Modern social rules encourage individuality and separation. Many people feel individual and separated, and this has echoed through history. Descartes said ‘cogito ergo sum’. Leibnitz described a self-view of ‘windowless monads’ and the Kantian knowledge talks of us as ‘who from his aprioristic shell can never quite break through to the ‘thing in itself’. Nowadays, some social researchers still separates the individual and society. Society is seen as a unity of its own, implying boundaries. There is even an antagonism between ‘the individual’ and ‘the society’. The majority of people want to be seen as individuals as free and independent. But are individuals separate from society or a part of society? I will argue that personhood is neither individual nor collective. Personhood is neither constructed by what we share with others nor a product solely of individual creativity and will. It is both.
It is worth noting that understanding of personhood is different in a particular historical and cultural context. In other words, the concept of the personhood has changed through centuries. For example in Plato’s Republic, the stress was placed on the society as a whole. The perfect Republic, in Plato’s opinion, derived from the formation of a society with respect to its end (there was no place for respect of individual happiness). Each particular man knew his place and he had to contribute to the global order. Justice had to consist in ensuring that the social functions are adapted to the whole. On the contrary, the modern society, the Human Being is regarded as the invisible, ‘the elementary’ man, both a biological being and a thinking subject. Each particular man is in sense unperceivable to the whole mankind. The kingdom of ends corresponds with each man’s legitimate ends, and so the values are turned upside down. The so-called society means, the life of each man in the end. The society no longer exists, it is more than an irreducible datum, which must in no way thwart the demands of liberty and equality. 1
In different countries, the personhood can be perceived in different ways. I will present ethnographies studies that have been conducted in different countries that will prove that being ‘a person’ it is something distinctive in every region. I will start with the examining the ethnography of Meyer Forte on the Tallensi. In this west-African society, the birth of a child is seen as a starting point of the attainment of full personhood and becoming a person is a gradual process. From the start of someone’s life, the place in Tallensi society is determined at birth by his or her genealogical position in the descent group but the achievement of full personhood involves a marriage and proper moral relations with parents and ancestors. Gender plays an important role in perceiving someone’s personhood. More precisely, men are able to gain a Yin -good destiny, governed by the unique configuration of ancestors who guard that person’s life course- after marriage but in case of women it is something impossible. Women are located between the lineage of their father and that of their husband. They cannot attain a full personhood but some may argue that women because of that are more individuated than men. Their place is partly defined by her husband and partly by her father and not fully by either so her identity is less merged with the descent group. But the truth is that the women do not have a public identity. The Tallensi women tend to lose their name as they are getting older as opposed to men- they gradually acquire new names as they move through life. To sum up, the concept of personhood is entirely different than the one we are familiar with in the West. The Tallensi notions of person and ancestor worship strongly. They express the idea that lineage members are basically alive and continuous with each other. Yet we should keep in our mind that the Tallensi recognize the fact that the individual life histories will differ from each other.2
In Fiji, the personhood is seen in completely different terms. The personal achievements in Fiji are indicated not by bodily shape or by the disciplining of the body, but by one’s connectedness with and performance of care in the social matrix of the family, the mataqwali, and the village. More specifically the role of food is central to the organization of social relationships in Fiji. In other words, Fijian social relationships are fundamentally mediated and affirmed through the exchange and distribution of food. Being hosted and fed by another group is an important factor in creating a collective identity. Ritual offerings of food and drink display that one’s care and concern for the life and well-being of their guests. Through this performance of the exchange not only the groups affirmed their satisfaction with their neighbouring village but also renewed their promise to take care of the other in a manner befitting their relationship. In addition sharing of food is a symbol of solidarity, people are expected to look after one another. The Fijians often use the phrase: ”You should become fat” in that way they express concern for someone’s well-being. Any evidence of weight loss is assumed to reflect a disruption in connectedness to the social milieu or gross negligence on the part of the caretakers. The key element in enacting care involves feeding the household and maintaining the illusion of the ability to feed the wider community. As we can imagine unacceptable social behaviour in Fiji is when somebody fails to share food and to participate in meal preparation. They will be seen as being a ‘kanakana lo’. It is also important to open doors and windows whenever a household serves food, so the meal will be publicly displayed, as this story will present closing the window during eating will bring a great dishonor to the family: “One Sunday morning during the cold season, Liku and I were eating our breakfast. We had bolted the door and closed the window against an especially brisk wind blowing off the stormy South Pacific. Liku and her namesake had already been cross with each other earlier that day; moreover, we were late in getting to the cookhouse to help the other women prepare the noonday meal. Liku’s namesake stepped out of the cookhouse, probably to check on our whereabouts, when she saw that we had closed our door during our meal. She shouted that we were kanakana lo and returned to the cookhouse. Liku retorted, “Kanakana lo ca?” (“How can you say we are kanakana lo?”) and appeared close to tears.”3 All in all social relationships in Fiji, as we have seen, are fundamentally mediated through the exchange and distribution of food. Providing and serving food within and outside the household unit is the ultimate goal because people are judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to whether they share food or not.
