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Idea of the Person

The Anthropology Of The Person Since Mauss

While Mauss's essay provided inspiration to both French and British anthropologists, the implications of his work were developed in substantially different ways by anthropologists belonging to different national schools. At the same time, American anthropologists were to approach the problem from a very different starting point. In all three cases, concepts of the person were explored in the context of extensive fieldwork in specific cultures. Rather than generalizing from the vantage point of European categories, taken as the end point of a process of evolution, anthropologists grappled with non-European conceptualizations firsthand.

Griaule and the French school.

Marcel Griaule's work among the Dogon of modern Mali (then French Sudan) was to mark the French approach for at least a generation afterward. For Griaule, the complex esoteric cosmology of the Dogon, as revealed to him by his key informant, Ogotemmeli, constituted an intricate and sophisticated philosophical system, an alternative way of thought in no way inferior to European equivalents. Dogon ideas of the person are consequently one element of this entire system. Crucial to these ideas is the principle of the ideal duality of all creatures. In the original acts of creation, only the Creator's firstborn—the jackal—was created single, and it is for this reason that the jackal is the quintessential trickster and embodiment of disorder, but also the agent through whom truth is revealed to the diviner. After the jackal, a couple, the Nommo, were born: demiurges who represent the ideal dual order. Twins consequently represent the ideal birth, and human twins become the object of a cult as soon as they are born. Even ordinary humans have double souls—kinndoukinndou—one for each gender. The female principle resides in the man's foreskin, the male in the woman's clitoris; rites of circumcision and excision are consequently required at adolescence to transform ambivalently gendered children into fully male or female adults. In short, for Griaule, the Dogon myth of creation contained the key to their conceptions of personhood and of the world in general.

British social anthropology.

The British school of social anthropology, also profoundly influenced by the work of Durkheim and Mauss, adopted a less abstract and more sociological approach to the study of ideas of the person. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's pioneering study of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937), published a year before Mauss's lecture, did not explicitly mention the concept of the person, but his explanation of Azande notions of witchcraft nonetheless represented a landmark in the ethnographic exploration of personhood. Witchcraft is a common explanation of misfortune among the Azande, and is caused by a grudge or ill will on the part of a witch. However, not all people are witches. Witches are born with innate witchcraft substance, inherited by boys from their fathers and girls from their mothers. It operates through mbisimu mangu, the soul of witchcraft, which travels from the body of the witch to the body of the victim, although the witch himself may not be conscious of the harm he is perpetrating. However, Evans-Pritchard was not simply concerned with the ideology of witchcraft in itself, but in the way in which these ideas underpinned the everyday actions of Azande, so that they understood and reacted to the ordinary misfortunes of everyday life through consulting oracles, attempting to cool the anger of witches, and ultimately pursuing vengeance when witchcraft proved fatal.

In an essay titled "On the Concept of the Person among the Tallensi" (1973), Meyer Fortes explicitly developed Mauss's insights with specific reference to a particular West African culture:

observance of prohibitions and injunctions relating to the killing and eating of animals, to distinctions of dress, to speech and etiquette, to a wide range of ritual norms, to the jural regulations concerning marriage, property, office, inheritance and succession, play a key part in the identification of persons. Persons are kept aware of who they are and where they fit into society by criteria of age, sex, and descent, and by other indices of status, through acting in accordance with these norms. By these actions and forms of conduct they, at the same time, show to others who they are and where they fit into society. (p. 282)

Seen in this light, an individual's birth is merely the first step in the process of turning him or her into a full person, a process which only ends with death, when, as an ancestor, one may eventually become a full person. Tallensi personhood is thus not a feature of the individual per se, but of the individual's interaction with society as a whole. For Fortes as for Evans-Pritchard, this process of interaction was played out in the miniature crises of everyday life.

American anthropology and the problem of personality.

During the first half of the twentieth century, anthropologists in the United States were far less influenced by the theories of Durkheim and Mauss than by the work of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Rather than evincing interest in "the person" as a category of thought, they focused on the formation of the individual personality in different cultures. Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture (1934) is the most famous example of this approach. For Benedict, each culture has its ethos, its style, which characterizes its art, its ritual, its ideology, the emotional tenor of social relationships, and so on. Individual children are raised in conformity with this ethos, internalizing patterns of feeling as well as of behaving. Those with little natural aptitude for the predominant ethos are deviants, though deviance in one culture can well be normality in another. Moreover, cultures may also have established deviant roles, such as the berdache in Native North America, a person who was born biologically male but who dressed as a woman, adopted women's occupations, and sometimes even married another man.

In the 1960s, Clifford Geertz attempted a synthesis between the American emphasis on personality and Mauss's conception of the person, most notably in his essay, "Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali" (1966). Geertz focused on those aspects of Balinese culture—names and titles—central to Mauss's formulation of the development of the idea of personhood. However, for Geertz, these component features of the Balinese conception of personhood were expressions of an overall Balinese ethos. Children are given a personal name, but this is generally a nonsense term and rarely used to address or refer to them. Children are more generally known by standard birth order names, and adults (except for childless adults, who in some sense remain socially children themselves) by tekonyms—"father (or mother) of so-and-so (their first child)." Balinese status titles as well as names serve

to stress and strengthen the standardization, idealization, and generalization implicit in the relation between individuals whose main connection consists in the accident of their being alive at the same time and to mute or gloss over those implicit in the relation between consociates, men intimately involved in one another's biographies, or between predecessors and successors, men who stand to one another as blind testator and unwilling heir. (Geertz, pp. 389–390)

In short, the Balinese concept of the person, in keeping with the Balinese ethos, is depersonalizing, at least from a European point of view.

These different approaches to the study of the idea of the person, whether French, British, or American, have convincingly demonstrated that there is no single "primitive" conception of personhood, much less of "the soul." The different cultural constructions of "personhood" around the globe cannot be interpreted in terms of narratives of the progressive emergence, either of rationality or of individuality, in Europe as opposed to the rest of the world, as nineteenth and early twentieth century theorists attempted to argue.


Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934.

Carrithers, Michael, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes, eds. The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Translated by Karen Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. London: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Fortes, Meyer. "On the Concept of the Person among the Tallensi." In La Notion de Personne en Afrique Noire. Paris: Colloques Internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, No. 544, 1973. Reprinted in his Religion, Morality and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion, edited with an introduction by Jack Goody, 247–286. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Geertz, Clifford. Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali: An Essay in Cultural Analysis. Yale Southeast Asia Program, Cultural Report Series 14, 1966. Reprinted in his The Interpretation of Cultures, 360–411. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemelli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London and New York: Oxford University Press for International African Institute, 1970.

Mauss, Marcel. "A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person; the Notion of Self." Translated by W.D. Halls. In The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, edited by Michael Carrithers, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes, 1–25. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture, London: John Murray, 1871. Reprinted in 2 vols. as The Origins of Culture and Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.

Robert Launay

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismIdea of the Person - Durkheim's Critique, Mauss: The Person As "a Category Of The Human Mind"