Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society
Of interest to: Students
Primary Theme: Race
Secondary Theme: Identity and Equity
This panel explores the importance of contact with, or ideas about, the Other in shaping people’s constructions of Self. Presenters, working in different parts of the world, examine how people’s explicit or implicit comparisons between themselves and members of different races, nationalities, economic classes, religions, or ethnicities figure into their identity. This includes how historical and contemporary comparisons between races, encounters with missionaries or religious others, and differences in others' wealth and power have generated rich cultural comparisons and novel identities. In the historical record, there are stunning examples of “first contact” situations, such as the deification of Captain Cook by native Hawaiians (Sahlins 1995), but for many peoples, the real or symbolic presence of the Other is mundane and has become a regular part of life, but with far-reaching consequences for how people view their place in the world. Critical theorists have noted that Western people’s self/other dichotomies carry judgments, often reflecting ethnocentric ideas, rather than accurate portrayals of the Other (e.g. Said 1978). Early sociological approaches to alterity focused on “primitive” societies regarded as inferior and isolated from the rest of the world (Frazer 1890; Spencer 1897). Contemporary anthropological analyses acknowledge that supposedly remote societies have long been interconnected with the rest of the world (Wolf 1982), and cultural comparisons operate on both sides of the alterity dyad; indeed indigenous peoples exhibit agency in producing their own ethnographic assessments of the colonizer and other foreign peoples (Basso 1979). It is not only anthropologists who find the Other good to think with, and alterity is a key feature that brings into relief human understandings of the Self. The panelists examine how views of Others shape people’s political, economic, moral, and racial ideologies (see also Bashkow 2006, Falen 2016, Kulick 1992, Stasch 2009). Local terms for white people, such as “Anasara” or “Yovo” in Africa, or “Gringo” in Latin America, are not merely neutral descriptors but convey symbolic meaning about inequality, power, spirituality, hierarchy, and historical memory. Beyond differences between persons, alterity can inform identity by highlighting the meanings of objects, ideas, or customs of the Other (Bashkow 2006). But alterity is not only rooted in distant peoples. Indeed, as panelists show, different kin categories, foreign volunteer workers, and even deities can all be considered foreign, even though they are proximate, or even situated in the same society as the Self. As a discipline founded on the confrontation with, and understanding of, alterity, anthropology can shed light on the ways otherness shapes power, identity, and other aspects of the human condition.