Cultural Insiders & Outsiders

Jeroen Seynhaeve / Word count [ 966 ] View all [ 33 ] / Vertaal naar Nederlands


Traditional ways of evaluating cultures, and managing value clashes between these cultures, fail to generate desired results.

They cannot generate these results, because they are based on, and restricted by, the ethnocentric perspective. Ethnocentrism either restricts us to clear-cut, static, homogenous definitions of us-and-them, or detaches us from us-and-them contingencies entirely, in favour of elusive, universal “one fits all” theories. What is therefore needed, is a new perspective – a perspective that acknowledges that cultures are not homogenous and static, but heterogenous, and our memberships to them dynamic. This is, in a nutshell, David Crocker’s argument against ethnocentrism, and in support of his alternative proposal: the insider/outsider continuum.

As long as ethnocentrism is the point of reference, ethicists will not be able to fully understand the dynamics and complexities of intercultural evaluation and dialogue. Crocker illustrates this by listing three possible responses to ethnocentrism. Firstly, one may retort to an ethnocentric claim with a particularist response, something like “When in Rome, do and think as the Romans do and think”. While this response does rightfully acknowledge every culture’s right to self-determination, it is a one-sided, narrow-minded, protectionist perspective, which reduces the intercultural debate to a tug of war. If the particularist’s response is too restrictive, a second response is too broad and detached. The response from universalism appeals to concepts that transcend particular cultural contingencies, and relies on universal, rational concepts that each and every culture ought to aspire to. But, Crocker claims, it appears to be very hard to find consensus on what these universal and rational concepts might be, and this usually ends up with the strongest culture having the final say. A third response does not reject ethnocentrism as such, but rejects the traditionally narrow-minded interpretation of it. To think that we can somehow transcend the moral and ideological roots we are born into, is illusory. But we don’t need to remain stuck in the boundaries of our own ideas, and scorn or condemn all ideas that fall outside of these boundaries. Cultures can, and should, learn from each other, by meeting one another with open minds and exchanging, picking and choosing ideas that have proven their worth in either culture. Every culture has something to teach, and something to learn.

The problem with all three responses, is that they are made from the perspective of ethnocentrism, which contrasts groups of people as static, homogenous blocks of shared values, beliefs, desires, memories and hopes. But this is not how groups function, Crocker claims, and we are missing out on the complex dynamics of groups if we analyse and evaluate them as such. The groups (i.e. cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, races, genders, etc.) people belong to, are never clear-cut, or cast in stone. We don’t feel equal affinity with all groups we belong to, and our affinity fluctuates over time. We share some of the group’s values, but not necessarily all. People are involved in a continuous, dynamic process of being an insider and outsider to different groups, and even to one and the same group.

It is crucial for ethicists to acknowledge that they are insiders ànd outsiders in a mix of groups, in a continuously changing process, and in varying degrees of affinity, because being an insider or being an outsider has particular advantages and disadvantages. As insiders, we intuitively know, share, understand and make ourselves understood in terms we share with the group. We share moral assumptions, judgements and ambiguities with that group. Insiders are given the right to criticise, even a responsibility to contribute. But insiders are often oblivious to, and limited by, shared group assumptions. Insiders often think inside the box, and may find it hard to be impartial, controlled as they are by shared loyalties, debts, favours, promises and obligations of the group. The more detached position of outsiders, on the other hand, makes it easier for them to identify and expose ideas and believes that are implicitly shared by the group, and thereby open up the group discourse. Outsiders are free from insiders’ loyalties, and may find it easier to be impartial, thereby giving a voice to weaker members of the group. Outsiders may inject new, fresh ideas – based on insider group concepts, or on outsider group concepts, or on an interplay of both. But then again, outsiders may be ignorant of the group’s shared moral framework, and may even be refused access. Outsiders are often feared to be dominating, no matter how subtle, especially when they come from, or represent, more affluent and powerful parts of the world. This again has lead outsiders to overcompensate for abuse from the past, and has lead the group to feel incapable and dependent on outsiders to resolve moral issues.

So, the answer to the question of how we should conduct and evaluate intercultural dialogues, lies in the continuous analysis and evaluation of insider and outsider values. Ethicists must, in the evaluation of their own insider groups, as well as of outsider groups, encourage the advantages and reduce the disadvantages of insider/outsiderness. While we must not, or can not, deny the insider values we bring to intercultural dialogue, ethicists must move away from the core of their insider’s group, where insider values are held sternly and inflexibly, towards its periphery, in order to meet the outsider at the periphery of the outsider’s group.

It is in the periphery of both groups that equal and open dialogue can take place and a mutual understanding can be found.

Reference list

*Crocker, D.A. 1991. “Insiders and Outsiders in International Development”. In Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 5, pp. 149-171.