I’m taking a cultural anthropology class this semester, and one key idea discussed in the book is the idea that anthropologists should look back on their own culture and try to imagine how strange and bizarre it would seem to an outsider.  A good word for that process of defamiliarization or estrangement that can happen in the study of anthropology may be ostranenie.

Ostranenie was originally a Russian word. According to dictionary.com, it was a Russian literary critic and writer, who went by the name of Viktor Shklovsky, who first coined the term. There is more information to be found about the word ostranenie on the Oxford Reference web site, which states that ostranenie was a major concept of Russian Formalism.  According to another entry on Oxford Reference, Russian Formalism was “a school of literary theory and analysis” that first came to be in about 1915.  

The original purpose for the word was to describe the defamiliarization that often happens in literature, especially in poetic literature. At the time, literature was usually viewed as more like a reflection of reality, but Shklovsky and the other Formalists proposed that on the contrary, good literature took reality out of its context and made simple and ordinary things seem strange. Shklovsky, as a leading thinker of the Russian Formalists, called this ostranenie.

In case the idea is difficult to understand, take Shklovsky’s example, from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, of how Tolstoy describes an opera as ‘painted cardboard and oddly dressed men and women who moved, spoke and sang strangely in a patch of blazing light.’  It certainly makes an opera sound like a bizarre yet fascinating type of event, while most people, especially at the time, would have considered an opera to be nothing out of the ordinary.

On a personal level, the idea of ostranenie is important to me, because I often view life through a defamiliarized, or “ostraneneic” lens, if you will. Having the ability to view one’s own way of life as strange and fascinating can help one to have an objective viewpoint in anthropology rather than an ethnocentric one.  The idea that defamiliarization, or ostranenie, can be useful, is one of the reasons I like anthropology.

Can you think of any other examlples of ostranenie or ways it can be useful?