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Alterity 101: Alterity as the Landmark of the Occident

How can anyone not want to get rid, and by means without appeal, of someone who is fundamentally a “criminal”, essentially a “danger”, and naturally a “monster”. The safety of all of us is at stake.

- Foucault, The Proper Use of Criminals


Alterity 101 is a set of articles that strive to understand the phenomenon of alterity from a socio-anthropological perspective. The subsequent six articles will embark on a definition of Alterity and its power dynamics; it will also enable the reader to understand how alterity takes form under societal institutions by using the example of prisons. In a world that is disoriented towards the Other, we must ask ourselves which representations have been ingrained in the population and if these representations originate from dominant mechanisms.

1. Alterity 101: Alterity as the Landmark of the Occident

2. Alterity 101: The Power of Alterity

3. Alterity 101: The Alarmist Discourse

4. Alterity 101: Social Institutions as a Solution for Separating the Other from Society

5. Alterity 101: Hyper-incarceration

6. Alterity 101: The Development of a Status: Becoming a Prisoner

Alterity as the Landmark of the Occident

Alterity comes from the Latin word alter, which means the "Other" (Treccani). There are objects that have a reality as Others - working as a mirroring image of the thing itself - and the Occident is full of these iconographies (Taussig, 1984). The mirror works as a reflector of a supposed reality and following this metaphor, the Other would be the reflection. However, the mirror of alterity is not to be thought of as a precise reflection of reality, but as a given image that is turned around: an antithesis. Because there is a reality and a reflection, the mirror of alterity has also a dominant and a dominated (imagine a subject and a mirror, the subject is the dominant and his reflection in the mirror is the dominated – see figure 1: the white woman would be the dominant and the black woman the dominated).

There is always a strong and a weak partner, and the two come together in their existence: if the weak would not exist then the strong could not be thought of (Said, 1977). The trick for the one which is in front of the mirror is to be visible only through his reflection by the Other. The strong partner appears to be nothing in particular and is seen as the norm because it is only visible through its opposite, that is, its Other (Lipstiz, 1998). And unlike the first, the Other is always present and belongs to a category, has a name and specificities (Lipstiz, 1998).

Figure 1: Image of the artistic work 'OTHERNESS'

The Occident is full of terms that work by alterity. For instance, the word ‘American’ assumes under its name a population of White Americans but it does not need to specify it (Lipstiz, 1998). As a White person in America, you would only be named ‘American’, but a Black person in America would be named ‘Afro-American’. The Afro-American becomes the Other of the American. Similarly but universally, the term ‘women’ exists only in its differentiation to the term ‘men’. A woman will be “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.” (De Beauvoir, 1949/2011, p. 6). Therefore, being named means being organized by and recognized by a linguistic code that supposes specific traits for specified names (Bourdieu, 2016/1979). The Other is always named by the discourses of society while established names will confer identities, and the mythology of language will act.

Figure 2: Cartoon representing how western have engrained Orientalism

These nominal identities can determine groups of individuals. The traits that are given to the Other serve to inscribe belonging into a group (Bourdieu, 2016/1979). Words are therefore an example of the presence of alterity, but, more broadly, geographical parts of the world can also be determined by alterity. Indeed, humans not only create their own stories by using discourses about what they know or have done but also about the place where it happened (Said, 1977). Orientalism is an example of this: the alter ego of the West was always the East. Nevertheless, insofar as the East has long been the Other of the West, the latter is not the sole one, and the very existence of the West is based on a metanarrative that goes far beyond the one built around Orientalism. It is more generally the history of the Occident which is full of iconographies of what ought to be its opposite, i.e. the evil and the abnormal (Taussig, 1984). Inversely and thanks to the existence of the Other, the Occident will be the good and the utopic.

Figure 3: The Reception by the Orientalist painter John Frederick Lewis.

The question which could be asked is about the truthfulness of this Other: are the discourses surrounding and defining the Other true? Michael Taussig (1984) invites us to think about the conditions of truth creation. Often what we consider as true is produced by discourses that are neither false nor true, because the world in which we live is not as rational as we might think and instead, it is rather symbolic (Taussig, 1984). Facts gain importance because of the feelings humans project on them - they will be deformed through a human prism that diffuses the information via temperament and sensorial impressions and notions (Taussig, 1984). Then, reality will pass through the human prism and will be reiterated through stories, rumors, and gossip. Those impressions and sensations will form part of reality and illusions and will enter into societal discourses. In the end, the social world of each individual is a result of the relationship between facts thought in terms of discourses and real facts (Bourdieu, 2016/1979). Because of that, the human who assumes the presence of a reality will inevitably be the bearer of the reality he is seeking to express. As a consequence, the Other even as having a reality of its own will be thought in terms of social discourses. In fact, collective representations are preceding facts and give a sense to an identity which even if it is not real is still nominal (Bourdieu, 2016/1979). The Other is constructed and is given his reality by a process of alterity.

In conclusion, discourses and stories are present in society and take part in its formation. The social world is the result of the relationship between 'real' facts and the world thought through discourses (Bourdieu, 2016/1979). Humans see the social world not as a reflection of facts, but rather as their knowledge of these facts, and this results in many constructions that are not of the very order of reality. Therefore, it is not an imperative to know whether the discourses defining the Other are true because to a certain extent, “all societies live by fictions taken as reality” (Taussig, 1984, p.492); the discourses need therefore to be given importance for their presence and consequences in society, not for their truthfulness. Alterity is a reality whether it be true or false.


Bourdieu, P. (2016). La distinction: critique sociale du jugement. Paris, FR : Les Éditions de Minuit (édition électronique). (Originalement publié en 1979)

De Beauvoir, S. (2011). The Second Sex (C. Borde and S. Malovany-Chevallier, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books (Original work published 1949)

Foucault, M. (1976). The proper use of criminals. In: Rabinow, P. Essential works of Foucault: Volume 3 – Power (pp. 429-434). London, UK: Penguin

Lipstiz, G. (1998). The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Said, E. (1977). Orientalism. London, UK: Penguin

Taussig, M. (1984). Culture of Terror—Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26(3), 467-497

Trouillot, M. R. (2003). Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

Image references

Figure 1: McGilchrist, O.; Small, J. OTHERNESS (2013). Collaborative work between the actress, playwright, and traditional storyteller Jean Small and the visual artist Olivia McGilchrist. [Photograph]

Figure 3: Lewis, J. F. (1873). The Reception. [Painting]


Author Photo

Altea Vaccaro

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