Ubuntu Festival, Cape Town, South Africa, 2009 [Archive Photo by JJM]


Ethnocentrism: Evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture [1] – Oxford Dictionary

Ethnocentrism is inherent in all human beings. It has advantages and disadvantages. Since it cannot be removed or reduced completely without negative side effects, it would be better to find ways to work with it positively.

Positive ethnocentrism would allow for the natural maintenance and preservation of a person’s original culture and identity while also allowing and motivating for an appreciation of other cultures that live within the same environment. Unity in Diversity could be the perfect example of positive ethnocentrism in that it is very likely to deliver consistent positive results, if fostered, cultivated and maintained on a continuous basis.

Implementing Unity in Diversity would depend on both will and goodwill of all parties involved. Unity in Diversity has a weak point in that it is a relatively fragile concept that is vulnerable to being disrupted by intrusive forms of negative ethnocentrism such as identity politics and other forms of new and old tribalism.

Identity Politics: A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics [2] – Oxford Dictionary

Values and Identity

Our foundational value systems are mainly derived from our culture and a strong part of our identity resides in our value systems. What we stand for determines to a large extent who we are as individuals and as groups. If you lose a part of your identity, because you have lost significant parts of your value system – which by its nature is embedded in your culture – then you are likely to experience an identity crisis.

Insecurity could result from an identity crisis which could lead to a defensive attitude and a tendency to see others as a threat – or as adversaries – instead of seeing them as equals. Confidence within oneself is needed to view others as your equals, even if they are different from you. Having a lack of confidence and a defensive attitude could reduce one’s ability to enter a neutral state in order to understand other cultures better.

Unity in Diversity vs. Disunity in Ideologies

South Africa as a case study

Post-apartheid, democratic South Africa, a country with a history of division and separation, as well as reconciliation, has not escaped negative ethnocentric behaviour and the country’s post-1994 transition to cohesion is being eroded by identity politics [2]. Identity politics arrived in South Africa around the time of the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013 and has since caused serious damage to many of the positive gains made towards having a stable, democratic and multicultural society. As long as identity politics prevails as a major influence in how personal identities are formed or defined in South Africa, negative ethnocentrism is likely to prevail as a destabilizing force within South African society. 

In South Africa, one form of negative ethnocentrism (a system of segregation called apartheid) has been replaced by another (a form of modern tribalism known as identity politics) with a short period of positive ethnocentrism in-between. Between 1994 and more or less 2012, the concept of ‘Unity in Diversity’ [3;4] prevailed, meaning: We are uniquely different, but equal at the same time and we are all confident about who we are within our own groupings, meaning we have true diversity. As individuals and cultural groupings we are all committed to working on building a [new] country together to reach a common goal towards prosperity and opportunity for all.

Identity politics has in recent years (post-2013) turned that approach on its head, because it functions from an in-group versus out-group perspective, resulting in the in-groups viewing the out-groups as adversaries. Identity politics tends to cause in-groups to view themselves as victims of out-groups, thereby dis-empowering themselves by taking on the victim role.

This is particularly noticeable within the South African context today where instead of focusing on the benefits of equal opportunities and the added advantages of strong affirmative action policies for the previously disadvantaged brought by post-apartheid democracy, the idea of being victims of oppression based on past history takes priority and is emphasized even more than before.

In light of affirmative action policies, those with a sense of victimhood are in reality often in an advantaged position in relation to educational and job opportunities, but continue to view themselves as disadvantaged, because within identity politics there lies currency in victimhood and all in-groups are vying for this currency.

One could argue that although the concept of Unity in Diversity – as is expressed on the new South African coat of arms [4] and as was practised in South Africa between 1994 until around 2012 – would under normal circumstances be the best possible philosophical approach as a counter to negative ethnocentrism, that seems to be not the case. Unity in Diversity is evidently no match to identity politics when introduced into a fragile young democratic environment, such as that of post-apartheid South African.