In Udeni M. H. Appuhamilage’s ethnography in Sri Lanka, we have a chance to see how individuality is maintained in and through relationships. Her fieldwork with Padma’s family shows us the relations between the two women- a newlywed bride and her mother-in-law. “Once married, and especially if the newlywed bride moves into her spouse’s house, the woman is committing herself to the task of not only maintaining her own identity as a married woman but also of maintaining the honour of her husband and his family to whom she (and her new identity) is attached. Before the bride’s arrival, it is the (groom’s) mother who has the authority in household decision-making. The transfer of this authority to a daughter-in-law is not an easy task for any of the parties involved. One of the prerequisites that a mother-in-law expects from her daughter-in-law, and especially a quality that makes the transfer of authority easier for the mother-in-law, is respect—conveyed through everyday behaviours such as serving one’s mother-in-law before serving oneself at the lunch table and seeking her permission before leaving the house or before going to bed at night. The daughter-in-law’s respect is a critical factor that indicates not only her own piety but also that of the mother-in-law since the daughter-in-law’s respect confirms the mother-in-law’s virtue.” One important factor that strengthened the relationship between Padma and her mother-in-law, Karuna, was the discussion about articles in the newspapers. The conversation about different women from newspaper should be viewed as a medium through which one can impart relationally oriented and personally meaningful messages to another. Through their comments regarding the characters and their acts, they discourse about their own everyday concerns as well as those of their wider social world regarding men, women and respect. It is crucial to highlight the powerful role of non-human actors in the making of the persona in Sri Lanka (articles and the role of third party).4
The last ethnography I will present shows, as well, the importance of non-living things in creating someone’s personhood. Rebecca Empson gave some intresting insights into many aspects of Mongolian social life. Because movement is an essential part of Mongolian family there is a tradition to have some pieces of a person that leaves. These objects ensure that the family is able to continue these relations. ”The objects are viewed as distributed extensions of a relationship with this person.” More specifically people are able to manifest themselves via things and because Mongolian idea of fortune involves ‘maintaining the whole’ it is so important to have in the household chest things that are related to the person that has moved. These things act as sites for containing particular aspects of people’s relations during the absence of people. To be more clear the things that remain inside the house stand for relations that are attached to it. One of the most intriguing things is that the objects that have been detached from people at moment of separation are inside the chest, hidden. The chest has to be respected even by guest “As one enters a house after greeting the host, one is expected to go to the chest and, while bowing towards it, knock one’s head against it surface three times and turn a prayer wheel or offer some money or sweets to the religious icons, or to a portrait of the host’s deceased relative. In doing so, a visitor pays a respect to their host by honouring the fact that they are part of a wider network of people who respect their elders and ancestral spirits of the landscape.” The photographs that are displayed in the chest can be viewed that people are not depicted as mobile individuals. They become just replicable members of a static group. The connection between groups is like chains that are passed over generations.5 To sum up, relations are created via the careful containment of things that are placed in the chest that plays an essential role in the Mongolian society.
Having considered the personhood in these countries we will move to the ‘West’ and see how there is perceived the idea of a person. As we saw above, in many cultures, birth is viewed as a process, in which characteristics and attributes are gradually acquired, the Western view is quite different. In the West, there is an emphasis on the unique potentiality of each human being, and how this potentiality is already present from the moment of birth or even from the moment of conception. The individuality of a person is expressed from the moment of birth until the moment of death. The concept of individualism derives from a tradition of philosophic liberalism and I will not argue the uniqueness of each person but that the influences from social sphere are significant in shaping us and our way of thinking. The society forms our unique identity, our personhood, of course, humans act as a function of what they think, and while they have the ability to arrange their thoughts in their way, to construct new categories, they do so by adopting a certain consensus of values which are given by the society. Take the example of people becoming students in the higher education. The students are terrified when they start university because they think they will discover that they are not clever enough or they fear that they will come across things they do not know. This may sound like something that is very individual as if that person has brought their own shortcomings, their own fears and it is all just individual. But there is a context of social expectations about what it is to be a student, how a student should be like. Therefore the fact that the student does not feel so confident means that they are not a proper student. The example above, explains that the dichotomy between individual and collectiveness is unproductive. These two things are connected, they are indivisible. The reason why we separate these two is because we have a strange need to imagine that what happens to us is unique in order to recognize it as our own. There are individual and unique experiences, but we should bear in our mind that it is in large part made up of common elements and there is nothing wrong in recognising that. As Marx has said:”It is the society which thinks in me”.
