Orientalism | Study Guide

Edward W. Said

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Orientalism | Introduction | Summary



Said begins Orientalism by explaining how Orientalism is defined within three different contexts. Academically, the term refers to the act of studying or otherwise engaging with the Orient. In a more informal context, Orientalism is a way of thinking about the Orient when contrasted with the Occident—the West. Finally, Said evokes Michel Foucault's concept of discourse to describe how historically, Orientalism is a specifically "Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." He states his goal in writing Orientalism is to describe how the concept of Orientalism was constructed historically, to serve French and British imperialist agendas, and how Orientalism is constructed today. His focus is on describing the framework for the creation and perpetuation of the concept of Orientalism.

After defining Orientalism and laying out his thesis, Said moves to a discussion of the assumptions behind his work. He clarifies that while the concept of Orientalism is constructed, the Orient itself is, in fact, a real location. Secondly, to study the Orient means, inherently, the need to study the power dynamics between the Orient and the Occident. Finally, while Orientalism is a construct, it has very real consequences for the Orient and is not easily subject to change because of hegemony, that condition when "certain cultural forms predominate over others." While Orientalism is not inherently a political text, the subject necessitates a discussion of politics as Orientalism is both a cultural and political construct. A large array of literature exists on the Orient. However, Said chooses to frame his work within the confines of how Orientalism has been shaped by the French, British, and Americans.


The Introduction attempts to define the term Orientalism, contextualize the work, and lay out the inherent biases of the author. Said claims his work is primarily a humanistic text and uses anthropological methodology to formulate his argument. While it is not an ethnographic work—one based on the primary collection of observations from a current human population—Said uses anthropological methods, namely historical ethnology and an acknowledgment of the assumptions and inherent biases of his work to evaluate the historical constructs still affecting present-day society.

In his definitions of Orientalism, Said makes clear that the concept is a construct, or a framework of thinking created by outside agents. Said claims Orientalism has been created through the domination of one culture, the Occident, over another, the Orient. However, he emphasizes that Orientalism is a cultural construct and has very real implications for the interaction between the Orient and the Occident.

In describing his biases, Said is practicing academically sound anthropology. One of the tenets of cultural anthropology is cultural relativism, or the idea that, when considered within the context of their own culture, all actions by a particular group are morally equivocal. This implies that all cultures should be viewed within the context of their cultural lens. However, this is impossible since anthropologists have their own cultural view and biases. In order to address this, the anthropologist is expected to detail his or her biases so the reader may take this information into account. For instance, Said's inclusion of his Christian background as an Arab Palestinian in the West, allows the reader to place his perspective in context.

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