Seeking Personhood: Anthropological Accounts and Local Concepts in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


The triad of terms, person, self, and individual, has been variously deployed in anthropological writings to approximate concepts and experiences in people's lives and to match these with the resources of the English language. Some writers have made clear distinctions between these terms, others have blurred them or highlighted one term rather than another or declared that one or more does not find a counterpart in the culture under study. Some have used ideal-type distinctions to contrast 'Western' notions with those of 'others'. Some have per contra argued that, e.g., ideas of individuality are found everywhere. The discussion is in one sense about cross-cultural translation and in another about the creation of analytical categories for the purpose of making comparisons and generalizations. Further, arguments about 'personhood' have been succeeded by those about embodiment (A.J. Strathern 1994, 1996), and embodiment theory can theoretically be used to re-examine the issues of translation and analysis implicit in the earlier work on personhood. In this paper we look first at these earlier debates, and conclude that the diversity of usages by authors suggests that straightforward distinctions are hard to maintain. Consequently, we must take seriously the need to base our discourse in local concepts to see how these may engage with our own concepts rather than how they are to be subsumed by these. We use two sets of life history materials from the Mount Hagen area of Papua New Guinea to show how such an approach can be exemplified. We argue that the local (Hagen) theory of noman ('mind') underlies the narratives here and helps to explain the actions and reflections of the protagonists. Such a theory constitutes a set of ontological pressures that also bear on people's actions and ideas.


We summarize the views of several authors here to illustrate the fluidity and diversity of usages found in the literature on 'personhood'.

1. Grace Harris (1989) argues that person, self, and individual should be clearly distinguished. For her, person refers to human beings in society who have agency; self to human beings as centers of experience; and individual to living human entities. 'Individual' is thus a universal term with little content, self appeals to the idea of interiority and subjectivity, and person to the social actor living in a moral context. She suggests that one or more of these concepts may be muted or highlighted in a particular culture, but 'person' tends to occupy center stage in her account.

2. Nancy Rosenberger examines these concepts in relation to Japanese data. Her purpose is to challenge the putative dichotomy between the Western 'autonomous' individual and 'others' who are supposedly swayed by emotion and context (Rosenberger 1992:2ff.). She argues instead for a view of the self that attains meaning in embodied relations to other people, implying also that people are 'creative, and they produce as well as reproduce culture' (p.3). In line with this view, she presents the sense of the self in Japan as an interactive process, molded through social relationships. The self thus, for her, subsumes both person and individual, and allows for contradictory and ambiguous aspects (cf. Mageo 1995 on Samoa).

3. A.L. Epstein, writing primarily about the Tolai of Papua New Guinea, also finds that universal distinctions between person, self, and individual are hard to maintain, but suggests that they are tools needed to address issues. For the Tolai he notes that their kind of individuality is seen as needed for the achievement of personhood and that the idea of an 'inside' versus an 'outside' self is needed to understand Tolai dreaming (A.L. Epstein n.d.; cf. Stephen 1995 on the Mekeo).

4. Anthony Cohen (1994) stresses the universality of concepts of self and individual, and argues against the denial of individuality to 'others', focussing on consciousness and the authoring of the self within social contexts. …