Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Words for the Other. Ethnographies of Diversity

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Words for the Other. Ethnographies of Diversity

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article wishes to address ways in which cultural difference is perceived and described by the social sciences, in particular in ethnographical texts. The western view of the Other began to undergo change around the second half of the twentieth century. From the nineteen seventies on, some of the cultural movements that emerged began accusing ethnographical studies of ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism, and, thus, sought new ways of representing different cultures. The most representative post-modernist approaches of the nineteen eighties and nineties - auto-ethnography and performance ethnography - present both advantages and limitations which we shall examine here. The most relevant contribution, perhaps, made during those decades of research, was the self-reflexive technique, which multiplies the points of view presented in an ethnographical text. It is not by mere chance that analytic ethnography has taken on board reflexivity as a valuable method, freeing it of postmodern presuppositions. The latest developments regarding the dialogue with the Other should be sought in the ethnographies of globalisation, which, by refusing the ethnocentric enthusiasm resulting from increases in connections and mobility- shifting the focus of the representation of the Other onto the plane of research - study the critical and perverse effects of globalisation on marginalised cultures.

Describing the foreigner

Georg Simmel's reflections on the condition of the foreigner remind us of what our life experience teaches us, that is, that what is identical reassures, while what is different generates fear (Simmel, 1989). Communities consider foreigners a threat and do not attribute them the positive role which they actually play: they bestow cohesion on the social body, which aggregates against diversity (Cardano 1997); they set inert, decaying situations in motion by provoking social change (Donati, 2008); they assume roles the community refused as impure or despicable. They are indispensable and yet they are the object of taboos, around which the community constructs images, ideologies, narratives, definitions and words that label them as dangerous (Ferry, 1999; Lindón, 2005). Fear of the Other is deeply rooted in the collective psyche but, in complex societies, it is bound up with a sense of bewilderment deriving from "liquidity", both as far as the realistic assessment of the dangers and the availability of remedies (Bauman, 2008) are concerned. This state of constant uncertainty triggers off unconscious mechanisms of anger and aggressiveness which, once they emerge, are rationalised through ideological, socio-political rhetoric. Nationalism, secessionism and ethnic cleansing always appeal to fanciful archetypical mythologies. The rhetoric of fear produces descriptions of the Other, vitiated by bias and ethnocentrism. Descriptions are applied to the bodies of foreigners like labels on deviance. The theory of labelling (Tannenbaum, 1938; Becker, 1963) acts also at unconscious level, it modifies the self-image of those who are targeted, it conditions definitions of the situations they experience. Labelling the Other is tantamount to telling a story in which the foreigner is portrayed as the stigmatised loser. But, through the individuals involved, it is really culture that is judged and penalised. Societies define and represent foreign cultures according to models determined by history and sociology. Therefore, the role of language in the social sciences is crucial. Sociological descriptions of inter-cultural realities are capable of interacting with collective dynamics. Sociological discourse can influence the definitions and images that are conveyed within social networks, because it is no longer confined to academic and specialist circles, but is free to circulate and be inflated by the contamination of public utterance (for example, at media level). Awareness of this kind of linguistic and conceptual power, common today within the social sciences, is rooted in the cultural turn of the nineteen sixties and seventies, which has been defined in many ways (rhetoric turn, literary turn, textual turn) and is associated with the fact that sociology places the accent upon the importance of the words used to describe the Other. …

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