Cultural Biases and Ethnic Misunderstandings

  February 15, 2022   Read time 2 min
Cultural Biases and Ethnic Misunderstandings
Most of the contacts between different cultures or civilizations, starting in ancient times and continuing to the present, are clouded by misunderstandings on all sides.

Unfortunately, misunderstanding often leads to hostility along the interface between cultures – misunderstandings which are easily created but are difficult to overcome. These in turn are often complicated by the unequal relations of colonialism or other forms of domination. Interactions take place in what one modern scholar refers to as “‘contact zones,’ social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination – like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today.”

The way to dismantle misunderstandings is to explain them; it gives the people representing interacting cultures a chance to see each other without a distorting mirror, and it enables historians to piece together a reasonably objective picture. The most general reasons for misunderstandings are preconceived ideas and prejudices upon which stereotypes, mostly negative, are created. Unfortunately, the easiest way for a person or a whole nation to feel confident about the Self is to oppose it to the Other, seen and presented as inferior.

The perceived inferiority can be based on numerous factors, some of which include a different ethnic type, or a different level of technological development, or a different type of political institutions in the society of the Other. If the Other’s society can be placed under economic, political or military domination, it gives “proof” of the inferiority of the subdued society. Colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East including Iran, along with other non-European parts of the world, present many unfortunate examples of that phenomenon. At the same time, picturing their dominated subjects as inferior and unable to achieve progress on their own serves as a justification for “civilizing” them, and in reality, for exploiting them.

The Russians who dominated Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exemplify such an attitude towards the “Other,” in this case the Orientals or Iranians. The travelers arrive in Iran with preconceived ideas and biases about the “Orientals” and they of course “discover” proofs for these preconceptions that are reflected in their accounts. That does not mean that their observations and even judgments about Iran and its people must be discarded as utterly valueless.

On the contrary, the travelogues are a precious primary source on Qajar Iran, albeit a subjective one as all primary sources are. Indeed, travelogues, as a literary sub-category, are especially prone to subjectivity, as they are by definition frankly subjective narratives. This book suggests that they may nonetheless be used as a valuable source on Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and therefore offers an analysis of the distorting prisms through which the authors view the reality of life in Iran.

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