In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Personhood

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Personhood and Society
  • Ethnopsychology and Emotions
  • Anthropological Archaeology

Anthropology Personhood
Dafna Shir-Vertesh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0169


Personhood is a fluid analytical term with diverse and debated meanings. It is often hard to discern who is considered to be a person, what being a person entails, or how this differs from having selfhood, or being an individual. Certain scholars have attempted to elucidate these terms; nevertheless, they are frequently used interchangeably. This is not merely a theoretical quandary, for personhood entails legal and moral repercussions, including rights and responsibilities. For reasons of clarity, we can define personhood as the state of being a social, embodied, and sentient being, although this definition is not devoid of problems. Anthropologists have made considerable contributions to the understandings of personhood; perhaps predominantly through cross-cultural ethnographies exhibiting that personhood is not a universal constant but rather continuously negotiated in specific times and places and in reaction to varying situations and social relationships. Such anthropological work corresponds with research in other disciplines, often extending across disciplinary boundaries, influencing and being influenced by disciplines such as psychology, medicine, and philosophy. This article focuses on sociocultural anthropological perspectives; however, it incorporates work from other subfields that might be interesting for cultural anthropologists. The article reviews discussions on how personhood relates to various societies in various times, how it changes, and how it is influenced by power relations. Relationships between personhood and both the mind and the body, as well as the connections between personhood and humanness, are also explored.

Introductory Works

Various disciplines deal with the concept of personhood, which has been applied in numerous ways and explored in many contexts since the 1980s. An edited volume, Carrithers, et al. 1985 addresses this complexity, offering multidisciplinary perspectives on personhood across time and space. Fogelson 1982 provides a thorough general overview of anthropological investigations into the person, conducted before 1982. Appell-Warren 2014 offers an exploration of the concept of personhood itself, as used in anthropology over the decades. Shweder and Bourne 1982 outlines the major debate regarding personhood in anthropology, namely is it a universal constant or do diverse cultures conceptualize it differently? Pursuing the latter, Allen and Malhotra 1997, an edited volume, presents essays from various disciplines that illustrate the influence cultures have on personhood, and it can serve as a good starting point for students. Marcus and Fischer 1999 further elucidates the cultural differences in conceptions of persons as they relate to emotions, alluding to various anthropological texts. In contrast, Cohen 2000 revisits numerous ethnographic examples claiming that the notion of self is universal, and not distinctly Western.

  • Allen, Douglas, and Ashok Kumar Malhotra. 1997. Culture and self: Philosophical and religious perspectives, East and West. Boulder, CO: Westview.‏

    This edited volume includes contributions that explore the changing and complex relations between culture and personhood in various societies and from various perspectives and disciplines.

  • Appell-Warren, Laura P. 2014. Personhood: An examination of the history and use of an anthropological concept. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.

    In this dissertation, Appell-Warren reviews anthropological literature on personhood, attempting to clarify the use of the concept by comparing it to conflated concepts such as self and identity.

  • Carrithers, Michael, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes, eds. 1985. The category of the person: Anthropology, philosophy, history. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This edited volume takes Mauss’s famous essay (see Mauss 1985, cited under Personhood and Society) as a springboard to explore significant theoretical issues regarding the category of the person in various cultures and from diverse perspectives such as anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and history.

  • Cohen, Anthony P. 2000. Self consciousness: An alternative anthropology of identity. London: Routledge.

    Cohen reviews various ethnographic texts and states that the self is a universal notion, not only a Western one. He argues that to understand culture and society, one must first understand the self, and consider the self-consciousness of individuals and their ability to creatively shape and interpret the world around them.

  • Fogelson, Raymond D. 1982. Person, self, and identity: Some anthropological retrospects, circumspects, and prospects. In Psychosocial theories of the self. Edited by Benjamin Lee, 67–109. New York: Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4684-4337-0_5

    Fogelson provides an extensive review of anthropological contributions to the study of the self, connecting general directions and research approaches as well as presenting the valuable resource of comparative ethnography in investigating concepts of self.

  • Marcus, George E., and Michael M. J. Fischer. 1999. Conveying other cultural experience: The person, self and emotions. In Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences. Edited by George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, 45–76. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Marcus and Fischer outline what were, at the time, contemporary experimental texts that deal with personhood in order to highlight cultural differences. The texts are divided into three groups: psychodynamic ethnographies, realist ethnographies, and modernist texts.

  • Shweder, Richard A., and Edmund J. Bourne. 1982. Does the concept of the person vary cross-culturally? In Cultural conceptions of mental health and therapy. Edited by Anthony J. Marsella and Geoffrey M. White, 97–137. Boston: D. Reidel.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-010-9220-3_4

    Shweder and Bourne discuss the writings of various anthropologists in order to explore conceptions of the person among Americans, the Oriya, the Gahuku-Gama, and the Balinese. They show that different peoples adopt different worldviews, discussing these differences in terms of sociocentric and egocentric personhood.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.