Turning now to the question of how parents influence their children. As we all know family represent a small society and parents determine to an extent the child’s success or the failure in life. The exposure to values and beliefs would be one of the strongest influences that parents have over children in their lives. The manner in which parents expose their children to values or ideas become remarkably crucial for children over time. For instance, it is a challenge for some students to do well in school if they are raised in an environment where education and good grades are not valued.6 It is undoubted that the parents socialize their children into the world.
Even if someone believes that they are individuals they still have a strong desire to discover where they came from. Not knowing that will lead them to have a sense of incompleteness. The example of adopted children shows that the knowledge of their birth kin is of importance. The majority of adopted kids start the process of searching for birth kin, the “missing” birth parents occupy a prominent place in the imaginary world of a child and adult adoptees. “Adults who were adopted in childhood have with considerable trouble, and often quite traumatic results sought out their birth kin. What is very striking about these cases is that, although the contacts with birth kin often prove extremely difficult and painful, and the adoptees make no attempt to hide or deny this, they never voice regret at having initiated the process. In answer to perhaps the simplest and most obvious question, why did they feel the need to go through such a search, respondents simply say, “in order to know who I am,” “to find out where I came from,” or “to be complete.” It is important to emphasize that in many cases the adoptees gave these responses with the full knowledge that the relationships they had sought would never be particularly successful or easy.”7
But not only adopted childer seek out their birth parents. Nowadays is very popular to undergo AncestryDNA. Undergoing that exam someone can estimate their origins to more than 150 ancestral regions around the world. This an indispensable tool for family history discoveries. A lot of people want to confirm or revise their genealogical family tree. Doing so they can discover when different ancestries were introduced into their DNA and learn how many generations ago someone had an ancestor that was descended from a single population or ethnicity.8 The popularity of this kind of tests proves that our kinship is of paramount importance to us.
In conclusion, I believe that the evidence suggests that the personhood cannot be understood if it is divorced from the kinds of social institutions as marriage, family structures, beliefs or inheritance. In my opinion we still can find some similarities in ‘the personhood’ across the world. The most important is that Western and no-Western models of the person express a tension between the desire for autonomy and the need for belonging. Even if in some countries tend to emphasize more on the community there is always a place for individuality. But the society in which we live shapes us. I wiil quote again Marx “It is the society which thinks in me” it is clear from the above that social sphere has a powerful role in making somebody’s persona. Therefore, I think is safe to say that the sentence:”Individuals are entirely separate from society” is inaccurate. As a great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, has said: “????? ??? ????? ???????? ???? ?????????”9 which means that the true man is the man as a collective being.
1 DUMONT, L. (1972). Homo hierarchicus: the caste system and its implications. London, Paladin. p.9-10
2Carsten, J. (2003). After Kinship (New Departures in Anthropology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.88-96
3Becker, A. E.(2013). Body, Self, and Society: The View from Fiji. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p.57-84
4Appuhamilage, Udeni M. H.(2017)A Fluid Ambiguity: Individual, Dividual and Personhood The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Vol.18(1),p.1-17Peer Reviewed Journal
5 (2007), Thinking through things: theorizing artefacts ethnographically – Edited by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad & Sari Wastell. Routledge, London and New York p.113-135
6Ashley Kannan. “How do parents influence children in life?” eNotes, 15 May 2010, https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/how-do-parents-influence-children-life-394085. Accessed 7 Dec. 2017.
7Carsten, J. (2003). After Kinship (New Departures in Anthropology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.104
8Ancestry.co.uk. (2017). AncestryDNA™ | DNA Tests for Ethnicity & Genealogy DNA Test. online Available at: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/dna/stay&s_kwcid=ancestry+dna&gclid=Cj0KCQiA38jRBRCQARIsACEqIeulHzIUxERfDwgNwmiShTiGkWl6Y0KUbf7U40L5h0HLtpAHRvGRO8gaAm0KEALw_wcB&o_xid=64489&o_lid=64489&o_sch=Paid+Search+Brand Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.
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