Hopp til hovedinnhold
Academic text

We, the Others and Othering


  • Prejudice and Group Thinking

Othering is the words, actions and processes placing individuals in the category of "the other", a category separate from the "we/us".

Othering as a collective term

Othering can be used as a collective term for exclusionary mechanisms, and to help understand multiple forms of intolerance, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination of Sami and other indigenousness people. Othering can also be used to describe mechanisms for exclusion, from prejudice and ways of thinking, to microaggression and discrimination.

Every "we" entails the existence of "the others".

Every "we" entails the existence of "the others". Who falls under the categories "we" and "the others" is often based on context. We, people who like football, is not the same as we, people who are teachers, even though one can be a part of both "wes". Both words and actions can contribute to give some groups a more fixed position as "the others". An example could be the idea that immigrants as "the others". This is what we call "othering".

What difference does importance have?

Othering is based on some sort of difference between the "we" and "the others". This difference gives the we-group a feeling of identity, "we" are those who are not different in this manner.

However, an actual difference is not required, sometimes "the others" are defined based on prejudices and myths. An example could be the idea that Norwegian Jews have more loyalty to Israel than Norway. This is a myth, and not a genuine difference between Jewish og non-Jewish Norwegians - however, this places Jews as "the others". At the same time we define the "we" as those who are loyal to Norway.

Group formation and the separation into "we" and "the others" requires that some differences are highlighted, while others are hidden, or at least given less importance.

Humans are different, and different in a number of ways. Group formation and the separation into "we" and "the others" require that some differences are highlighted, while others are kept hidden, or at least given less importance. If we for example divide the population into men and women, there are multiple differences we choose to not address, while highlighting the difference in gender.

The term othering refers to this process where group formation is a result of something people do, language and actions. Differences exist, groups are made.

Naturally, not all categories are given the same importance - we have to categorize and hierarchize differences. Both religion and gender are categories many would regard as correct to apply value to. Still, we do not necessarily agree on what differences are important. Some see gender as substantial to who they and others are, others will highlight religion, and yet others will regard both or none as important.

Moreover, it is not my choice alone what differences are granted importance for me.

Moreover, it is not my choice alone what differences are granted importance for me. Both in relation to other humans and in society as a whole, there are guidelines for which differences are given value. Even in our gender-equal society the divide between man and woman is seen most everywhere, like in the use of pronouns, the categories in most statistics and the stalls in public bathrooms. The importance society gives this divide, forces everyone to participate in it, even those who would rather not.

For many of us, other differences are of more importance in our everyday life, than those we see as important on a more overlying level. An example is nationality; in the public discourse there is a lot of focus on Norwegian as a category. Still only a small percentage reflect over their own Norwegianness in their everyday life. It is when we are reminded of Norwegianness as a category, that we reflect over it, for example when travelling abroad.

How often a person is reminded about a category of difference varies. The example of Norwegianness is an example of this. A person with an appearance not perceived as Norwegian, for example dark skin, will more often be faced with Norwegian - not-Norwegian as category of difference than a person with light skin. One concrete manner this happens is through questions from others about whether one is Norwegian - a question white skinned people is asked much more seldom.

This example showcases how what is considered normal goes unnoticed, while what is considered different does not. It can also show how a perception of a group is not static, but still that change happens slowly. Even though the Norwegian population has become much more colorful the past 50 years, white skin or whiteness is still considered as the normal. But perhaps it is considered less normal than before.

Othering will be different based on whether the category of difference is visible or not. Skin color and multiple forms of disability are visible, and the person is unable to choose this themselves.

Structure and actor

What othering on a societal level means on a group and individual level, depends on the response from the individual. We can say something about what expectations and ideas the individual faces based of othering on a societal level, for example that people with dark skin more often will be asked where they are from than people with light skin. However, how people react to this varies. In the same way, it also varies what value groups place on othering and how both the individual and the group respond to it.

Recently, we have seen a shift towards a focus on the perspective of the actor, as more people are concerned with different forms of response to societal othering. An example is Sune Qvotrup Jensen's study of young, ethnic minority men in Denmark (Jensen, 2011). He has found two different responses to societal othering: capitalization of the position as "the other" through cultivating ghetto and gangster culture on one hand, and on the other hand a rejection of the polarization of "we"/"the others" by positioning themselves in the middle, in a third space.

On one hand, othering on the societal level is something everyone in the society has to face, it is impossible to freely relate to the categories of man-woman for example. Purely an individual or actor perspective hence does not fully answer questions about othering. On the other hand, most people today would reject an entirely deterministic view on othering, meaning that the individual have no choices in their encounters with othering. Finding a balance between these two poles is fruitful to best analyze othering.

Levels of othering

Othering happens on multiple levels of society, from individual meetings with other people (micro), through social institutions (meso), to the more overarching level in societal structures and society as a whole (macro).

