3 minute read

The Stained Glass Perspective

We should be using sociology to better ourselves and society.

How do we attempt to create a world free of judgement? That is the central question sociologists – those who study human social relationships and institutions – have long been trying to answer. Perhaps, though, they have already been figured out. Dr. Harlow Naasz is a psychology and sociology teacher at Newport Harbor with a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in education. In his sociology class, he introduces his students to ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, two ideas that may help us develop a more empathetic world. He spoke with The Beacon’s Elle Vincioni about what these terms mean and how we can apply what sociologists have learned to our own ways of thinking about other people and cultures.

EV: Could you explain both cultural relativism and ethnocentrism in simple terms and the importance they play in sociology? 

HN: The term "cultural relativism" can be used in two basic ways in sociology. First, it can be used in the context of research. To truly understand another group (culture), the researcher cannot judge that culture using the norms, mores or values of the researcher's culture. If one automatically labels a group's behavior or way of thinking as "wrong," they might miss the very reason why that culture behaves or thinks that way.     

The second way that one can use the term "cultural relativism" is in the context of how a culture perceives diversity within itself. For example, in immigration policy, a purely relativistic viewpoint would say that immigrants into a culture should be able to keep all their ways of behaving and thinking and need not adopt the [elements] of culture of their new home.     

The term "ethnocentrism" is the belief that a culture's ways of thinking and behaving are the best, and only, ways. It is the opposite of cultural relativism. In research it would be the application of a negative value judgement on the behavior or ways of thinking of the group under study if those ways differ from the ways of the researcher's group. As a perspective on diversity, ethnocentrism can lay the foundation for many ways of not accepting differences within a group. These would include practices that include expectations of conformity, population transfer, subjugation and ultimately genocide.   

EV: Most students never study sociology in school. Why do you think that is? How do you think it would impact our lives and society if more people knew these concepts?   

HN: I believe that most students do not take a course in sociology because of our society's emphasis on the physical and life sciences… not the behavioral sciences. Given the current situation in the country and the world, I believe that requiring students to take a course in sociology would give them an opportunity to examine societal problems from numerous perspectives.     

EV: What are the untapped possibilities of the field of sociology in its application to society? Should we have sociologists in government, and if so, what part would they play?   

HN: The role of any scientist is very clear. A scientist (be they a sociologist, a biologist or a physicist, for example) has the obligation to gather objective, empirical data. They should not be tied to any political agenda. Their "job" is to provide the data by which "government" can create and enact public policy. They are to present "what is" and not what a politician or group “wants it to be."     

EV: Looking at our school, community and the United States overall, have we lost a sense of cultural relativism? Are we becoming an ethnocentric society, or were we always one?   

HN: I believe that there is a portion of our population that practices behaviors and ways of thinking grounded in an ethnocentric perspective… a "my way or the highway" mentality.     

I don't believe that America has been founded on cultural relativism either. There is a middle ground – cultural pluralism. Cultural pluralism in the context of dealing with diversity suggests that an immigrant (or even people who have been in this nation for generations) can maintain many of the ways of thinking and behavior of the homeland if they accept and practice what unifies us as a people or nation. This is usually seen as a "stained glass" perspective. The individual colors are beautiful… they add texture and substance, and all these individual pieces are unified by something that makes them stronger and even more beautiful. I believe that we can benefit as a nation (and school) by adopting this perspective.