Eurocentrism is a term coined in the 1980s, referring to the notion of European exceptionalism, a worldview centred on Western civilisation, as it had developed during the height of the European colonial empires since the Early Modern period. Eurocentrism is the practice of viewing the world from a European perspective and with an implied belief, either consciously or subconsciously, in the preeminence of European culture. The term Eurocentrism itself dates to the late 1980s and became prevalent in the discourse during the 1990s, for instance in the context of decolonisation.
The term Eurocentrism (French eurocentrisme) was coined in 1988, by Samir Amin, a French-educated Marxian economist from Egypt, director of the Institut Africain de Développement Économique et de Planification from 1980.
The earlier adjective Europe-centric came into use in the early 20th century. The term appears in precisely this form in the writings of the right-wing German writer Karl Haushofer during the 1920s. For instance, in Haushofer's 'Geo-Politics of the Pacific Space' (Geopolitik des pazifischen Ozeans), Haushofer contrasts this Pacific space in terms of global politics to the 'European' and 'Europe-centric' (europa-zentrisch)(pp. 11–23, 110-113, passim).
The term Europocentrism appears in the 1970s, through the Marxist writings of Samir Amin as part of a global, core-periphery or dependency model of capitalist development. 'Eurocentrism' appears only by 1988, in the titles of Amin books as the definition of an ideology.
During the European colonial era encyclopedias under the lemma "Europe" often sought to give a rationale for the predominance of European rule during the colonial period by referring to a special position taken by Europe compared to the other continents.
Thus, Johann Heinrich Zedler in 1741 wrote that "even though Europe is the smallest of the world's four continents, it has for various reasons a position that places it before all others ... its inhabitants have excellent customs, they are courteous and erudite in both sciences and crafts."[source needs translation]
The Brockhaus Enzyklopädie (Conversations-Lexicon) of 1847 still has an ostensibly Eurocentric approach, claiming that Europe "due to its geographical situation and its cultural and political significance is clearly the most important of the five continents, over which it has gained a most influential government both in material and even more so in cultural aspects." [source needs translation]
European exceptionalism is widely reflected in popular genres of literature, especially literature for young adults (for example Rudyard Kipling's Kim) and adventure literature in general. Portrayal of European colonialism in such literature has been analysed in terms of "Eurocentrism" in retrospect, e.g. as presenting idealized and often exaggeratedly masculine Western heroes who conquered 'savage' peoples in the remaining 'dark spaces' of the globe.
Origin in colonialism
Early Eurocentrism can be traced to the Renaissance, during which the revival of learning based on classical sources were focused on the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, due to their being a significant source of contemporary European civilization.
The effects of the verity of European superiority increased during the period of European imperialism, which started slowly in the 15th century, accelerated by the Scientific Revolution, the Commercial Revolution, and the rise of colonial empires in the "Great Divergence" of the Early Modern period, and reached its zenith in the 18th to 19th century with the Industrial Revolution and a Second European colonization wave.
The progressively mechanised character of European culture was contrasted with traditional hunting, farming, and herding societies in many of the areas of the world being newly conquered and colonised by Europeans, such as the Americas, Asia, Africa, and later the Pacific and Australasia. Many European writers of this time construed the history of Europe as paradigmatic for the rest of the world. Other cultures were identified as having reached a stage through which Europe itself had already passed—primitive hunter-gatherer; farming; early civilisation; feudalism; and modern liberal-capitalism. Only Europe was considered to have achieved the last stage.
For some writers, such as Karl Marx, the centrality of Europe to an understanding of world history did not imply any innate European superiority, but he nevertheless assumed that Europe provided a model for the world as a whole. Others looked forward to the expansion of modernity throughout the world through trade, imperialism or both.
The colonising period involved the widespread settlement of the Americas and Australasia with European people, and the establishment of outposts and colonial administrations in Africa and parts of Asia. As a result, the majority populations of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand typically trace their ancestry to Europe.
The longitude meridians of world maps based on the prime meridian, placing Greenwich, London in the centre, has been in use since 1851. Various other prime meridians were in use during the Age of Exploration. The current prime meridian has the advantage that it places the International Date Line in the Pacific, inconveniencing the smallest number of people.
