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.

Defining 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.  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.

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).

Gender

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. This is clear in the social construction of gender in Western societies, or how socialisation shapes our ideas about what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.” There is an inherently unequal relationship between these two categories. Note that these two identities are set up as opposites, without acknowledging alternative gender expressions. 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.

de Beauvoir argued that woman is set up as the Other of man. Masculinity is therefore socially constructed as the universal norm by which social ideas about humanity are defined, discussed and legislated against.

Simone de Beauvoir Woman as Other The Second Sex. Via OtherSociologist.com

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.

Power

Dichotomies of otherness 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:

Social identities are relational; groups typically define themselves in relation to others. This is because identity has little meaning without the “other”. So, by defining itself a group defines others. Identity is rarely claimed or assigned for its own sake. These definitions of self and others have purposes and consequences. They are tied to rewards and punishment, which may be material or symbolic. There is usually an expectation of gain or loss as a consequence of identity claims. This is why identities are contested. 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).

Social institutions such as the law, the media, education, religion and so on hold the balance of power through their representation of what is accepted as “normal” and what is considered Other. British sociologist Stuart Hall argues that visual representations of otherness hold special cultural authority. In Western countries with a colonial history, like the UK, Australia and the USA, whether difference is portrayed positively or negatively is judged against the dominant group – namely White, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual Christians, with cis-men being the default to which Others are judged against.

The notion of otherness is 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. As Dutch-American sociologist Philomena Essed argues, the power of othering includes opting out of “seeing” or responding to racism.

Everyday racism and power. Image: Other Sociologist

“Power exists as long as the group stays together against the “others”… Exercising power over other people affects them, through action or inaction…whether or not those who exercise power are aware of the success or consequences of their practices and whether or not the other party is aware of the power being exercised over him or her.” – Professor Philomena Essed, sociologist

Notes

This article was first published on 14 October 2011 and it is a living document, meaning that I will add to it over time.

Learn 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

Sexuality

Religion*

More texts to come…

Citation

To cite this article:

Zevallos, Z. (2011) ‘What is Otherness?,’ The Other Sociologist, 14 Oct, https://othersociologist.com/otherness-resources/ 

73 thoughts on “What is Otherness?

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  35. I read your piece with interest, infact, I am going to re-read it in peace once I print it out (I hate reading online)… This fits in wonderfully with the concept of self-stigmatization and charisma. There is a German sociologist who did quite a lot of work on this, Wolfgang Lipp… It essentially states that by self-stigmatizing, a group can achieve otherness… That is how many large groupings work, notably religions and more extremist political parties…

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    • Thanks very much for your comment and your recommendation, Marton. Otherness is not really a status that people achieve, it is a concept that describes how minority or less powerful groups are positioned as inferior to dominant groups. It is a marker of difference that is imposed, not adopted. Religious groups are not self-stigmatising. Religious groups are a collection of believers united by their ideas, values and practices. They can be Othered, where they are minority or less powerful groups, or they can do the Othering, where they are in a dominant position in society. Extremist political parties do not self-stigmatise. They adopt a worldview that rejects mainstream politics, usually through the use of symbolic or physical violence. Stigma is also something that is imposed; it is a value judgement that dominant groups place on individuals who are perceived not to follow the norm, such as drug users. See Becker’s classic study, which also shows how stigmatisation is a process used to validate the beliefs and power of elites. Speak to you again next time!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello Zuleyka, and thanks for the response. A tardy response from me, I have been working extremely hard.

        You are right, of course, but Wolfgang Lipp, whose work has alas not been translated, makes a very good argument for religious groups ultimately self-stigmatizing. He picks up on the “charisma” of Max Weber. It is a very sharp insight and one that should not, perhaps , be dismissed offhand. I just received the full book Stigma und Charisma. Lipp of course is a dialectics man, and so the argumentation gets prickly.
        I am going through the book but it will take some time to go through it. Lipp, like Adorno perhaps, is not an easy writer. But he does make sense. Essentially, certain groups carry their otherness as a proud stigma. And if you look at Donald Trump and his followers, you will see some evidence of that. Best Marton

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      • Hi Marton,

        You still do not understand the concept of otherness. Your discussion of Lipp is muddled – charisma is not linked to otherness. Otherness specifically describes how a dominant group defines groups with less power, usually minorities. Donald Trump and his followers do not see themselves as Other. They define themselves as the dominant majority – which they are numerically and in terms of social power, being White Christians, and Trump himself has additional status, having wealth and influence. This does not make his views legitimate; but his entire campaign is built around scaremongering of minority groups, especially Latinos and Muslims.

        You should re-read my article and then take the time to read my references, as you keep missing the point of the concept of otherness. Sociological concepts have set definitions that are recognised as sociological tools because they are well-theorised and backed by empirical data. If you want to talk about stigma, that is a separate concept; charisma is a separate concept again with its own scholarship. Mainstream groups are not Other by the very definition of the concept of otherness.

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  36. Thank You very much! Also Freud’s concept of Narcissism of Minor Differences would suit well here!

