The process resulting in the definition of one’s own identity – hence an “us” – in an oppositional manner by, explicitly or implicitly comparing ourselves with “others”, is considered a universal movement in every society. “Whatever “we” are, this is humankind; and hence whatever “we” are not is what “others” are” (Leach). The creation of an identity – be it “us” or “others” – is therefore an inalienable process for human beings (Remotti).
Since the definition of the ‘other’ addresses the very idea of humankind, there are endless ethnographic examples that prove how, for every single know human group, the ‘other’ is identified as those not belonging to our own community. To remain within the Western world, starting with Herodotus, the ‘other’ has progressively been identified as “the barbarian, the “monstrous”, the “savage in a natural state” (and also as the “good savage”), the “primitive”, the “exotic”, to the extent of explicitly embracing the entire world outside the West (the Third World, developing Countries, the Rest in opposition to the West).
The category of the “other” also plays a very important role in social science and, in particular, in anthropological disciplines for which it is historically the object. Anthropology in fact began as the project for knowledge about otherness. In a more restricted sense therefore, assumed as the object of an investigation of European tradition after the mid 19th Century, the ‘other’ coincides with the “traditional” world (opposed to the “modern” one) and with “simple” societies (compared to “complex” ones). One must also bear in mind that for over a century – from the mid 19th century to the Fifties of the 20th Century circa – the other was also defined in racial terms, and human groups from outside the west were considered as being racially inferior to it. While traditionally the study of the ‘other’ coincided in particular with the analysis of small pre-industrial societies and often with an oral tradition, over time different “communities” replaced one another in the role of an “absolute other” in the common sense and in western culture: blacks, Jews, and in more recent times the Islamic world.
In social science the ‘other’ is seen increasingly often as intrinsic to ‘us’, emphasising how a profound understanding of one’s own identity or that of others must include an urge of inclusion and understanding of the “us” among the “others”, thereby overcoming the dualism and the counter-positioning in categories of the Us/Others which has prevailed for a long time. Considering that the definition of the ‘other’ is in fact a process involving the production and creation of otherness, the accent is nowadays placed above all on processes involving the reification and essentialism of identities and the manners in which these can provide a justification for political practices involving the marginalisation and exclusions of the ‘other’.