"European miracle" – a term coined by Eric Jones in 1981 – refers to the surprising rise of Europe during the Early Modern period. During the 15th to 18th centuries, a "great divergence" took place, comprising the European Renaissance, age of discovery, the formation of the colonial empires, the Age of Reason, and the associated leap forward in technology, and the development of capitalism and early industrialisation. The result was that by the 19th century, European powers dominated world trade and world politics.
Even in the 19th century, anti-colonial movements had developed claims about national traditions and values that were set against those of Europe. In some cases, as with China, where local ideology was even more exclusionist than the Eurocentric one, Westernisation did not overwhelm long-established Chinese attitudes to its own cultural centrality, although some would state this idea itself is a rather desperate attempt to cast Europe in a good light by comparison.
The traditional Mercator projection distorts areas further from the equator, making the Arctic and the Antarctic, but to a lesser degree also Europe and North America and Northern Asia, appear disproportionately large compared to areas closer to the equator, such as Africa or Central America. The Peters World Map seeks to present a more realistic depiction of the continents' relative sizes.
The Eurocentrism debate since the 1990s
In treatises on historical or contemporary Eurocentrism that appeared since the 1990s, Eurocentrism is mostly cast in terms of dualisms such as civilized/barbaric or advanced/backward, developed/undeveloped, core/periphery, implying “evolutionary schemas through which societies inevitably progress” supposedly with a remnant of an “underlying presumption of a [supposedly] superior white Western self as referent of analysis” (640[clarification needed]). Eurocentrism, and the dualistic properties it labels on non-European countries, cultures, and persons, has often been criticized in the political discourse of the 1990s and 2000s, particularly in the greater context of political correctness, race in the United States and affirmative action.
There has been some debate on whether historical Eurocentrism qualifies as "just another ethnocentrism" as it is found in most of the world's cultures, and especially in cultures with imperial aspirations, as in the Sinocentrism in China; in the Empire of Japan (c. 1868-1945), or during the American Century. James M. Blaut (2000) argued that Eurocentrism did indeed go beyond other ethnocentrisms, in the sense that the scale of European colonial expansion was historically unprecedented and resulted in the formation of a "colonizer's model of the world".
Eurocentrism has been a particularly important concept in development studies. Supposed Eurocentrism has been criticized as a form of cultural relativism, claiming the universal desirability of concepts like "development", democracy, human rights, technological progress, etc., while ignoring potentially beneficial concepts and knowledge found in non-Western society. Thus, proponents of political Islam have proposed a notion of "Human Rights in Islam", subject to Islamic law, as a challenge to the universality of human rights as based in European Humanism. Proponents of political Hinduism have posited a notion of Integral Humanism based on specifically Hindu values as transcending the western dichotomy of capitalism vs. communism. The notion of cultural relativism, questioning the ultimate subjectivity of the Western tradition of academia that developed alongside the scientific revolution, has become widely popular within western academia itself by the later part of the 20th century, and became part of the discourse of postmodernism. Brohman (1995) argued that Eurocentrism "perpetuated intellectual dependence on a restricted group of prestigious Western academic institutions that determine the subject matter and methods of research".
The separation of Eurasia into Europe and Asia criticized as Eurocentric by Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen in their book, The Myth of Continents (1997): "In physical, cultural and historical diversity, China and India are comparable to the entire European landmass, not to a single European country. A better (if still imperfect) analogy would compare France, not to India as a whole, but to a single Indian state, such as Uttar Pradesh." The logical inconsistency of the traditional continent system is uniquely apparent in the case of India, which despite occupying its own tectonic plate, and having clearer boundaries than traditionally defined Europe (via the Himalayas), is still not considered a separate continent.
Eric Sheppard in 2005 argued that contemporary Marxism has Eurocentric traits when it supposes that the third world must go through a stage of capitalism before "progressive social formations can be envisioned" (p. 956).
"Afrocentrism" vs. "Eurocentrism" continues to play a role in the political discourse on race in the United States and "Critical Whiteness Studies" aiming to expose "white supremacism" and supposed "white privilege".
