The Journal of Social Psychology, 1985, 125(2), 181-185

Patriotism, Racism, and the Disutility of the Ethnocentrism Concept


School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Riverina College, Australia


Natal Technikon, South Africa


School of Sociology University of New South Wales, Australia


The theory underlying the concept of ethnocentrism embodies the assumption that thinking well of one's own group entails looking down on the members of other groups. Ray (1974), however, has shown that in a sample drawn from working-class suburbs of Sydney, Australia, Australian patriotism showed little relationship with racial attitudes. Because working-class attitudes could generally be poorly organized and because racial attitudes in Australia could be affected by the relative absence of blacks, similar studies were carried out by using a random sample from South Africa: 106 whites in Bloemfontein and 101 Indians in Durban. Attitude toward South Africa was found to show only a slight relationship with racism among both samples. The theory underlying the ethnocentrism concept would then appear to be essentially false.

SUMNER'S (1906) CONCEPT OF ETHNOCENTRISM appears to have received its most striking support in the work of Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950), who showed not only that attitudes toward Negroes and attitudes toward minorities and patriotism could be grouped to form a single ethnocentrism scale but also that the resultant scale correlated with anti-Semitism (r = .80). From this it seemed clear that having a high opinion of one's own ethnic group was merely one aspect of'a general tendency toward prejudice. People disliked minority group members not because of anything those members had done but simply because they were different.

Although this is a theory with considerable intuitive appeal, Ray (1974) has stressed that it is only a theory. It is conceivable that prejudice might not generalize from one out-group to another, and it is conceivable that prejudice against minorities might not be very predictive of prejudice in favor of one's own ethnic group. One might be a superpatriot and still not dislike members of out-groups. Moreover, Ray (1974) showed that there was a substantial artifactual element in the high correlations presented by Adorno et al. (1950) and that an attempt to replicate the Adorno et al. findings in Australia produced quite low correlations between the supposed aspects of ethnocentrism. Attitudes toward different ethnic groups were not very predictive of one another or of Australian patriotism. Ray's skepticism is also supported by Doob (1964), who denied the connection between nationalism and authoritarianism that Adorno et al. so strongly asserted.

There are, however, a number of problems with the Ray (1974) study. The data originated from doorstep interviews carried out in working-class suburbs of Sydney, Australia. On one hand, perhaps working-class attitudes everywhere tend to be unorganized and inconsistent, but on the other hand, Australia is unusual among English-speaking countries, with very few blacks in its population. It could be, therefore, that the attitudes of white Australians toward blacks are relatively unformed because of their lack of familiarity with blacks. Australia's own native blacks (aborigines) are few and tend to live apart from the white communities.

A re-examination of Ray's (1974) findings in another country, therefore, seemed necessary before they could be accepted as having any generalizability. If the presence or absence of blacks affected Ray's (1974) findings, it was felt that South Africa should provide an extreme and instructive contrast with Australia.



The first sample came from a door-to-door survey carried out in the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking city of Bloemfontein, South Africa. The sampling procedures have been described elsewhere (Heaven, 1983). Briefly, it was a random sample of dwelling units in the city (N = 110). There were four refusals, leaving a final sample of 106, of which 96 were Afrikaans-speaking. Only one adult per dwelling unit was interviewed (47 women, 59 men). Educational level was scored 1 for .primary school completed, 2 for junior high school completed, 3 for high school completed, and 4 for tertiary qualification completed. The mean score for the sample on this variable was 3.08 (SD = 1.03). The data were gathered by Heaven (or his assistant) during August 1981.

The second sample was obtained from Asian Indians in the city of Durban, South Africa. Students in social psychology at the (Indian) University of Durban-Westville were requested during October 1981 to administer a questionnaire to adults in their immediate environment under the constraint that non-students were to be preferred. The final number was 101 (60 men and 41 women). Educational level was scored 1 for primary school completed, 2 for junior high school completed, 3 for high school completed, and 4 for tertiary qualification completed. The mean score for the sample on this variable was 2.89 (SD = 0.99).


For the first sample a scale of attitudes to South Africa modeled on Ray's (1974) Attitude to Australia scale was administered along with the Heaven and Moerdyk (1977) adaptation of Ray's (1974) Attitudes to Blacks scale. This latter scale has been shown to be valid in South Africa in that it distinguishes between the attitudes of English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites. To test Doob's (1964) contentions about nationalism and authoritarianism, the Ray (1976) Directiveness scale (a measure of authoritarian personality) was also included in its short form of 14 items. To retain some point of contact with the original Adorno thesis, the F scale in balanced form (Ray, 1972) was also administered together with a measure of conformity (Pettigrew, 1958). This latter scale was included to test the assumption that conformism is a correlate of the ethnocentric personality (Adorno et al., 1950).

