What is Otherness?

This page provides a sociological definition of otherness and how it works in societies. I will also include examples and resources for people interested in learning more about otherness. I will add to this page over time.

What is Otherness?

The idea of ‘otherness’ is central to sociological analyses of how majority and minority identities are constructed. This is because the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power. In order to understand the notion of The Other, sociologists first seek to put a critical spotlight on the ways in which social identities are constructed. Identities are often thought as being natural or innate – something that we are born with – but sociologists highlight that this taken-for-granted view is not true.

Rather than talking about the individual characteristics or personalities of different individuals, which is generally the focus for psychology, sociologists focus on social identities.[i]  Social identities reflect the way individuals and groups internalise established social categories within their societies, such as their cultural (or ethnic) identities, gender identities, class identities, and so on. These social categories shape our ideas about who we think we are, how we want to be seen by others, and the groups to which we belong.

George Herbert Mead’s classic text, Mind Self and Society, established that social identities are created through our ongoing social interaction with other people and our subsequent self-reflection about who we think we are according to these social exchanges. Mead’s work shows that identities are produced through agreement, disagreement, and negotiation with other people. We adjust our behaviour and our self-image based upon our interactions and our self-reflection about these interactions (this is also known as the looking glass self).

Ideas of similarity and difference are central to the way in which we achieve a sense of identity and social belonging. Identities have some element of exclusivity. Just as when we formally join a club or an organisation, social membership depends upon fulfilling a set of criteria. It just so happens that such criteria are socially-constructed (that is, created by societies and social groups). As such ‘we’ cannot belong to any group unless ‘they’ (other people) do not belong to ‘our’ group. Sociologists set out to study how societies manage collective ideas about who gets to belong to ‘our group’ and which types of people are seen as different – the outsiders of society.

The concept of The Other highlights how many societies create a sense of belonging, identity and social status by constructing social categories as binary opposites.  In the early 1950s, Simone de Beauvoir argued that

Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought.  Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.

Similarly Zygmunt Bauman writes that the notion of otherness is central to the way in which societies establish identity categories. He argues that identities are set up as dichotomies:

Zygmunt Bauman on Otherness

Zygmunt Bauman on Otherness

Woman is the other of man, animal is the other of human, stranger is the other of native, abnormality the other of norm, deviation the other of law-abiding, illness the other of health, insanity the other of reason, lay public the other of the expert, foreigner the other of state subject, enemy the other of friend (Bauman 1991: 8).

These dichotomies are set up as being natural and so often times in everyday life they are taken for granted and presumed to be natural. But social identities are not natural – they represent an established social order – a hierarchy where certain groups are established as being superior to other groups. Individuals have the choice (or agency) to create their identities according to their own beliefs about the world. Yet the negotiation of identity equally depends upon the negotiation of power relationships. As Andrew Okolie puts it:

Power is implicated here, and because groups do not have equal powers to define both self and the other, the consequences reflect these power differentials.  Often notions of superiority and inferiority are embedded in particular identities (2003: 2).

The notion of otherness is therefore used by sociologists to highlight how social identities are contested. We also use this concept to break down the ideologies and resources that groups use to maintain their social identities. Sociologists are therefore interested in the ways in which notions of otherness are managed in society. For example, we study how some groups become stigmatised as outsiders, and how such ideas change over time.


[i] Check out Richard Jenkin’s book Social Identity 1996: 5 for an accessible introductory discussion.

READ MORE

Here are some of the texts that have influenced my understanding of otherness. Although the concept of “otherness” may not be specifically referenced in these studies, and some of these works cut across several fields of otherness, these authors make an important contribution to the sociology of minority groups. These texts speak to the historical, cultural and discursive processes through which The Other is constructed in Western contexts. The Other is set up against the hegemonic “universal human being” – that is, white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied cis-men.

Gender

Race, Ethnicity and Nationality

Sexuality

Religion

More texts to come…

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