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The Concept of Human Person and Personhood in Anthropology

Updated on December 25, 2018


Anthropological studies have found that there are many ways in which a person can be defined within their culture. The individual self is often determined by the surrounding society and the way in which they interact with it. The western perception of a person tends to depict an individual with a psychological interior of emotions and rationality, this though is not a notion shared by all. Often a person is simply defined as anything which is considered a social agent. Spirits and other animals can also be described as possessing what seems to be the essential human qualities blurring differences between humans and the surrounding world(s). However, humans tend to be held in a higher personhood status through their interactions with other individuals and their active status within society.

What makes a person varies throughout the world, each society has its own rigid or fluid terms for it. Often though it seems that understanding personhood requires a knowledge of the surrounding hierarchy or of the culture as a whole. Sometimes this can be focused in on one part of society and the interactions this area. Dorinne Kondo conducted a study focusing on the workplace in Japan of a factory making traditional sweets. She found that those in the factory could be seen as ‘furthering their maturity as humans … through a system of hierarchical ranks’ (Kondo. 1992; 47). The way in which the people within the factory were defined and categorised within the hierarchy would place their whole personhood into a categorical definition of maturity and levels of being human. Particular attention is paid towards Ohara-san, head of the Japanese sweets division. It is from his life’s tale that Kondo concludes that ‘meanings must be placed within a particular, changing political/economic context’ (1992; 41) in order to be fully understood and interpreted. Ohara-san is portrayed as embodying a stereotype of ‘the stern, silent, sever artisan’ (Kondo. 1992; 40). Having this stereotype fit entirely with his position makes it appear that a persons position within the workplace or society as a whole can not only rank a person but can influence the behaviour of the person and how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. It seems that the concept of self is ‘constructed variously in specific situations…[and] these constructions shape, and are shaped by, relations of power’ (Kondo. 1992; 41). Individuals can be encouraged to take on a certain behavioural type with the role given to them by society and it is conforming to this given role that can make a person fully human.

Jane M. Bachnik also spoke of Japanese society and argued that it seemed in Japan that the organisation of self was fundamentally linked to the social context. In Japanese society the self is defined through interaction and relationship with others. It is though stated by that ‘people interacting in context do not “reflect” a world already created, but participate in the ongoing dynamic of a social world literally constituted in action’ (Bachnik. 1994; 23). The two ideas of individual and society work in conjunction with each other to create the perceptions, and these factions are constantly changing; ‘social participants both structure and are structured by their social context’ (Bachnik. 1994; 17). Both society and the self need to support each other to create a fully functioning world in which persons can exist. Both Japanese studies concur that hierarchy and society has to be understood to place importance on the system in which people exist as playing an integral part in defining them.

Cecilia Busby’s analyse of South India and Melanesia found that, despite their similarities, there were many intrinsic differences in how they defined and categorised people. In South India gender is fixed, based on obvious bodily differences between men and women. While in Melanesian the definition of gender is not purely concerned with physical differences, rather, definitions depend on how people act and what they do. All parts of life therefore contribute to gender definitions such as ‘appearance, attributes and work’ (Busby. 1997; 267). In South India men are defined as being able only to act in a male way while women can only act in a female way. Men and women though do need each other to help define themselves as they ‘most effectively demonstrate and enact this gender difference in transactions with each other’ (Busby. 1997; 269). In Melanesia though gender cannot be known purely through the physical appearance; rather it must be ‘displayed, through the successful manipulation of relationships’(Busby. 1997; 269). South India and Melanesia also differ in their views of the formation the physical persons. Both state a shared responsibility between both parents towards the creation of the child as the result of mixing the semen and menstrual blood while it is the same gendered parent that gives the life force or spirit. The belief splits as in Melanesia ‘the male and female substances are identified with separate parts of the body, while in South India they merge and are indistinguishable’ (Busby. 1997; 270). This results in the idea in South India that ‘one finds a definitively (wholly) male or female person’ (Busby 1997; 270). While in Melanesia this idea is less rigid as it allows for seeing persons as non-gendered as the body is made up of identifiable male and female parts so an effort has to be made to present a person as gendered. The distinction is made between ‘persons in Melanesia, composed of relations, and persons in South India, separate and yet connected’ (Busby 1997; 274). Throughout India there is also the Hijras (neither gender) who are usually men who have been ritually castrated and are considered close to a Goddess. Hijras are unique from men and women as they stand out with usual definitions; tending to be defined in terms of what they are not. They are people ‘excluded from the normal activities of men and women and who [occupy] their own restricted niche’ (Busby. 1997; 265). It is from this that it is made clear the importance of the connection between ‘gender identity, bodily difference and the expression of gender through reproductive potential’ (Busby. 1997; 266). A primary view of the hijra is their that they lack reproductive ability what is crucial in the definition of maleness. It is entirely through their inability and lacking of category and position within society that the hijra gain their definitive idea of self and identity as people.

Sakais’ have a dualistic understanding of the person based on both the physical and non-physical world which ‘has developed through the human phenomenal experience of altered states of consciousness’ (Porath. 2007; 188). This Dualist idea draws a comparison with Descartes and it is he who thought all humans are endowed with reason. This seems a solid idea of what it is that makes a person which can be universally applied, however Descartes further identified humans reflexes as ‘animal spirits’; features shared between both human and animal creating similarities. Descartes goes on to disparage altered states of consciousness as they have nothing of value to contribute to a persons perception of the world. The Sakais’ perceived dualism regards a spirit world and a physical or human world. Incorporated within the human dimension is ‘everything that humans can perceive with their five senses…[such as] the forest, animals and plants’ (Porath. 2007; 192). The spirit dimension is non physical but both are of equal importance in the world. It is believed that ‘people can see…this dimension with their inner-eye of consciousness when they lose consciousness of their physical environment’ (Porath. 2007; 192). It appears, therefore, that for the Sakai people, as opposed to Descartes, altered states of consciousness do have an important value as and people can gain knowledge through two sources of the human and spirit dimensions. In terms of the definition of an individual, this can vary depending on the context as ‘identities are not definite but conceptually and experientially fluid’ (Porath 2007; 193). The self is a composite of many factors and it is the combination of these that defines a person. It is though not only humans who can be defined within this category of personhood; ‘spirits are also a category of o‘ak (people) regardless of what form it might take (animal or human)’ (Porath. 2007; 193). The Sakai people have social interactions with spirits when seeing or hearing them and it is this relationship which makes the people. However, spirits are given differentiated status and considered outsider peoples.

In conclusion, it seems that, despite societies being so varied, each variation seems to require an understanding of the surrounding society and culture in order to grasp the definitions of persons. It also seems that to be defined a person does not even always require a physical body as spirits of both humans and animals can be categorised as people. Gender also seems to a play an essential role in helping to define people and their worth and position. Although defined in terms of individuality, people tend to rely on society to create their individual personhood so it seems an individual would struggle to stand out on its own. Persons are therefore reliant on the surrounding culture to help create their self.


Bachnik, J. 1994. Situated meaning: Inside and Outside in Japanese Self, Society, and Language (eds.) Jane Bachnik & Charles J. Quinn Jr. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Busby, C. 1997. Permeable and partible persons: a comparative analysis of gender and body in South India and Melanesia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3, 261-278.

Kondo, D. 1992. ‘Multiple selves: the aesthetics and politics of artisanal identities’ in Japanese sense of self (ed.) N. Rosenberger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Porath, N. 2007. ‘Being human in a dualistically-conceived embodied world’ in Anthropology and Science: Epistemologies in Practice (eds.) J. Edwards, P. Harvey & P. Wade. Oxford: Berg


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