The Process of 'Othering'

Concepts such as gender, race, community (all of which we have discussed in this course) seem to be all born out of an innate need for us to categorise the people around us – and during class discussions, the question of why arbitrary categories like race still persist was also brought up as something that was difficult to fully understand. This article was then interesting to me, as it sheds some light on why we are so inclined towards categorising people and seeing perceived outsiders as 'The Other'. As the article explains, "The othering process is the human tendency to believe that the group (race, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, country, sexual orientation, species etc.) that they are a part of is inherently the ‘right’ way to be human."This often results in hostility towards those not part of a group, as they can be seen as a threat or liability that is detrimental to the group's existence, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. It's not difficult to relate such a process to our daily lives – categories such as race and religion that are so ingrained in our lives often create distinct lines between different groups of people – the Holocaust and the Apartheid in South Africa are just some examples of othering taken to the extreme.

The Process of 'Othering' - Anthropology & the Human Condition

What then, is the purpose of othering? The writer explains that "Knowing who is, and who isn’t a member of your group is exceptionally important for reasons intimately connected to survival… Forming a group can allow you to align yourself with other individuals altruistically to maximize your own (and everyone else in the groups) ability to acquire territory, food and mating opportunities." The mantra of “No man is an island” comes to mind, and group formation is equally applicable in today’s society, where it has taken the form of things like formal institutions and state-defined categories of race, religion, etc. Categorising people allows us to better understand the world and how to behave, and the strength of being in groups is obvious enough, with humans being as social animals that often depend on each other for survival.

The writer points out the ‘us vs. them’ mentality as “doing more harm than good” in today’s society, arguing that there is now a need for us to see humanity as an united whole rather than continuing to fixate on categorising each other. He asserts that we should now “unlearn” our othering behaviour and embrace difference instead. The chapter “They Do Not Like to Be Confined and Told What to Do” in “Everyday Life in Southeast Asia” comes to mind, where the Orang Asali can be seen as victims of the othering process, with the dominant Malay population seeking to assimilate them into their group, in order to give themselves legitimacy as the rulers of the country. This also ties in closely with how anthropology was initially approached as a study of the “others”, with this approach becoming a point of critique as the field progressed. Is othering truly inevitable, and is it really unneeded in today’s context? It does seem unlikely that categories such as race and gender will ever completely disappear – as much as humans are similar, we are still different in many ways, especially in terms of culture, and for that alone, I think it is indeed overly optimistic to believe that humans will be able to stop categorising each other. I do agree with the writer’s point that othering – that is, how we see those of different categories as ‘The Other’ – is something that should be rejected. Those different from us should not be instinctively seen as threats, and while categorising will continue to be essential to our lives in helping us understand the world, the mind-set behind othering is something that we should work on eliminating.

References:
Last, C. (2012, May 17). The 'othering' process. Retrieved from http://www.theadvancedapes.com/theratchet/2012/10/15/the-othering-process

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