    ( I’m currently doing my bachelor thesis in architecture partially on otherness and this was very very useful! )

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  38. I am a doctor of 35 years experience. I specialized in women´s health care…IE specialized in delivery of external hormones as well. In the scientific mode of studies… it is clearly demonstrated that estrogens are the substrates of all human life forms. It is there as the formation of womyn and men. It continues in both sexes as an absolute necessity for biological functions. In cis-men, for example. They start out female in the uterus and begin to form male structures with the presentation of testosterone around the 5th to 7th weeks of gestation thus preparing the format for male developement at puberty. At the end of a males productive life…”male menopause” sets in and functional testosterone levels begin to lower until its presence is basically nonfunctional. At this juncture estrogen….which has always been present since gestation…begins once again to take on its preeminent role in functioning human life forms. So there are aspects to this that I wish to present. Estrogen is present in males BEFORE testosterone and continues to be a crucial in aspects of biochemistry function in males through out their lifespan. Estrogen continues as it was in the beginning. It did not lower or higher…it is just there as the substrate of male survival. So…what can we observe? That women started with Estrogens during gestation and were promoted throughout their lives with out the prominent presence of testosterone. Female productivity is not biased upon testosterone as it is the necessity for males. So…FEMALE…is biologically pre-eminent based on ESTROGEN. Estrogen is the basis of human life….not testosterone….subsequently…males are a second thought in life…not the primary thought. Females have abdicated their position of originality of being to men through forceful domination….and other social implications. When womyn begin to see themselves from the position of “original – first” format and masculinity as a second place position perhaps some pride can return to overcome permitting maleness to be the format of life and women to be compared to it when, biologically, it is the other way around. Knowledge is power…biologically males are a second thought of nature…not the original thought. Womyn are the real dominant force of human specie survival and males are subjugated to a supportive role…and die earlier.
    PS….as I have been living in SA for 10 years speaking portugues and 5 years speaking spanish my english thought processes are no longer “on top” so if what I am writing has incongruencies one may understand why. Thankyou for your contributions in helping all of us understand better who we are and are not.

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    • Hi L. Catherine,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience in medical practice. It is true that humans start off as an embryo with the Y-chromosome expression (biological male sex) developing biological changes later in the womb. Some people don’t really understand this and it is an interesting biological fact that runs counter to some religious creation stories, such as Christianity, that mythologises women are made from the rib of a man.

      Perhaps if people understood that biology is a complex physical development, they would be less rigid in their ideas of gender!

      At the same time, this biological fact does not mean that men are a “second thought of nature,” as you’ve argued, perhaps tongue-in-cheek. Putting “women” as a category that is “superior” to men is not very useful, I’m afraid. Firstly, because this categorisation still relies on two gender categories – women and men – when in fact gender is a spectrum, with many different genders. For some examples of this variation, see my writing on the sociology of gender.

      Secondly, if we see women as being superior to men, or the inverse that men are superior to women, we are still using gender as a category of oppression, where some people are seen as being “naturally” better than another group. Biology has long been used as a way to dominate over Others. Reversing the historical practice of women being subjugated by male elitism is not equality.

      Recognising that gender is not a biological pre-destined outcome is a better way to reach towards equality. No one gender is superior to another. Whatever happens in the development of an embryo does not have to dictate the identity, experience, opportunities and rights of people who consider themselves women, men, transgender, agender, genderqueer or otherwise.

      Thanks for visiting my blog and I hope that my other articles on gender can further illustrate how we can collectively improve gender outcomes.

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  50. Hi Dr. Zevallos, fantastic article! I was wondering if you have any suggestions for contemporary sources on the idea of otherness? A lot of the best writing on the topic (Bauman, Butler, Rich, etc.) is fairly old now, and while it’s still relevant, I’m trying to look into the contemporary conception. Any suggestions you have would be appreciated! Thank you, Dan D.

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  57. Hi Zuleyka,
    I read your article and found it very interesting. I was very interested in your remarks to Marton about stigma and charisma being different than otherness. You note that “otherness specifically describes how a dominant group defines groups with less power, usually dominant majority,” which in Western culture is usually white, middle to upper class, heterosexual Christians, with cis-men being the default to which Others are judged against. You also specify that social construction is usually from Western areas with colonial history.

    So I’m curious, by these definitions, a white male would see, say, a Muslim or Arab as an “Other,” but, if a white male American is in Afghanistan or Iraq, would it still be the same? Meaning, would the white man be the other because of the fact that he is in a country with a different belief system? It seems to me that it could be the case, but I’m confused about whether the whole world has an “othering” culture, or if that was something that white male Christians felt the need to do so that they could always maintain some type of authority or power over people.

    Because I’ve mainly read American and Southern literature, I’ve seen the way different writers from different regions write about different races or sexes. I find it interesting how different regions in our country, liberal or conservative, have different ideologies about other races and genders. So I guess I wondered if other cultures do the same thing. Do they feel like the white male is the other and they hold power over him, rather than the other way around. What makes it difficult for me is something like the war, where you have a predominant white force invading another country or region because they don’t think that other region or country can fend for themselves, which would make the American military wield the power. But, since the military is the minority, meaning smaller group in the region, would this make them the other? Or would both groups be the other based on viewpoint?

    Brandy

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    • Hi Brandy. Otherness is about relationships of power, culture and history. Colonialism and patriarchy in particular shapes who is considered “other.” “Minority” in this context does not mean small in number; it is about relations of power. So the military is not “the other” nor are they a “minority group” as state forces have access to cultural power and state-sanctioned violence. In a country where Christians are a “minority” – in terms of power and influence – they may be constructed as “the other.” Yet it is not simply about being small in number. For example, Christians make up a smaller proportion of people in Lebanon, but they are disproportionately affluent and influential. Christian Lebanese people are therefore better off and have political influence that is legitimised by relations of power and colonial history. Otherness is shaped by local contexts and historical processes.

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