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  Orientalism is both a term for the body of knowledge that describes the East, and an ethnocentric distortion about what the East is like. The Orient has long been portrayed as seductive, exotic and inherently violent. These stereotypes of the Orient were created by Victorian travellers from the West, such as Gustave Flaubert, whose imaginative and subjective accounts influenced early ethnographic accounts of other cultures. As well as reflecting a desire to understand other cultures, Edward Said demonstrated that the dynamics of Orientalism subordinated lives, cultures and societies for the purposes of a Western intellectual rhetoric.

Exotic stereotypes were particularly useful for the paternalistic justifications given by colonialists protecting their interests in the Middle East and India, and explain the enduring fascination and repugnance for the exotic East. Orientalism enabled the British, for example, to think that they knew India better than the Indians themselves. By creating the Orient as the mysterious ‘other’ whose otherness was composed of all the things the West was not, the West simultaneously created itself. The notion of a unitary and homogeneous West has been useful in the hegemony of Orientalism.

Contemporary anthropology is critical of Orientalism as a way of generating knowledge about others, based as it is on ideas of homogeneous cultural and political entities engaged in assymetrical relations of power. CL

See also caste; colonialism; primitivism.Further reading R. Inden, Imagining India; , Edward Said, Orientalism.



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