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The Ethnic Phenomenon in Psychology


A book published back in 1981, The Ethnic Phenomenon, by Pierre van den Berghe, offers one of the earliest accounts of ethnocentrism from a sociobiological perspective. The essential finding of sociobiology on the subject of “ethnocentrism” is that all humans have a natural disposition to view other ethnic groups from within the standpoint of their own ethnic in-group. Yet, in our times, European ethnics are called “racist” if they exhibit this preference whereas non-Europeans are seen as rightfully proud of their heritage.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy informs us that the term “sociobiology” was introduced in E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior”. It further informs us that sociobiology draws on the theory of evolution and neuroscience to explain social behavior and that it views ethnocentrism as a naturally selected trait consistent with the promotion of the genetic fitness and interests of ethnic groups.

The Ethnic Phenomenon is almost 35 years old, a very long time in a field that relies on genetics and neuroscience where major findings have been made since, including the determination of the full sequence of DNA units in 2003. Yet, to this day, sociobiology is a marginal perspective within the very discipline claiming to be, by definition, about the study of social behaviour, that is, sociology. In the 1980s this perspective had already attracted major scholarly figures such as William Hamilton, E.O Wilson, Napoleon Chagnon, and Richard Dawkins, but these names, and others who came after, are still assigned a marginal place in sociology.

Psychology Textbook

Van den Berghe’s observation that the “study of human social behavior…is almost entirely disembodied from the evolution of the human organism in the social sciences” is no longer true in the field of psychology, which now includes evolutionary psychology and genetics as major perspectives. But even in psychology the study of ethnocentrism is still approached from a purely cultural perspective driven by a diversity agenda.

I have been examining current textbooks in recent years coming with the impression that psychology is a pretty rigorous discipline worthy of study by students in the Arts. Standard texts announce their commitment to scientific research from the opening pages. The titles of the first three chapters of the text I have at hand, Psychology, Frontiers and Applications, by Michael Passer et al (Second Edition, 2005), read:

  • Psychology: The Science of Behaviour
  • Studying Behaviour Scientifically
  • Biological Foundations of Behaviour

In Chapter 4, “Genes, Evolution, and Behavior”, it is stated:

No behavior by any organism can occur in the absence of biologically based mechanisms that receive input from the environment, process the information and respond to it. In humans, these inborn mechanisms allow us to, among other things, learn, remember, speak a language, perceive certain aspects of our environment at birth, respond with universal emotions, and bond with other humans. Evolutionary psychologists also believe that important aspects of social behaviour, such as aggression, altruism, sex roles, protecting kin, and mate selection, are the products of evolved mechanisms (139).

Demonstrating Prejudice: Europeans Only

Psychology. Frontiers and Applications

However, while this text is suffused with countless scientific studies on every facet of the human personality, it has a very different take when it comes to certain politically charged subjects, particularly the subject of ethnic behaviour. This is evident in the one section that deals with this topic under the subheading “Prejudice and Discrimination”.

We are informed that one of the first characteristics we tend to notice about other people when we first meet them is their ethnicity. But right away the text tells students that our first impressions may be prejudicial and should not be trusted. We tend to “prejudge people” and that is a bad thing. Students are warned: “Prejudice refers to a negative attitude toward people based on their membership in a group” (694). There is a picture of two Klansmen. The text observes that prejudice has “faded a bit” in recent decades, but “many people consciously hide their prejudices” expressing them only when they feel safe from social opprobrium.

Thus, to find out if you are a prejudicial person, the text discusses “an implicit association test” (developed by Anthony Greenwald and his co-workers), which measures one’s latent racism. Two studies are offered of this test: one about the ways Japanese and Korean students (“whose nations have a history of conflict”), reacted differently towards images of Japanese and Koreans with the words “Japanese—pleasant” and “Korean—pleasant” attached to the images. The Japanese did not react as positively to the Korean images.

But the real focus of the textbook is on a study testing the reactions of “Black” and “White” males to certain images. The text says about this study: “even among White males who claimed to have no prejudice toward Blacks” “covert” prejudice was found (695). In this example, no context is offered about a prior “history of conflict” between Whites and Blacks, only the Whites are blamed, and the groups tested are races, not particular ethnic groups. It should be noted that elsewhere the textbook states that “many anthropologists and geneticists would argue that the concept of ‘race’ is no longer a meaningful scientific category” (373). The category of race, apparently, exists in this instance.

