwise. They embedded the notion that the mightiest of animals may be ultimately the weakest and this truly baffled him. After he spoke with a few of the group members he finally realized that the issue he was facing was the Bushmen view of personal glorification. Just because Lee paid for the ox does not make him any more special than the next man. The Bushmen must go out and capture their meals everyday so for Lee to buy an ox and feel like he deserved some sort of acknowledgement was wrong in the eyes of the Bushmen. What’s worse is that Lee attached himself to the situation rather than being objective at all costs. “Yes, when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors” (18). The Bushmen make it a priority to keep everyone in check. No one individual is any better than the rest. Lee soon came to understand this balance of order that took place. “People resented my presence at the water hole, yet simultaneously dreaded my leaving. In short I was a perfect target for the charge of arrogance and for the Bushman tactic of enforcing humility” (18).


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