On the overarching level - the structural level and society as a whole - we find the forms of othering that everyone recognizes and in one way or another is affected by. This is not least connected to the different bases for discrimination, such as skin color, ethnicity, religion and world view, sex, gender expression, sexual orientation and age. To varying degrees, there are deep conditions for these differences in our society, often resulting in structural discrimination. The conditions can persist through cultural representation, or in different levels of social institutions (meso level).

Othering in relations between people (micro level) can confirm othering on the societal level, but can also contrast this. An example of the latter is the use of the word "potato" as a derogatory term aimed at white students. This is othering of white students on a group level, but does not change the societal othering of people of color. The school as an institution can both contribute to reinforcing societal othering, or to interfere or challenge it. One might say that the school itself has its own form of othering, where students who perform poorly, behave in a disruptive manner or dislike school, are seen as "the others".

Minority and majorizing

Minority means the smaller part. Today, the term is often used with one form of "smaller part" in mind, i.e. groups that differ from the majority, for example through characteristics such as ethnicity, skin color, gender, religion, language or culture. The words "minority student" will for example usually refer to either students with a different first language than Norwegian or Sami, or students with immigrant background.

While we understand the minority as a particular group, the majority is the rest, those who do not have the characteristics defining the minority. The majority population hides numerous groups and differences that are given less value, for the benefit of the differences that defines the minority. The idea of the majority as a group, is also the result of words and actions, it is something the people create or do. This has lead some to speak of majorizing, or "majority domination." The understanding of the minority as a group, also requires concealing differences inside of the group.

Majorizing and minoritizing are both connected to the othering of the minority by the majority. The majority's "we" is defined in contrast to the minority "other". Still, the characteristics distinguishing minority and majority, can be important for the minority's own identity. For the majority, these characteristics will often be invisible.

For teachers it is important to not end at the idea of a student body divided into two: minority and majority. The student body is diverse and complex, and the power dynamics between them are often intricate. Both in school as a whole and in groups of students, there will be dynamics where some are places in an inferior or minoritized position. For the teacher, it is important to pick up on, challenge and break such dynamics.

The other sex and the other peoples

In "The Other Sex" from 1949 Simone de Beauvior shows how society is built on the idea of the woman as "the other". The man is the normal, the norm that the woman deviates from. Even though society has become far more equal since De Beauvior's time, we still see examples of the man as the normal. It is still more normal to describe the sex of a politician, priest or police officer when we speak of a woman than a man.

Edward Said analyzed how the Middle East and Asia have been "the other" for Europe: what is different from Europe and thus also defines what Europe is. In the book "Orientalism" from 1978 he studied European tradition: European scientists, authors and artists who have described "the Orient" (The Middle East and Asia). His main point is that these depictions do not give better insight to the areas he describes. Instead they first and foremost appear as contrasts to Europe, and in that way give insight to Europe itself. The Orient is not depicted on its own terms, but as a "mirror" for Europe.

The term "othering" was introduces by Gayatri Spivak in 1985, as a term for mechanisms connected to Europe's relations with their colonies.

The term "othering" was introduces by Gayatri Spicak in 1985, as a term for mechanisms connected to Europe's relations with their colonies. Like Said, she point to how the depictions of the colonies as "the other" also defines the "we", meaning Europe. At the same time she shows how othering is part of defining the others - the colonies are made through the colonial powers' othering. In other words, she describes othering as a double process that both define the colonial powers and the colonies, both "we" and "the others". According to Spivak the understanding the colonized have of themselves will also be colored by this othering.

Spivak connect this analysis of othering of the colonial states and the othering of women, based on an understanding of othering as a multidimensional process. In this way Said's thinking points towards what is now called intersectionality (Jensen 2011, s. 65).

Published: 26. November 2019.


Berg, Anne-Jorunn, Anne Britt Flemmen, og Berit Gullikstad. 2010. «Innledning: Interseksjonalitet, flertydighet og metodologiske utfordringer.» (https://munin.uit.no/bitstream/handle/10037/11428/article.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y) I Likestilte norskheter, redigert av Anne-Jorunn Berg, Anne Britt Flemmen og Berit Gullikstad. Trondheim: Tapir Akademisk Forlag.

Jensen, Sune Qvotrup. 2011. «Othering, identity formation and agency.» Qualitative Studies 2 (2):63-78.

Lenz, Claudia (2011). Konstruksjon av den andre – teoretiske og historiske perspektiver. I: Christhard Hoffmann, Øivind Kopperud (red.): Forestillinger om jøder – aspekter ved konstruksjonen av en minoritet. Oslo: Unipub.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1985. «The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives.» (http://artsites.ucsc.edu/sdaniel/230/spivak_readingarchive.pdf) History and Theory 24 (3):247-272.