The text investigates ethnic or racial prejudice as if it were an irrational disposition to be understood within the context of a cultural background, rather than a biological background, and to be eliminated through proper education and behavioral controls. Prejudice is caused by a “constellation of factors, including historical and cultural norms that legitimate different treatment of various groups”. The text explains how we humans tend to exhibit “in-group favouritism” and “out-group derogation”, but it does not anchor this tendency in evolutionary psychology, and implies instead that this behavioral trait is something bad, due to “cultural” influences in need of alteration and improvement by psychologists.

The text says that we tend to stereotype outsiders, and, as an example, students are informed of a study showing that “73 percent of White university students who observed a videotape of a Black man shoving a White man perceived the behaviour as ‘violent’ but when the tape showed a White man shoving a Black man, only 13 percent of students saw it as violent” (696). There is no example of a study about non-Whites exhibiting stereotypes. Rather, at the top of the next page (697), there is an image of a white guy with a baseball cap and trousers, a hick, pointing his finger aggressively at a black gentleman with a suit.

Ways to Reduce Prejudice among Europeans

Now, why would a text thoroughly endorsing the scientific study of behavior disallow any evolutionary based explanation of ethnocentric tendencies, treating them as irrational and in need of cultural suppression? Because the entire Western academic world is committed to the promotion of diversity. In the case of psychology, this commitment takes on a rather insidious character in that this discipline is inherently interested in “unlocking the secrets of the brain”, “improving” the mental state of humans, eliminating psychological “disorders” through various controlling techniques and pharmaceuticals. In the field of race relations, the goal is to create humans for whom there is no outside-ness but only a universal inside-ness free of “bigotry” “chauvinism” and “ethnocentrism”.

In this pursuit, the discipline of psychology, as Jonathan Haidt has noted, has become a “tribal-moral community” in which the vast majority of researchers are liberals united by “sacred values” that are hostile to non-liberals. Of course, Psychology, Frontiers and Applications does not state openly its ideological commitment to liberal “inclusiveness;” psychologists are likely not aware of the wider political assumptions under which their discipline is working; they are just going along with the expectations of their in-group. However, this commitment is implicitly stated in a section on the “goals of psychology” in the introduction where it is stated that, “as scientists,” psychologists should not only “explain and understand the causes of human behavior” but also “control behaviour through knowledge…to enhance human welfare” (7). Innocuous as this may seem, implied in this effort to “control behavior” is an effort, among others, to break down any sense of European ethnic identity in ways that go way beyond Haidt’s own controlled opposition and unmissable observation that most academic psychologists are liberals.

In the concluding section of “Prejudice and Discrimination” students are actually offered “knowledge” on how they can control their prejudicial behaviour. The “best known approaches to prejudice reduction are based on a principle called equal status contact” (608). There are four ways to reduce prejudice between people:

  1. encourage people from diverse groups to “engage in sustained close contact”
  2. give “equal status” to members of diverse groups
  3. encourage members of diverse groups to work to achieve “common goals” requiring cooperation
  4. promote social norms that validate and reinforce “group contact” and equal status
Changing Face of America

Students must be educated to “forge a common identity” away from any form of in-group ethnic favoritism and out-group derogation. To this end, the text is thoroughly soaked with racially diverse pictures and images encouraging equal status and close contact among individuals and groups of diverse backgrounds.

Irrationality of Ethnocentrism versus the Rationality of the Science of Ethnocentrism

In The Ethnic Phenomenon van den Berghe noted that the study of ethnocentrism was approached in the social sciences as if it were a “purely cultural product peculiar to certain types of society” (xi). Some decades later, social scientists are still avoiding the study of ethnocentrism in scientific terms. Van den Berghe believes that the “liberal ideology” which dominates the West explains why “ethnocentrism and racism” are seen as “archaic, irrational residues of pre-industrial societies, which can be expected to yield under conditions of modernization” (xi). Liberals view ethnocentrism as a parochial, backward state of mind exhibited by people devoid of sound reason.

