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Anthropologists often immerse themselves in a distant culture in order to get a better feeling of the beliefs, views, and ideas present in a society. They attempt to get an emic (inside) view of the society. Unfortunately however, many of these anthropologists, approach the culture with an ethnocentric viewpoint.

What is ethnocentrism? Ethnocentrism is when someone judges others from their own viewpoint without taking their culture into account. The opposite of enthrocentrism is relativism, when you feel that someone believes what they believe because they learned it as such.

There are four types of biases which are present in ethnocentrism:

Subjective bias- When experiences of the observer, or their point of view, influence their outlook on a culture.

Evaluative bias- When the observer judges what is good or bad, right or wrong, based on their own culture beliefs, not those of the host culture.

Cognitive bias- When the observer does not recognize that different words, acts, or symbols have a different meaning that what they do in their own culture.

Conceptual bias- When the observer does not recognize that the host culture has different world views than their own.

Let us take the example of ethnologist Charles Wagley, who studied the Tapirapé Indians of central Brazil. In this culture, the climate was harsh, and food was limited, also the society was struggling to preserve the gene pool. As a result, there were strict rules enforced on how many children couples could have, and what sex the children could be. When an “accidental” child was born, that child was killed, also known as infanticide. If Wagley had been ethnocentric, he would have described this as cruel and inhumane. Instead, he explained the societal tolerance of the practice, and avoided subjective bias.

Bias is also present in other kinds of research, such as medicine. It is for this reason that blind testing is done, where the subject is unaware if they have they have the placebo or test drug. Double-blind testing is often used to avoid the bias of the doctor, this is where neither doctor nor patient are aware if they are in the control or experimental group.

Through awareness and compensation, biases and ethnocentrism can be avoided. It is extremely difficult in anthropology, where many things are subjective, however it can be accomplished. Operational definitions are often helpful, for they set rigid circumstances through which thoughts can be described.