Other, Constructing the

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Other, Constructing the

The distinction of self from other is a crucial way in which human beings try to make sense of the world, constructing self-identity by contrast to, and often at the expense of, those who are perceived to be different. Such processes of othering operate both within/between communities and within the individual psyche. The ego as described by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) depends complexly on the desire for, loss of, and identification with others whose qualities come to define—both through difference and similarity—the self. At the group level, othering operates in two main registers. On the one hand, groups construct as other to themselves entities thought to exist entirely outside their own social worlds. Thus, ancient Greeks defined themselves against all other peoples, naming these "barbarians" based on their speaking unintelligible—that is, non-Greek—languages. Medieval and early modern Europe constructed an Orient essentially different from itself, and such West-East constructions have been remarkably resilient (as Edward Said's Orientalism [1978] demonstrates). Yet, constructions of otherness occur not only across clearly defined social boundaries but also within more intimate spaces. Ancient Greek societies distinguished between and among different classes of people within their own social ambit—citizens (defined as male), women, slaves; thus, the identity of the male citizen was secured by the othering of both women and slaves. Medieval European Christendom, while distinguishing itself against other religions like paganism, Judaism, and Islam, also distinguished others within itself, "heretics" thought to depart from orthodoxy.

Constructing an other wholly outside one's own social world operates to create group cohesion—Greek not barbarian, Christian not Muslim—while constructing others internal to one's social space tends to produce hierarchies: citizens holding power over slaves, men controlling women, orthodox Christians persecuting heretics. These two kinds of social othering tend often to buttress each other. Thus, the other within one's society is understood as similar to the other outside, and vice versa: slaves are "barbaric," barbarians are "womanish." No single act of othering is ever fully separate from other such acts, and one of the challenges for understanding the construction of others is the problem of analyzing the intersections and superimpositions of various kinds of otherness—race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, sexuality—in any given social circumstance.

The construction of otherness operates especially persistently in relation to gender, with most societies organizing themselves around a dissymmetry of male and female. Such gender binarisms claim to base themselves on real differences of biological sex, which do, of course, exist (though, as the existence of intersexed people makes clear, not as any kind of absolute dichotomy). But such biological differences never operate outside of cultural understandings: One reads biological sex through established notions of what it means to be a man or woman. As feminists have argued, while sex may be biological, gender—how sexed human beings live in the world; masculinity and femininity—is always a social construction. (For one deeply influential treatment of the "sex/gender system," see Gayle Rubin's "The Traffic in Women." For the argument that not just gender but also "biological sex" is constructed, see Judith Butler's work.) In the history of the West, the social construction of gender consistently involves processes of othering, where the privileged position of selfhood is attached to maleness and masculinity. In classical Greece and Rome, as also in medieval and early modern Europe, women generally had little political power, despite the occasional prominence of a woman like Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) of England, and women's social roles were quite regularly subsumed to men's. In Western societies, women are generally understood to be weaker than men, less rational and more emotional, and hence less reliable. As early as ancient Greek philosophers like Plato (427–347 bce) and Aristotle (384–322 bce), we can see the male/female binarism resting on a distinction between mind and body, reason and emotion, wholeness and fragmentation—with the first term in the binary consistently associated with maleness and masculinity. (A brilliant analysis of this tradition is the French feminist Luce Irigaray's Speculum of the Other Woman.) Such constructions operate, of course, not only to denigrate women, but, by contrast, to elevate men, to give men the sense of an identity that transcends weakness, irrationality, and the vicissitudes of the body, that is in control of itself and of its social world. Attaching the social distinction between men and women to a difference like that between mind and body—understood to be essential in all human beings—serves to naturalize the social distinction, to suggest that women (like the body) are meant, biologically and not just socially, to be subordinate to men (who become, in such constructions, like the mind, the controlling and defining feature of the rational human being).

The construction of otherness understood to rest on differences of sexuality has a less consistent history in the West than does that of gender otherness. The Bible does, in a few places, mention and outlaw sexual acts that one would understand as homosexual, but it does not make central to its social understandings anything like the distinction between homo- and heterosexuality that, as Eve Sedgwick (Epistemology of the Closet, 1990) and others have shown, becomes a central way of defining human subjects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In ancient Greece and Rome, homosexual acts were not necessarily seen as unacceptable: Instead, for men at least, they were understood to be part of one's development, with boys acting as passive partners for older men and moving into the active role as they aged. The distinction of active/passive was more important than any distinction of homosexual and heterosexual, with the othered category being a grown man who persisted in taking the passive role in sex. Women's sexuality received less attention than men's—as witnessed at least by the surviving texts—though one can see certain intense female-female relationships celebrated, notably in the Greek poetry of Sappho. In medieval and early modern Europe, sexual otherness is less salient than gender difference, and in fact what might be understood to be the construction of othered sexualities often is conflated with, and subsumed into, gender difference. Thus, women who dressed and acted as men were perceived as a real threat to the social order. Judith C. Brown's Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986), while it describes a woman whom the author names a lesbian, also makes clear that it is as much that woman's taking on of behaviors understood to be masculine that makes necessary her containment as an unacceptable other. When, earlier, in the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400) works to question his fictional Pardoner's sexual "normality," he does so through a conflation of sexualized and gendered terms, describing the Pardoner as either a "gelding" (a castrated horse) or "mare" (a female horse). Such a combination of gender and sexual otherness remains characteristic of the newly emergent sexualities of modernity: One primary way in which homosexuality has been and continues to be defined is through the trope of gender inversion. In both the medieval and early modern moments, one can also glimpse constructions of sexual otherness quite similar to one's own distinctions of heterosexual and homosexual identities. Thus may be seen "sodomites" or "tribades" or "mollies" emerging as identities understood to be radically other to normative sexualities.

The analysis of constructions of otherness—the recognition of the ways in which such constructions operate, the social and psychological formations they facilitate, the violences they do—is relatively recent in the Western tradition. Philosophy, from the Greeks on, reproduces in many ways the distinctions of self and other that are dominant in Western societies, valorizing mind over body, male over female, Western or European over Oriental or African. But, beginning at least with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), philosophy has also provided important tools for understanding and critiquing the construction of otherness: In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel analyzed how, for the emergence of a consciousness of self, there is a necessary dialectic between self and other, which is also a struggle for power between "master" and "slave." Crucial later treatments, influenced by Hegel, include:

  1. Freudian psychoanalysis, especially as developed by Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), who makes the self 's negotiations of otherness crucial to psychic process;
  1. Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic reflections on "abjection";
  2. deconstruction, as developed by Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), which analyzes the hierarchies produced by othering in order to emphasize the ways in which the denigrated term of a binarism like man/woman, understood to be secondary to and derivative of the dominant term, may in fact be seen as primary, in that the dominant term is defined by its denigrated other;
  3. feminism, especially Simone de Beauvoir's understanding, in The Second Sex (1949), of the male oppression of women as one in which women are consistently othered.

Beauvoir's understanding has been widely influential on later feminist thinking, which continues to analyze the significance of othering for gender inequality. Such feminist articulations, along with Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction, have in turn shaped an emergent queer theory (for instance, in Butler's important work). Here, queerness is an other that is understood to be both abjected by a normative sexuality and necessary for the norm's very existence.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1989. The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books. (Orig. pub. 1949.)

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. (Orig. pub. 1990.)

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hooks, Bell. 1990. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Orig. pub. 1974.)

Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 2002. Écrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1966.)

Nagel, Joane. 2003. Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Rubin, Gayle. 1975. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex." In Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Spellman, Elizabeth V. 1988. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.

                                             Steven F. Kruger

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