Alterity in Amazonian Anthropology

Essay by lifeless07University, Bachelor'sA-, November 2008

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A current topic in Amazonian anthropology concerns alterity in Amazonian practices and conceptions of sociality. Alterity is a philosophical term denoting “otherness” and has been adopted by anthropology to refer to the understanding of social others. Viveiros de Castro introduces the term briefly in his 1996 essay “Images of Nature and Society in Amazonian Ethnology”. He describes the “symbolic economy of alterity” used by structuralist-inspired ethnologists, and refers to alterity in other writings as having been found as a main “sociocosmological operator” or influence in Amazonian sociality (Viveiros de Castro 1996:190). He also states that the emphasis on the opposing social qualities of alterity and identity are central to Amazonian social life. While identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging and self within a community, alterity refers to all outsiders who do not belong to the society, or “Others”. Describing and understanding the social practices in which Amazonian societies relate with “Others” is important to understanding how they view their own personhood and their society.

“Others” usually include people from different villages and societies, affines or marriageable peoples, animals, gods, and the dead. The concept of alterity is crucial to understanding a people’s identities and roles in relation to “Others”. A people’s definition of an “Other” is a part of what defines and makes up their view of their own personhood. Different anthropologists have studied different peoples in the Amazon and come up with accounts of how they relate to, deal with, and understand “Others”.

In his essay “Inhuman Beings: Morality and Perspectivism among Muinane People (Colombian Amazon)”, Carlos Londoño Sulkin explores Muinane people’s practices and conceptions concerning selfhood. While the main focus of the paper was their use of perspectivism, he also referred to some instances concerning alterity. For instance, he states that among the Muinane, there is...