When many different cultures live together in one society, misunderstandings, biases, and judgments are inevitable—but fair evaluations, relationships, and learning experiences are also possible. Cultures cannot remain entirely separate, no matter how different they are, and the resulting effects are varied and widespread.


Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge another culture by the standards of one’s own culture. Ethnocentrism usually entails the notion that one’s own culture is superior to everyone else’s.

Example: Americans tend to value technological advancement, industrialization, and the accumulation of wealth. An American, applying his or her own standards to a culture that does not value those things, may view that culture as “primitive” or “uncivilized.” Such labels are not just statements but judgments: they imply that it is better to be urbanized and industrialized than it is to carry on another kind of lifestyle.

     People in other cultures, such as some European cultures, also see American culture through the lens of their own ethnocentrism. To members of other cultures, Americans may seem materialistic, brash, or arrogant, with little intellectual subtlety or spirituality. Many Americans would disagree with that assessment.

Cultural Relativism

The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism—the examination of a cultural trait within the context of that culture. Cultural relativists try to understand unfamiliar values and norms without judging them and without applying the standards of their own culture.

Example: In India, the concepts of dating, love, and marriage differ from those in the United States. Though love is important, parents choose their children’s spouses according to similarities in educational levels, religions, castes, and family backgrounds. The families trust that love will develop over time but believe that a wedding can take place without it. From an American ethnocentric perspective, arranging marriages appears to be a custom that limits individual freedom. On the other hand, a cultural relativist would acknowledge that arranged marriages serve an important function in India and other cultures.

Culture Shock

The practices of other cultures can be and often are jarring, and even the most adept cultural relativist is not immune to culture shock. Culture shock is the surprise, disorientation, and fear people can experience when they encounter a new culture.

Example: Visitors to Western Europe from Islamic countries often experience culture shock when they see women wearing what they consider to be revealing clothing and unmarried couples kissing or holding hands in public, because these behaviors are forbidden or frowned upon in their own cultures.

Culture Lag

In 1922, the sociologist William Ogburn coined the term culture lag. Culture lag refers to the tendency for changes in material and nonmaterial culture to occur at different rates. Ogburn proposed that, in general, changes in nonmaterial culture tend to lag behind changes in material culture, including technological advances.

Technology progresses at a rapid rate, but our feelings and beliefs about it, part of our nonmaterial culture, lag behind our knowledge of how to enact technological change.

Example: Though the technology that allows people to meet online has existed for years, an understanding of what the proper conduct is in an online “dating” situation lags behind the knowledge of how to use the technology. No definite answers exist to many important questions: How long should people talk over the internet before meeting in person? What is the right interval of response time between emails? New technology has brought with it new questions and uncertainties.

Cultural Diffusion

Cultural diffusion is the process whereby an aspect of culture spreads throughout a culture or from one culture to another.

Example: In the United States in the early 1990s, only people who needed to be available in emergencies, such as doctors, carried cell phones. Today, every member of a family may have his or her own cell phone. In some developing nations, where standard telephone lines and other communications infrastructures are unreliable or nonexistent, cell phones have been welcomed enthusiastically, as they provide people with an effective communication tool.

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