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Durham University

Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)

Event Archive

Othering the Other: Distortions of Social Cognition in Two Icelandic Family Sagas

14th March 2017, 18:00, World Heritage Site Visitors Centre, Alex Wilson, Department of English

This event is free to attend and open to all. The seminar will begin at 6pm, with tea and biscuits from 5.40pm.

The field of social cognitive research can be most simply defined as an attempt to understand ‘people making sense of people’, as Susan Fiske (2016) puts it. On its most basic level, the term ‘social cognition’ refers to how people create and make use of various levels of identity, both within themselves and their communities, to structure how they cognitively perceive the world around them. Many of these structures are composed around the ideas of ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’, or, to put it simply, those communities which are felt to belong to one’s sphere of familiarity and those which are cognitively excluded from it. Literary scholars will observe that these terms are similar in their conception to the psychoanalytic concepts of ‘normativity’ and ‘Otherness’, which are not limited to the same dynamic of communal identities (and individual identities deriving from such communal identities) as the theories behind ingroups and outgroups are, but which certainly encompass the kind of thinking that focuses around ideas of familiarity and identity. For literary analyses of community interactions, particularly those that focus on depictions of normativity and Otherness, the psychological research behind social cognition therefore has the potential to afford us new insights into how we approach and interpret this material.

In this paper, I will use the concepts elucidated by social cognitive theory, in tandem with those relating to normativity and Otherness, to analyse how two Icelandic family sagas, Droplaugarsona saga (The Saga of Droplaug’s Sons) and Fóstbrœðra saga (The Saga of the Sworn-Brothers), portray particularly violent conflicts between different communities. In both sagas, the protagonist in these episodes undertakes the process of obtaining blood-vengeance for his brother, but in doing so he actively adopts a monstrous, Othered identity that engages with and distorts that culture’s notions of what it is for something to be seen as unfamiliar and Other—in other words, with a component of the wider-reaching social cognition of that culture. I argue that considering these scenes in relation to the basic ideas underpinning social cognitive theory is important for our understanding of why the figures in these sagas are motivated to behave in such a way as to distort the fundamental structure of how their opponents perceive society, and what effect such distortions would have probably had on a medieval audience.

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