Identity politics is a negative ethnocentric phenomenon that did not originate in South Africa, but came across from North America and Western Europe and it seems to hold great appeal to young people, which in a general sense has a lot to do with a general deterioration in the higher education system, with university campuses having served as fertile ground for identity politics to flourish. The South African higher education system being modelled on the Western one therefore facilitated the cross-pollination of identity politics into the local environment from abroad. 

Due to the revolutionary history of South African politics during the apartheid era, identity politics caught on rather quickly when introduced locally and the philosophy of Unity in Diversity was sidelined and left behind in no time. This points to the fact that “the spirit of revolution” does not depend on oppression to come alive, but that it can have an energy all of its own and that in some cases “any justification would do.”

It also points to the fact that Unity in Diversity was not something that especially younger South African citizens deeply embraced, which mostly has to do with a generational lack of context and lack of understanding of the processes that lead to adopting the concept of Unity in Diversity in the first place. One could go as far as speculating that young South Africans do not have a full appreciation for the value of peace and harmony, due to not having experienced the turmoil in South Africa at the height of the apartheid years.

Unity in Diversity demands a certain level of maturity and strong individual as well as group identity to function. Globalization has over the years caused a weakening of the cultural identity of culture groupings. Weak cultural identity combined with weak personal identity will cause people to be drawn towards identity politics, because they can find identity in political ideology, which would substitute the lack of finding it in strong personal or cultural values.

Identity found in non-cultural group settings is insecure by its nature and tends to automatically revert to the in-group versus out-group dynamic. Although one may have expected that the weakening of cultural identity would have increased cultural relativity – which in turn would have reduced ethnocentrism – it apparently has had the opposite effect.

Ethnocentrism does not disappear when genuine cultural diversity is weakened, it just shifts to identity politics. One is thus left with the following question. Which type of ethnocentrism is the preferred one? Since ethnocentrism cannot be avoided or removed altogether, because it is a foundational motivator for the forming of culture in the first place, would we rather have strong, genuine cultural diversity with its natural (mild to strong) ethnocentrism, or would we rather have identity politics which typically has strong to very strong ethnocentric (tribal) behaviour? 

Both forms of ethnocentrism, when strong enough, can lead to polarisation. Identity politics seems to specifically thrive on polarisation, because it essentially comes down to being a political phenomenon of opposing ideologies which requires confrontation to maintain itself. 

This author would like to make the case that in established multicultural societies such as the South Africa one a middle way is possible to maintain stability. Unity in Diversity is still a solution, because it can reduce negative ethnocentrism and transform it into positive ethnocentrism, while retaining natural cultural and personal identify at the same time. That said, it is very important to keep in mind that personal and cultural identity should be maintained and strengthened at the same time. This combination will provide for natural confidence and contentment within one’s own person and within one’s own culture, while also being comfortable with other groups being present in the same country or land.

If both parenting and the education system fails in this regard and if personal and cultural identity become diluted and weakened, the idea and concept of Unity in Diversity would not be understood, supported or believed in enough for it to be strong enough to act as a bulwark against identity politics.

When cultural identity is reduced significantly, individual insecurity can set in to the extent that identity politics can become a refuge. Take the foundations away and Unity in Diversity gives way to disunity in opposing ideologies through identity politics.

Solution and Approach

Unity in Diversity is positive ethnocentrism while identity politics is negative ethnocentrism. Unity in Diversity is needed for having balanced societies within established multicultural and multi-ethnic environments. Unity in Diversity is a higher state that requires effort, because we have to first become conscious of our own tendency towards ethnocentrism and then become more conscientious about how other cultures within our environments are equal to us, even if they are different to us. Such an outlook would have to be fostered, cultivated and maintained on an ongoing basis, because it often does not come naturally due to elements of negative ethnocentrism being inherent in most people – all people are ethnocentric to an extent.

The best approach would be a combination of maintaining one’s own culture – and learning how to truly value it – while learning that other cultures also truly value their own cultures. Such a basic realization can foster mutual understanding in how we are all united in deeply valuing our own unique, but diverse cultures. In this context, the importance if genuine diversity needs to be emphasized.

