3. The European Superiority Complex

Knowledge and Hierarchies of Worth

Reflection 2

Before you begin the section “Knowledge and Hierarchies of Worth” respond to the following questions:

  • What is knowledge? How do you understand and/or define what is considered knowledge and why?
  • What types of knowledge (and whose knowledge) do you think are valued over others (use the example of your courses, if helpful)?

Note: to access your reflection journal please review the introduction section of the European Superiority Complex module.


To refresh your memory, listen to the audio clip or read the transcript below from Video 3: The European Superiority Complex.

“Cultural supremacy exists when particular peoples and cultures are perceived to naturally embody authority. They are then able to impose what they believe are objective and universal parameters onto other peoples and cultures.”

“Other cultures were thought to have traditions, values, and beliefs, but they were not considered to have the ability to reason and produce knowledge of universal worth, the way white, Christian, Europeans did. In this logic, Europeans (in particular, upper class, white, cisgendered, straight and able-bodied men) considered themselves the apex of human evolution, and everyone else was inferior.”

Our introductory video to this module explored how European cultural supremacy is tied to specific understandings about what type of knowledge is considered valid and universal. We will not go into depth dissecting eurocentric thinking further, rather our intention here is to focus on the effects of the imposition of a eurocentric worldview on the rest of the world. These effects have included colonial violence, genocide, and positioning some peoples as superior while others are considered “less developed,” as if their cultures are in need of “catching up.”

Western Europe, and later what became defined as the Global North (or the broader “Western” world), controls much of the global systems that we depend on today. They control wealth and its movement, as well as the movement of people around the world through nation-states and border regimes. Both of which have huge consequences for people living in the Global South. They present themselves as an authority on the “best”, most “progressive” or “advanced” ways to govern and organize the economy, politics and society.

The notion that Western civilization is advanced, and everyone else is lagging behind, is a key part of Western identity. The “West” presents its beliefs about the world as being universally true, a progressive blueprint for all humanity. Those who wield and control the systems that organize society based on this particular worldview are then able to position themselves as the arbiters of truth and justice. The dominant culture controls cultural production and history. Their perspectives and experiences are presented as objective and universal truth. This diminishes the contributions and validity of knowledge systems, worldviews and cultures that don’t fit into eurocentric understandings.

An example of this can be found in the area of higher education and international engagement. When students and scholars from the Global North travel to the Global South for educational activities they tend to perpetuate these patterns. This belief system reinforces transactional relationships where the “other” to whiteness and Western Europe is expected to offer “culture” to be consumed, such as culinary or dance lessons, in return for receiving knowledge of universal value, such as technology, math or English.


Let’s start by exploring some key concepts. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on the study of knowledge. It focuses on questions like what is knowledge? and how is it acquired?

Epistemic privilege describes how a particular knowledge system or worldview is privileged over others. This connects to the idea of Eurocentrism, the tendency to interpret the world from European or Anglo-American values and experiences, effectively privileging a European worldview over others.

Epistemicide refers to the destruction of existing knowledge and is often used in the context of colonization. It connects to the terms genocide, the intentional destruction of a people, and ecocide, the intentional desctruction of ecosystems and ecologies. Not only did colonization murder and harm millions of people, non-human life and the planet, it also sought to destroy non-Western cultures, languages and knowledge systems. This is also often referred to as cultural genocide.

Below is a talk by Fatima Khemilat, a PhD fellow at the Political Science Institute of Aix-en-Provence, which explores European epistemic privilege and the pervasiveness of epistemicide today (16 minutes).

The ‘Danger of a Single Story’

In her talk “The danger of a single story” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, reknowned author and feminist, explores how stories shape our perception of others (19 minutes). She considers how those with power to wield and disseminate the narrative shape perception and what is imaginable. Adichie’s talk connects the legacies of European cultural supremacy to the ways that many come to understand the world and one another today. And she points to the power of story not only to harm, but also to empower.

Below Priyamvada Gopal, professor of Postcolonial Studies at the University of Cambridge, discusses her book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (2 minutes). She considers the stories that we have inherited from the empire and how we can think about them differently today.

Ecology of Knowledges

Many scholars and storytellers are challenging the ways Western European cultural supremacy has sought to erase people, cultures and their knowledge systems. Others have pointed out that Western science often declares that it “discovers” theories that Indigenous peoples have been discussing long before Westerners did.

Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes about this at length in her classic book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, explaining that Indigenous peoples often came up with concepts “proven” by Western science hundreds of years earlier. Smith also dissects the foundations of research based in Western traditions and the horrific treatment of Indigenous peoples around the world in the name of science. Watch the video below and listen to Linda Tuhiwai Smith describe the relationship between research, science and Indigenous peoples.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos talks about the concept of epistemologies of the south, non-eurocentric knowledge systems, cosmovisions, and worldviews that are typically not understood or legible within Western European thought. Watch Santos describe some of these concepts below (6 minutes).

However, as noted above, we are seeing more and more examples where Western knowledge is trying to consume knowledge and perspectives, trying to fit it neatly into its own paradigm of thought. But what may be missing or excluded if knowledge is approached in this way? If it is based on consumption and absorption instead of dialogue and relationship?

Sharon Stein describes Santos’ ‘ecology of knowledges’ as one that would:

  • Grapple with the diversity of knowledge systems and the reality that all knowledge is not equally valued nor included within educational institutions
  • Value a particular knowledge system as it relates to a specific context, as all knowledge is context-specific, partial and provisional
  • Create an opportunity for multiple knowledge systems to equitably coexist. It’s not about deciding which is better than the other, or which can be consumed by the other or which can replace the other. How can a multitude of knowledge systems and ways of perceiving and understanding the world enter into conversation?
  • Recognize the interdependent nature of all knowledge systems. The idea that any particular knowledge system exists in isolation without interaction with other cultures and knowledges is just not the reality of the world. Just as food and goods have been traded around the world for centuries, so too have ideas.

What would an approach to contemporary climate and social crisis look like if it took into account, respected and valued the plurality of ways of knowing and being in the world?

Check Your Understanding

Recommended Reading


Reflection 3

After completing the section “Knowledge and Hierarchies of Worth” consider:

  • How has Eurocentrism (or European superiority/supremacy) shaped what you have learned in school (consider primary, middle and higher education)?
  • Have you experienced a learning environment that incorporates any of the ideas of an ‘ecology of knowledges’?

Note: to access your reflection journal please review the introduction section of the European Superiority Complex module.


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Global Justice and Change Copyright © 2022 by Nisha Toomey and Emma Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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