Ethnocentrism is the tendency to create a privileged view of our own (modern Western) culture and hence to project our own ways of comprehending things onto the people we are interested in. Clearly, this is something to be avoided if we are trying to understand other ways of understanding the world, which is the broader agenda into which archaeoastronomy fits.

In its most extreme form, ethnocentrism manifests itself as the tendency to judge the "achievements" of a past culture as if they can be measured on a linear scale with ourselves at the pinnacle. It is very easy to fall into this trap quite innocently, simply by praising some intellectual achievement of a past culture. Yet if a time machine took us to meet face to face with the peo ple of whom we were speaking, they would surely find this practice immensely patronizing: from their point of view it would be we who are clearly failing to comprehend their way of viewing the world. Very likely we would be seen to have progressed only a short way up their scale of achievement.

A problematic issue arises. To reach what people in the modern Western world, at least, would consider to be the most reasonable, reliable, and sustainable conclusions on the basis of the evidence available—for example, whether an astronomical alignment at a monument was likely to have been deliberate and, if so, what it meant to the people who created it—we must be scientific in the broadest sense. This is another way of saying that we must select the evidence fairly and consider it objectively, rather than just taking into account the evidence that fits our favorite theory and ignoring the rest. However, some argue that in order to avoid ethnocentrism we must not accord "our science" a privileged place in analysis and must even strive not to be objective. This problem is relevant in archaeology, and indeed in many of the social sciences as a whole: it is a form of cultural relativism that has caused a good deal of confusion and aggravation. The resolution of this apparent paradox is simple. Even when we are studying other worldviews, and the context in which they operated, we must seek to comprehend them using our own mindset. Although we should avoid ethnocentric interpretations, we must still be "scientific" in our broad approach to interpreting the evidence.

See also:

Methodology; Nationalism.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers, 6-7. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 80. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

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