Self Consciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity

Self Consciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity

Self Consciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity

Self Consciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity


Traditionally the self and the individual have been treated as micro-versions of larger social entities by the social sciences in general, and by anthropology in particular. In Self Consciousness, Cohen examines this treatment of the self, arguing that this practice has resulted in the misunderstanding of social aggregates precisely because the individual has been ignored as a constituent element. By acknowledging the individual's self awareness as author of their own social conduct and of the social forms in which they participate, this informs social and cultural processes rather than the individual being passively modelled by them.


Most Indians do not reveal themselves because it does not occur to them that they have unique selves to reveal.

(Gearing 1970:146)

The self has no private space…but no need for privacy.

(Greenhouse 1986:98)


Fred Gearing’s sympathetic study depicts the Fox Indians of Iowa as defined by the statuses they occupy in their classificatory kinship system. They regard their behaviour as inhering in the structural niches in which they are placed, so that any other Fox who happened to be similarly located would behave in the same way. Carol Greenhouse imputes a comparable self consciousness—or lack of it—to the devout Southern Baptists she studied in Hopewell, Atlanta, believers who define themselves by their family roles, and who oppose individualism to Christianity (see Chapter 6).

This selflessness seems so at odds with the ways in which most of us might be assumed to think of ourselves that we have to work hard to understand what Gearing and Greenhouse may mean and to envisage the people they thereby describe. Anthropologists have laboured to elicit notions equivalent to our ‘self’ and ‘selfhood’ which are held by the people among whom they have lived and who they have studied. The difficulties of imagining and interpreting these notions are compounded by those of translation, which makes discourse about the self tricky among the speakers of different European languages, let alone those of more esoteric tongues. All sorts of metaphors and circumlocutions have been called in aid, such as ‘indigenous psychologies’ and ‘inner’ (as

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