Van den Berghe makes two basic claims. First, “ethnic and racial sentiments are an extension of kinship sentiment” (18). Preference for individuals of the same ethnicity (Irish, German, Chinese, Mexican), or of the same race (White, Black, Asian) is part of our human nature. Ethnocentrism is simply a “propensity” to favor kin, and this propensity is a form of nepotism. Second, ethnic groups are extended families sharing distinctive genes. Of course, if we go “back enough” in time, all humans have a common descent, but ethnic boundaries have in fact been created socially through the course of time, as groups have diverged and developed distinctive genetic traits in different localities of the earth, and practiced preferential endogamy and physical territoriality (24). This argument, van den Berghe adds:

says nothing about racial differences between humans groups…On the contrary, it stresses a common biological propensity, not only of all humans, but also of all social animals, to favor kin over non-kin (29-30).

But psychologists see ethnocentrism as a dysfunctional malady that must be removed from human behavior. As van den Berghe notes, in the modern West, ethnocentric “attitudes must be combated through a social therapy promoting equal status contact between groups” (2-3). This is exactly what the psychology text says. The one source this text cites in advocating the four ways to reduce prejudice is a 1954 book by G. W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, a book academia refuses to let go.

The We-ness of Europeans Requires the Ethnic We-ness of Minorities

Van den Berghe further notes that, along with the moral demotion of ethnocentrism, came an emphasis (in the United States) on assimilation, the melting pot idea. Modern America demanded a new cultural emphasis on the common goals of humans against the backward “particularities” of segregation and in-group attitudes among diverse immigrant groups. But what about the finding that ethnocentrism is a common disposition of humans across cultures? What is uncommon is the particular predilection of Western liberals to abolish ethnocentrism; and what is more peculiar, and irrational, is the notion that Westerners will overcome their ethnocentrism by importing millions of immigrants from places where outright racial ranking is the state of affairs. It was a long struggle for Americans to forge a sense of national unity across different European/Christian cultures, and to this day the white-black divide remains as tense as ever, so why presume that these frictions will be lessened by increasing the ethnic diversity?

As if this were not enough, starting in the 1970s, as van den Berghe notes, leftists began to criticize assimilation to Western values on the grounds that it was ethnocentric to expect minorities to replace their ethnic and cultural identity with “modern” and falsely ascribed “superior” Western values. We can add to van den Berghe that this critique was coming from a new ism marching through the institutions: multiculturalism, which coincided with the opening of Western borders to mass immigration from the Third World. Europeans were told by their liberal elites that blacks and immigrant minorities should be granted group rights because their ethnic and cultural identities were important to them and they should not be expected to assimilate to a modern-but-really-Western way. Minorities had long suffered from European imperialism and racism, and these injustices and inequalities could only be remedied through racial quotas, affirmative hiring, and encouragement of ethnic pride.

The goal is to make Europeans multicultural, make them feel guilty about their own ethnic identity, and encourage them to behave as universal altruists in the face of non-Europeans practicing their in-group ethnic interests. This has entailed a massive indoctrination campaign in the West “to break down or neutralize ethnocentric responses to diversity” among Europeans through “diversity education” and by “emphasizing the putative benefits of immigration and obscuring the costs, and by breaking down the correspondence between national and ethnic identity” (Frank Salter, On Genetic Interests, Transaction Publishers, 2007: 145-147). There is no precedent for this in the annals of human history. Leaders of ethnic groups have always employ culture to solidify in-group solidarity against out-groups.

Concluding Thoughts

Frank Salter observes in Genetic Interests that:

The social sciences have long been deployed to facilitate mass immigration, multiculturalism and thus, in effect, the partial replacement of native born populations (147).

He refers to manipulation of messages in the media and says that “it is indeed possible to develop techniques to break down or neutralize responses to diversity” (145). He mentions the “treatment of ethnocentrism as a pathological condition” by the Frankfurt School (147). But I am beginning to wonder whether psychology, the discipline with the greatest integration of the scientific method, evolutionary psychology, genetics and behaviorism, may be at the forefront in the development of highly advanced techniques of indoctrination with the purpose of shattering any sense of ethnic camaraderie among Europeans.

We may have been focusing too much on highly political movements, sociology, gender studies, ethnic studies, political science, and media forces, without paying attention to the discipline of psychology. Are psychologists on the front lines in the dissolution of European identity by actually learning about the different ways in which human behavior is conditioned, and knowing this, working to replace the “inappropriate reinforcers” with new reinforcers to engender children without prejudice, “masculine aggression”, and conservative attachments to kin?

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