Missing Persons: A Critique of Personhood in the Social Sciences

By Parman, Susan | Anthropological Quarterly, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Missing Persons: A Critique of Personhood in the Social Sciences


Parman, Susan, Anthropological Quarterly


Missing Persons: A Critique of Personhood in the Social Sciences. MARY DOUGLAS and STEVEN NEY. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998; 223 pp.

Reviewed by SUSAN PARMAN

California State University, Fullerton

Missing persons is the first in a series of books to honor the fertile mind of Aaron Wildavsky by examining public policy issues with the aid of the social sciences. Setting out to address the issue of poverty and welfare, Douglas (an anthropologist) and Ney (a political scientist) stumble over the tools of their examining and end up trying to flush out the theory of the person that is implicit in such discussions. Although the book fails as a critique of personhood in the social sciences, it succeeds as a wide-ranging, reflective, philosophical discourse on the person in the Western intellectual tradition.

The book fails as a critique of personhood in the social sciences because it is neither an analysis nor a synthesis of what the different social science disciplines have contributed or not contributed to the theory of the category of "person" or the category of "self." It does not provide a coherent picture of how different social science disciplines approach these concepts; it does not analyze the strengths or weaknesses of any particular theory. The study of the self that once belonged to the domain of philosophers or psychologists has now become a central concern of all the social/behavioral sciences, including anthropology. Anthropological concern with the self is rooted in the ethnographic enterprise and emic analysis. Efforts have been made to distinguish between the concept of the self and the concept of personhood, efforts recently superseded by the emergence of what has been called "person-centered ethnography" that subsumes the individual and the self in descriptions of culture from the perspective of particular individuals. The authors could have focused on recent developments in cultural anthropology and person-centered ethnography as a reflection of the shifts in intellectual currents in Western civilization that have affected all the social/behavioral sciences. In this way they could have accomplished the goals implied by the subtitle of their book, "A critique of personhood in the social sciences."

What then does the book do, if not this? The authors wander far and wide, taking from Kant, Mauss, Durkheim, Keynes, Maslow, Malthus, Darwin, Marx, and Engels, discussing freedom, constraint, egalitarianism, globalization, and evolution. The book is constructed as if a series of conversations had taken place between Douglas and Ney in the context of Wildavsky but only the concluding thoughts are presented. Their reflections are like the flashes of distant mirrors across a fascinating landscape - gemlike but scattered. In 185 pages they pick up ideas, throw them back and forth, and follow diverse intellectual trails through the tangled underbrush of cross-disciplinary communication.

They begin with the paradoxes of poverty. They discover that the common thread of discussion of different kinds of needs, wants, and capabilities (whether the hunter-gatherer working fifteen hours a week or the middle-class child with fewer video games than his peers) is the typological, isolated, non-social, self-contained individual -- "the idea of a nonrelational definition of a person" (p. 9). The social sciences have the potential to contribute a relational definition of personhood, a conception of the person as a locus of transactions. The authors explore implicit conceptions of the person in the Western intellectual tradition which have resulted in a variety of strategies to retain both individual identity and cultural submersion and determinism, both self and society, such as separating the role-playing self from the inner self, or the person of action from the person of thought. …

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