Understanding the value of preserving culture is very important, but equally important is understanding the value of preserving harmony and balance amongst cultures and nations. 

After apartheid South Africa set an excellent example to the world for close to two decades by way of the successful implementation of Unity in Diversity, which is one reason why South Africa makes such a good case study. Unity in Diversity is failing in South Africa today, because significant portions of society have eagerly embraced identity politics. That does not mean that Unity in Diversity cannot work – it can, as South Africa has already proven – but Unity in Diversity does not maintain itself, which is also being proven.

Unity in Diversity is a challenge well-worth undertaking to bring about a more harmonious world. We are not there yet, because of disruptive identity politics, but becoming aware of how we end up undermining the social cohesion in our own countries by embracing identity politics would go a long way to motivate genuine personal and cultural identity development and an understanding of the importance of not losing our cultural identities altogether.

By JJ Montagnier

JJ Montagnier is an independent writer based in South America. He has a personal interest in conflict resolution, democracy and social cohesion. He has lived in South Africa and Northern Ireland (among other places.) The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author.  

Note: This essay was written on November 22, 2017 and updated on June 7, 2019. The question that prompted it was posed in a sociology course: “Give an example of ethnocentric behaviour in your country [of origin.] Has it helped or hurt your country?

Publishing details:

Original version published on *Writerbeat.com: July 16, 2018 [* website now defunct]. This updated version published on GypsyCafe.org: June 8, 2019 for The Truth Project.

References to (and excerpts from) this article may be used, provided that the author is mentioned and with direction to the original content: please use the  page address (URL) in the browser to link to.

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1. Ethnocentrism
Evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.  

2. Identity Politics
A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.

3. Unity in Diversity

4. South Africa coat of arms

5. Nationalism
Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.

6. Tribalism
1.) The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.
1.1) The behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.

7. Ubuntu
A philosophical doctrine or approach to life that emphasizes social unity and generosity of spirit.


Explorer, Philosopher, Photographer


  1. Jacques – another shared Time and Place of thought. Diversity was the key for 12 IMIX discernment this morning. There is SO MUCH genius in one another to share and Know!

    love, in lak’ech, Debra

    • Debra, your thoughts are much appreciated. The synchronicity of thought that occurs through the energies of the days are truly enlightening and revelatory – unity through diversity – sharing similar thoughts uniquely as a contribution to the whole 🙂

  2. Thank you for promoting the values and ideals upon which human relationships must be based if we are to continue living together in a world that increasingly requires nondestructive cooperation. In today’s world, we can no longer afford to go on the way we always have. Whereas it may be true that conflict is endemic to the nature of our reality, it definitely is NOT true that we must continue to HANDLE our conflicts in the same old, destructive ways.

    You have given a good example using ethnocentricity. You are very wise in understanding that we need not eliminate ethnocentricity, any more than we need to eliminate conflict— but we do need to eliminate the self- and -other destructive ways in which we let our ethnocentricity play out in our relationships to others.

    Nicely done. Thank You.

    Jerry DeGregory (PhD Sociology, from University of Missouri, USA)

    • Thank you very much for your feedback, professor. I agree with you that conflict resolution is of huge importance today in all spheres of life, it is not something limited to foreign affairs or geopolitics anymore. Therefore we must work on understanding the human condition and always try to find the middle way. With concerted effort I believe we can achieve this goal if we set our minds to it. It is however important for us to increasingly understand human behaviour on a deeper level. For example we don’t see the concept of ethnocentrism explained or debated much, yet it is an underlying factor of what is best described as tribalism, which is still very much with us.

      Having experienced and seen some of the complexity in dealing with differences between communities and groups in terms of achieving ongoing social cohesion (always a fragile state of affairs), in South Africa and Northern Ireland, assisted in writing this piece. I hope this approach to ethnocentrism could be of benefit on a practical level to reduce the polarisation that seems to be a feature of many countries were diversity is a factor. Please feel free to share far and wide.

      Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to comment.

      J.J. Montagnier

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