The scales used with the second sample were identical to those used previously, barring the Attitude to Blacks scale. For the Indian respondents some of the items of this scale were replaced, and in other items the word "blacks" was replaced by "whites."


In the first sample the reliabilities (alpha coefficient) of the scales used were as follows: Directiveness, .64; Attitude to South Africa, .63; Conformity, .80; Attitude to Blacks, .64; F scale, .57. The correlates of the Attitude to South Africa scale were as follows: Directiveness, - .14 (ns); Conformity, .12 (ns); Attitude to Blacks, - .28 (p < .05); F scale, - .23 (p < .05).

For the Indian sample the reliabilities (alpha coefficient) of the scales used were as follows: Directiveness, .65; Attitude to South Africa, .69; Conformity, .85; Attitude to Whites, .72; F scale, .63. The correlates of the Attitude to South Africa scale were as follows: Directiveness, .05 (ns); Conformity, .24 (p < .025); Attitude to Whites, .34 (p < .O1); F scale, .35 (p < .01).


In interpreting the present results, it is important to note that although "South Africa" is very much synonymous with "us" for South African whites, for South African nonwhites the situation is much more ambiguous. This difference is an inevitable outcome of the dominant position and discriminatory practices of the whites. It is, therefore, the responses of the whites that provide the most precise test of the Sumner and Adorno et al. theory of ethnocentrism. Do whites who especially value their membership in their Volk (the same word is used in Afrikaans and in German) and their homeland also tend to be the ones who devalue and condemn the nonwhites who cannot belong to the Volk and whose presence in the homeland is merely tolerated? Given the origin of the Adorno theory in the study of German Nazism, the situation among Afrikaners could hardly represent a more precise test of that theory. The overriding concern among the Nazis was also, of course, Volkisch.

Under the circumstances, then, the responses of these groups of South Africans were indeed a severe blow to the theory and supported the dissenting contentions of Ray (1974) and Doob (1964). The only significant correlations observed were very low -- far too low to support a view of the various attributes studied as being different aspects of a single underlying entity. Ethnocentrism, narrowly defined (i.e., thinking well of one's own community), shared, even in South Africa, only 8% of the variance with Attitude to Blacks among the Afrikaner sample. Each was quite unimportant as an explanation of the other. Ethnocentric (patriotic) people were, then, not particularly racist, not particularly conformist, and not particularly authoritarian. Far from serving as the social scientist's value-free word for racial prejudice, then, ethnocentrism is a concept that smuggles into our language a false theory in the guise of a definition.

The results with the Indian respondents also support this conclusion: One would have thought that for Indians attitude toward whites and attitude toward South Africa would be largely synonymous. One's attitude toward South Africa is for an Indian one's attitude toward a white-dominated society. Indians with a high score on the attitude to South Africa scale were assenting to statements such as "The South African way of doing things is hard to beat" and "South Africa must be a good place or all the immigrants would not come here." Yet attitude toward whites and attitude toward South Africa accounted for only 11% of variance. Clearly, ethnic and group attitudes are highly complex and differentiated rather than unidimensional. Some Indians who do not like whites can still find much to praise in the society whites have created. This may, of course, be a considerable tribute to Indian sophistication and flexibility. It is surely noteworthy, however, that nowhere -- among the in-group or among the out-group -- do we find the unidimensionality that the ethnocentrism theory requires. Perhaps people generally insist on seeing one another in complex rather than in simple ways.


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

Doob, L. W. (19(A). Patriotism and nationalism: Their psychological foundations. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Heaven, P. C. L. (1983). Individual vs. intergroup explanations of prejudice among Afrikaners. Journal of Social Psychology, 121, 203-212.

Heaven, P. C. L., & Moerdyk, A. (1977). Prejudice revisited: A pilot study using Ray's scale. Journal of Behavioral Science, 2, 217-220.

Pettigrew, T. F. (1958). Personality and sociocultural factors in intergroup attitudes: A cross-national comparison. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1, 29-42.

Ray, J.J. (1972) A new balanced F scale -- And its relation to social class. Australian Psychologist 7, 155-166.

Ray, J.J. (1974) Are racists ethnocentric? Ch. 46 in Ray, J.J. Conservatism as heresy Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co.

Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways. Boston: Ginn.

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