Academic journal article Social Work

Frames of Reference: The Effects of Ethnocentric Map Projections on Professional Practice

Academic journal article Social Work

Frames of Reference: The Effects of Ethnocentric Map Projections on Professional Practice

Article excerpt

Social workers need to avoid overt or unconscious ethnocentric attitudes and practices in today's world. Because they work with people from so many groups, social workers often are challenged to understand people with unfamiliar customs and behaviors, to identify needs, and to help them function more effectively in this society. Several strategies are used in the profession to eliminate ethnocentric attitudes and encourage cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural competence in social workers. This article proposes a strategy to combat ethnocentrism that has not been recognized in the professional literature: showing how maps help determine social as well as physical frames of reference for both social workers and clients.

Map projections communicate powerful messages about our world, messages that are invariably somewhat distorted and frequently ethnocentrically biased. The mapping process constitutes a central metaphor and etymological base for the term ethnocentrism: Individuals and groups are valued and mapped in terms of their social distance from a central reference group (or "ethnos"). Regarding one group as more important or significant than all others creates a frame of reference, just as any map creates "an arbitrary set of axes in which the position . . . of something is described" (G. & C. Merriam Company, 1976, p. 456).

An understanding of this point illuminates two issues: First, maps of the physical world manifest and help create ethnocentric biases sometimes unconsciously shared by both the social worker and the client. For example, maps of the world published in the United States tend to place this country in the center, British maps center Western Europe, and so forth. Centered things are generally perceived as more important. Second, in a similar manner representations of the physical world become linked in our minds to social valuations regarding the world and its inhabitants. Each of us, for example, has internal social maps of our community--this address is on the wrong side of the tracks, that neighborhood is inhabited by wealthy people, another neighborhood is dominated by members of a particular ethnic group. It is easy to begin making ascriptions based on such categories.

Social scientists and social work practitioners have long recognized that confronting ethnocentrism in themselves and in others is a moral and professional imperative. Sometimes the expression of ethnocentric attitudes is blatant. For example, a storefront sign reading "No Irish Need Apply" may pose problems for the social work practitioner, but recognition of ethnocentric content is not among them. Blatant bias may lead the social worker to a false sense of confidence in his or her ability to easily recognize more subtle sources of ethnocentric biases.

A focus on maps and mapping processes explores a subtle source of ethnocentric thinking that, although quite concrete, also serves as a thread leading to processes at the heart of professional practice. This article demonstrates how maps of the world invariably display biases that may affect the relationship between client and worker and offers suggestions for the use of maps in some client contacts. Finally, addressing potential ethnocentric assumptions entails a bidirectional dynamic of evaluation and reevaluation on the part of both social worker and client system; therefore, a discussion of the psychological and social aspects of mapping processes has implications for a broader theory of professional practice. The model of practice developed by Donald Schon (1983) provides a fruitful framework for incorporating the interactive processes needed to challenge ethnocentric attitudes.

Ethnocentrism Defined

Ethnocentrism was defined by the originator of the term, W. G. Sumner (1906), as the "view of things in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated from it." An ethnocentric point of view posits a preferred frame of reference for one's own group--everything is measured in relation to it--whereas an attitude of cultural relativism emphasizes that frames of reference tend ultimately to be arbitrary, selected for the convenience of the moment. …

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