This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
Fall 2019 was my first semester coding for the Prosecution Project. Throughout that time, something I have been interested in is coding the ‘Other’ status variable. I had heard the term othering before and knew it had a negative connotation so I was surprised to see it as one of the variables we had to code for. The codebook says this about ‘Other’ Status:
The defendant is marked as othered if they meet or appear to meet any of the following criteria:
- Does the defendant have a name not readily understood as European?
- Is the defendant Muslim or a Muslim convert?
- Is the defendant an immigrant from a non-Western/European country?
- Is the defendant non-white racially as an ‘average person’ would read them (i.e. not passing as white)?
The defendant is marked as Non-othered:
- This is used if the defendant is marked as white, non-foreign born, Judeo-Christian and a non-jihadist (i.e. can pass as a white, American-born, Christian).
Within the project, this definition of othering makes sense for the United States where the “norm” is a white christian American. Some othering cases are obvious such as the case of Naif Abdulaziz M. Alfallaj, a Saudi who trained at an Al- Qaeda training camp and lied to the FBI about it. However, a couple of things surprised me about this definition at first. There is a certain privilege in being able to pass as the norm. I had not thought about. Fitting into this norm is ruined if your name does not sound European though because then people see you as different.
Something else I was surprised about was that gender was not included. At first I believed women would have been included as othered because people see women, especially women who commit political violence, differently. Furthermore, there are many fewer women committing political violence than men. Recently I coded a case about a woman named Patricia Parsons who tried to kidnap someone as part of the Sovereign Citizen movement. While coding the case I assumed women would be a part of the “othered” category but after looking back at the codebook I had to change the value.
However this variable is not about distinguishing smaller groups of people in the data. They are about perception and how the America public views people in general. Women are viewed differently in American society but not in the same way people of color are viewed differently, especially when it comes to committing political violence. The Guardian says this about othering;
“It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favoured group” (Powell).
Adding the word threat to the definition makes the coding much easier to understand. Understanding these different views of people who commit political violence is important for understanding the Prosecution Project and why they would choose to include this variable.
Even though othering is a negative and harmful idea it can be very important to understanding prosecution of individuals. If a jury or judge sees a person as an inherent threat without even looking at their crime they are going to punish them worse so they are locked up for longer. Studying these biases and having data to show for them will be an important part of the analysis of this project. I December I finished my first semester of coding and I have learned so much. It has also made me think critically about what surprised me when I first started coding and made me understand why things are done the way they are with the project.
Powell, John A. “Us vs Them: The Sinister Techniques of ‘Othering’ – and How to Avoid Them.” The Guardian, November 8, 2017, sec. Inequality. https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/nov/08/us-vs-them-the-sinister-techniques-of-othering-and-how-to-avoid-them.