African scholars such as Molefi Asante have argued that there is a prevalence of Eurocentric thought in the processing of much of academia on African affairs. On the other hand, in an article titled 'Eurocentrism and Academic Imperialism' professor Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran states that Eurocentric thought exists in almost all aspects of academia, in many parts of the world, and especially in the humanities. Edgar Alfred Bowring states that: in no other major civilization do self-regard, self-congratulation and denigration of the ‘Other’ run as deep, nor have these tendencies infected as many aspects of their thinking, laws, and policy, as they have in the West and its overseas extensions. Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt have measured the degree of Eurocentrism in the research programs of top history departments.
Philosophical methods are well suited for unpacking the political, ontological, and epistemological conditions that foster racism and hold white supremacy in place. However, on the whole, philosophy as a discipline has remained relatively untouched by interdisciplinary work on race and whiteness. In its quest for certainty, Western philosophy continues to generate what it imagines to be colorless and genderless accounts of knowledge, reality, morality, and human nature— Alison Baile, "Philosophy and Whiteness"
Challenging Eurocentric models
During the same period that European writers were claiming paradigmatic status for their own history, European scholars were also beginning to develop a knowledge of the histories and cultures of other peoples. In some cases only one locally established history was accepted, such as the Aryan invasion theory for the origin of Vedic culture in India, which has been criticised for having at one time been modelled in such a way as to support claims for European superiority. At the same time the intellectual traditions of Eastern cultures were becoming more widely known in the West, mediated by figures such as Rabindranath Tagore. By the early 20th century some historians such as Arnold J. Toynbee were attempting to construct multi-focal models of world civilizations. Toynbee also drew attention in Europe to non-European historians such as the medieval Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun. He also established links with Asian thinkers, for example through his dialogues with Daisaku Ikeda of Soka Gakkai International.
At the same time, non-European historians were involved in complex engagements with European models of history as contrasted with their own traditions. Historical models centering on China, Japan, India, Persia, Arabia and other nations existed within those cultures, which to varying degrees maintained their own cultural traditions, though countries that were directly controlled by European powers were more affected by Eurocentric models than were others. Thus Japan absorbed Western ideas while maintaining its own cultural identity.
Even in the nineteenth century anti-colonial movements had developed claims about national traditions and values that were set against those of Europe. In some cases, as with China, where local ideology was even more exclusionist than the Eurocentric one, Westernisation did not overwhelm long-established Chinese attitudes to its own cultural centrality. In contrast, countries such as Australia defined their nationhood entirely in terms of an overseas extension of European history. It was, until recently, thought to have had no history or serious culture before colonization. The history of the native inhabitants was subsumed by the Western disciplines of ethnology and archaeology. In Central America and South America a merger of immigrant and native histories was constructed. Nationalist movements appropriated the history of native civilizations such as the Mayans and Incas to construct models of cultural identity that claimed a fusion between immigrant and native identity.
- History of Western civilization
- Pan-European identity
- Universalism in geography
- Western culture
- "[German: Obwohl Europa das kleinste unter allen 4. Teilen der Welt ist, so ist es doch um verschiedener Ursachen willen allen übrigen vorzuziehen. ... Die Einwohner sind von sehr guten Sitten, höflich und sinnreich in Wissenschaften und Handwerken.] "Europa". In: Zedlers Universal-Lexicon, Volume 8, Leipzig 1734, columns 2192–2196 (citation: column 2195).
- "[German: [Europa ist seiner] terrestrischen Gliederung wie seiner kulturhistorischen und politischen Bedeutung nach unbedingt der wichtigste unter den fünf Erdtheilen, über die er in materieller, noch mehr aber in geistiger Beziehung eine höchst einflussreiche Oberherrschaft erlangt hat.] Das große Conversations-Lexicon für die gebildeten Stände, 1847. Vol. 1, p. 373.
- Daniel Iwerks, "Ideology and Eurocentrism in Tarzan of the Apes," in: Investigating the Unliterary: Six Readings of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, ed. Richard Utz (Regensburg: Martzinek, 1995), pp. 69-90.
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