Let’s talk about Discrimination

Discrimination ©CanStockPhoto ibreakstock

Let’s talk about Discrimination

Mariela Acuna

Title: “The Other” from an Anthropological point of view


Today I would like to talk about discrimination from another angle.

I want to focus on why do humans discriminate, explained from the point of view of Anthropology.

So, in order to do that, I need first to define:

What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is “the science of humanity”.

That means, Anthropology studies human beings in different aspects, from an evolutionary point of view and especially in regards to the society and the culture that humans build.

Anthropology aims to describe humans especially in relation to their culture, and is particularly interested in the study of cultural differences.

Anthropology was born as a scientific discipline in the 19th century when it studied societies that had remained outside the technological civilization of the modern West, the so-called “primitives”.

This served to compare the “simple” societies to the contemporary “complex” world.

Anthropologists today study more than just primitive societies. Their research includes small villages and modern societies alike, but the most important focus of study are the patterns of human behavior.

In Anthropology we try to describe the social scenario by analyzing the cultural characteristics of humans.

Basically we wonder: why do humans structure their societies like they do? In which particular ways they communicate with one another? How do they organize and classify their whole world? How do they build their systems of belief?

And with reference to the subject of this evening, I want to understand what are the cultural aspects in the act of “discriminating” among humans.

Nature vs. Culture

Science study humans from a biological perspective, that is, everything that is “natural” to the constitution of a person, and from a cultural perspective, that is, everything that is “artificial” or built by the person.

In Social Anthropology we focus on all that is “not-natural”, that is, we look at everything that is “man-made”, or created by humans and that is not rooted in biology.

For example, birds build their nest in a particular way because it is imprinted in them by nature, so when the moment arrives, they instinctively pick up the branches and begin the construction.

But human houses are nothing like that. We don’t have imprinted in our DNA how to design a house, so the way people build their habitats is more determined by culture than by biology. We feel more comfortable if we have a roof above our heads, but then, how and where to do it is dictated by our particular culture.

Houses in Beirut look in one way, and houses in Buenos Aires look another.

This is just a very simple example about the role of culture in the life of humans.

What I am trying to say is that a lot of human characteristics are product of our culture, and have nothing to do with biology or nature.

You probably heard that women have a “mother instinct”, but science has proved that there is nothing biological in “motherhood”, but instead we “build” our ideas about what a “mother” should be, and what a mother should do or not.

The same applies to many different aspects of human behavior. They are not dictated by “nature”.

There is nothing “natural” about it.

So now I want to explain why I consider that “discrimination” is also built from culture.

The dictionary defines Discrimination as “the intended or accomplished

differential treatment of persons or social groups for reasons of certain traits”.

When we discriminate, we categorize and differentiate. We separate one thing from another. And when we apply this concept to humans, we do it using social categories and pre-concepts.

How do we build the “different”?

One of the classic analysis in Anthropology has been the dichotomy between “us/the other”, which relates to the history of the discipline’s debates in the 19th century involving some particular ideas and especially the distinction between “us” (the moderns) and “them” (the primitives).

Contemporary Anthropology deals with similar pretenses in a different context, but where there is still present the notion of “sameness” and “difference” within a multicultural reality.

This is the way Anthropology has shown how the historical definitions of “the other” are constructed and represented.

Defining the ‘Other’

According to some philosophers “the Other” is “the Stranger”, the one who is beyond the near; outside of the group but who at the same time can be a member of it, standing in a position that involves both interaction and confrontation.

The construction of “the other” includes diverse aspects such as the social, cultural and political institutions in which humans interact. This construction means that the codes of defining what “The Other” is vary from one context to another.

It is a complex process that involves multiple possibilities because what we call “the other” may be “either positively or negatively marked”, even though social analysis generally show the negative manifestations of it.

Representations of “the other” use to imply the establishment of a difference in status in regard to “the majority”, which in turn defines the other as the “not-me

There is also involved an ideological work that emphasize the boundaries of “zones of inclusion and exclusion” or “sameness and difference”, which is institutionalized through social processes, for example by religion, language, folklore, etc.

There is a conceptual negativity associated with the definition of the stranger, that appears as a hierarchy, established in the relation between the “us” and “the others”, with a tendency to use binary terms in order to determine power relations (for example, men-women, white-black, hetero-gay). Within this hierarchy, “the other” is generally defined negatively in the way that, as an author defines: “being foreign or strange is not belonging to a group, not speaking the language, not having the same culture; it is to be unfamiliar, unnatural, incomprehensible, inappropriate, or improper”.

From an anthropological perspective, we can signal all these cultural aspects involved in the process of classifying “the other” because defining the Other always requires setting real or symbolic boundaries.

These hierarchies are culturally legitimized and they manifest at the level of practice, from one culture to another, since each society has its “Other”

One of the main problems of hierarchical relationships is that it positions “the other” as an object, because this is a great way to prevent its agency.

Agency means the capacity that a person has to act in order to produce a particular result.

 In this sense, it is necessary to bring the philosophical approach that recognizes “the other” as a subject capable of action: “the other is an individual with his or her own “rational life plan”.

Since we are doing the exercise of defining the terms, we need now to focus on the other side of the coin, so we need to talk about integration.

What is integration?

According to the Oxford dictionary, the word integration refers to “the act of incorporating a group within an existing community”.

It can also signify the situation “when certain people become part of a group or society and are accepted by them”.

A very important definition also indicates that integration means the “incorporation as equals into society of individuals of different groups”


As I have explained, there is nothing “natural” in either discriminate or integrate. It is all subject to cultural interpretation, and it is –for the most part- an artificial construction that can change, since it belongs to the cultural sphere.

There is a tendency to believe that we discriminate because “the other” is “naturally different”, and since nature can’t change, then “the other” will always remain different and cast away from “us”.

But what I have shown today is that “the other” is defined by “us”, and there are no “objective” or “natural” reasons to set him apart.

“We” decide by a rational – or irrational- thinking to separate one from the other.

Several social theories argue that human societies need to set apart an “other” (whatever “the other” shall be) to maintain and reinforce the status quo, or even preserve social stability. But as you see, this is absolutely artificial.

Whatever reason there may be to justify it, the act of discriminating belongs to a social construction. And as such, it can be eliminated.

What I find very interesting in Anthropology is the way we can try to understand why humans act the way they do.

Back in the time of the Conquest of the American continent in the XVI century, the European elite wondered if the indigenous people from those distant places had “a soul” and if they should be treated as humans.

In the 18th century there was commerce of African slaves, who were considered objects at the service of the rich white people. Today, in the 21st century, gays can’t live openly in certain countries for fear of their own lives.

In all the cases that I mention here, there is nothing “natural” that justifies discrimination.  What is indeed natural is being born brown, black, white, gay or straight.

And this is what cannot be changed.

Anything else is a social construction.

I want to finish my talk today by saying that our culture defines “the other” but we are “our culture”, so in the end, accepting and integrating the “different” is a decision WE get to make.