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Alterity 101: The Power of Alterity

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.

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

The Power of Alterity

The promises of postmodernism's rationality have not been fulfilled and have left a world in which reason and reality are profoundly destabilized. Today a crisis of representation is in action; the world continues to be transformed via the qualitative organization of symbols, their rhythms of construction, and the various ways they relate to local subjective experiences (Trouillot, 2003). Moreover, the world is now globalized; what happens and affects one population may be relevant to another population on the opposite side of the globe. We live in a world where the Pope is Argentinian and most Marxists live on the western side of the Iron Curtain. Mythical density has been revived through the fetishism of commodities, which renders objects alive and individuals are perceived as objects (Taussing, 1986). This society does not seem to have rationality, let alone a reality. The beggar can be the paradoxical representation of this society (Taussing, 1986): he is seen as foolish, distorted and crazy, who cannot speak or walk well, and sits on the stairs of the main city square or on the biggest shopping street. He lives in a world that seems to be full of fog, between a dream and a prison; he is destroyed, in pain and crying, but at the same time he is laughing and drunk. He is a compelling metaphor for modern life representing the possibility of different discourses in the same individual (the beggar) and in the same place (the shopping street). The dichotomy between good and evil, poor and rich, savage and civilized is no longer distinguishable and can coexist in the same location.

Figure 1: A man begs for money in Madrid, Spain. Photographed by Alamy.

The dichotomy of reality discourses that create evil and good are no longer represented by a part of the world that is 'here' and another that is 'there' (e.g. Orientalism); the savage is much closer, he is in our streets and cities. Just like its location, its nature can also change; he can be noble, intelligent, barbarian, victim, or aggressor depending on the debate and the objectives of the interlocutors (Trouillot, 2003). The space of the savage is not static and the characteristics he carries are not predetermined by structural positions (Trouillot, 2003): his image can be found in various regional and temporal variants (Trouillot, 2003). The savage is not a precise reality but rather the result of a discourse; it is a figure of speech, a metaphor in a discussion about nature and the universe, being and existence; it is related to reality but is not as such defined as real, i.e. it is the discourse that arises from the human prism to narrate reality. The savage object no longer exists, “[T]he primitive has become terrorist, refugee, freedom fighter, opium or coca grower, or parasite" (Trouillot, 2003, p. 24). He is no longer the one against whom we fought a war on a different continent, he may reproduce within the social strata of our own society.

Figure 2: Comic representing Foucault. Drawn by Saladin Ahmed.

Society is now made up of a division of its own population that calls itself 'good' or 'bad' rather than by two distinct races (Foucault, 1977). A struggle is created between those who ought to live because they are healthy and those who ought to be eliminated or marginalized because they are outside of the norm (Foucault, 1977). The evil that was inherent in those who were called savages may now characterize many people who define themselves as 'others' or 'marginals'. As society changes, it also changes the characteristics that create the 'evil' and it changes the people to whom these characteristics can be attributed (Mendieta, 2007). Moreover, the societal division will be very dependent on the reality of society. The dichotomy is always connected to a certain reality, although it takes its own route through fiction. Fundamental societal dimensions, such as principles of domination, division of labor, division of power, etc. will largely influence the discourses on the 'other' (Bourdieu, 2016/1979). It is therefore by this historical process that the 'other' becomes such; societies have always tried to organize their social actors, and the process of alterity is a method for doing so. Thus, rationality has become increasingly institutionalized (Trouillot, 2003).

The discourses that take place around the Other have a reality in our society. What makes these discourses powerful are, most often, the social institutions that endorse them and give them social power (Taussig, 1984). A power mechanism is created in which an alleged truth is supported by a social power (Taussig, 1987). In this way, the institutions that sustain a discourse will, in most cases, reinforce alterity. This is because the social institutions will usually be created by the hegemony and represent it. Having the support of institutions makes a societal discourse more powerful and more consequential. A part of the society will now be able to decide the features that define the other part of the population and dominate them through the knowledge they have of them (Said, 1977). All the privileges are represented by the institutions, which can define the Others (the marginals) and make them dependent on their previously defined features. Alterity will take place and the cleavage between the mirror and the reflection will deepen. The “Us” of hegemony defines the marginal “Them” and pretends to know what is better for the Othered fraction of the population (Said, 1977). The marginal group will become codified in the language and will be assigned characteristics that reinforce the perspective of the in-group, creating a dominant vision of the social world (Bourdieu, 2016/1979). The Other is controlled by the discourses drawing our world; discourses which, with the support of the institution, become politics. That can therefore be used to dominate and subjectify individuals (Foucault, 1977). There is a construction of a specific reality that corresponds to the interest of a fragment of the population.

Figure 3: U.S. National Guard troops block off Beale Street as Civil Rights marchers wearing placards reading, "I AM A MAN" pass by on March 29, 1968.

In conclusion, social divisions are created and become the principle of actual divisions that set an individual's place in society. We must therefore understand ideas, cultures, and histories through their configurations of power. Domination through discourses is real and therefore, the problem of the dominant and the dominated ought to be asked, i.e. the problem of alterity. A dichotomy has appeared, there are those who dominate and those who are dominated, there is an Us and a Them.


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

Foucault, M. (1977). De la guerre des races au racisme d’état. Paris, FR : Gallimard-Seuil

Mendieta, E. (2007). Penalized spaces: The ghetto as prison and the prison as ghetto. City, 11, 3, 384-390

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

Taussing, M. (1987). Shamanis, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

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

Images references

Figure 1: A man begs for money in Madrid, Spain: Some people think they a right not to be approached on the street. Photographed by Alamy.

Figure 2: Comic by Saladin Ahmed.

Figure 3: U.S. National Guard troops block off Beale Street as Civil Rights marchers wearing placards reading, "I AM A MAN" pass by on March 29, 1968. Bettmann—Getty Images.


Author Photo

Altea Vaccaro

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