The term ‘otherness’ refers to a process or situation in which a distinction is created between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the ‘others’. The ‘us’ is a dominant ‘in-group’ that shares specific characteristics in specific contexts. The others are merely defined based on the manner in which they are different from the dominant in-group; a situation in which the identities of others are perceived in a manner that can be “a motive for potential discrimination” (Staszak, 2008).
Common examples of groups that have been the target of ‘othering’ are Muslims (Brubaker, 2013), immigrants (Torres, 2006) and people with disabilities (Shakespeare, 1994). The process of othering produces situations in which these groups are interpreted as homogeneous masses that deviate from the norm in a negative manner.
Scholars have also engaged with the connection between academic research and otherness. Sociologist Rogers Brubaker, for instance, differentiates between ‘categories of analysis’ and ‘categories of practice’, and argues that categories of practice — the manner in which people are clustered and categorised in everyday life — often influence the categories of analysis that are employed in scientific research. Subsequently, this influence produces an interplay that causes academic research to reinforce the perceived practical abnormality of ‘others’.
Brubaker also points out that the process of othering might at least partially be dialogical. Which entails that individuals that are perceived as ‘others’ based on particular characteristics might sometimes embrace and propagate these characteristics — for instance as a display of dissent, or because it provides a sense of belonging — and might thereby enhance their otherness and become more inward-looking.
Brubaker, R. (2013). Categories of analysis and categories of practice: a note on the study of Muslims in European countries of immigration. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(1), 1–8.
Shakespeare, T. (1994). Cultural Representation of Disabled People: Dustbins for Disavowal? Disability & Society, 9(3), 283–299.
Staszak, J. (2008). Other/otherness. International Encyclopedia of Human Geography.
Torres, S. (2006). Elderly Immigrants in Sweden: ‘Otherness’ Under Construction. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 32(8), 1341–1358.