In Praise of Exotopy

Part of the SpringerBriefs in Anthropology book series (BRIEFSANTHRO, volume 2)


Anthropology has been the subject of much self-criticism since the 1980s. Studying other cultures from a Western perspective has exoticized them and distorted their lifeworlds. It has also essentialized them. Moreover, globalization is now homogenizing all cultures, making cultural distances less and less relevant. This chapter exposes the thoughtlessness of some unwarranted conclusions drawn from these criticisms. It shows how Bakhtin’s concept of exotopy vindicates observation of another culture from without. In this manner, we see more than what that culture reveals of itself explicitly. Bakhtin’s critical definition of culture also allows for the disabling of essentialism. A culture is always made of contradictory discourses. It is the singularity of its contradictions that distinguished it from all others—not an internal discursive homogeneous content. And it is that dynamics that keeps a culture distinct while constantly borrowing from others. For that reason, the contemporary world keeps fragmenting itself into new divergent cultures. Homogenization remains an old, unfulfilled imperial desire. Cross-cultural observation is thus perfectly cogent. The distortions introduced by exotopy in anthropology are comparable to those of a cubist representation of a live model. They bring to the fore aspects of the others’ actual world that would otherwise have remained concealed. For that reason, it is crucial to hold onto exploring the lifeworlds of others from a cultural distance, even if it be only one method among others. This chapter is a preamble to an exotopic analysis of French monogamy from the distant perspective of a Kenyan writer and of a British anthropologist.


Cultural Distance French Citizen Polygamous Marriage Personal Social Network Unskilled Migrant 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Concordia UniversityMontrealCanada

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