What is a person?
Here’s a question you’ve probably never been asked. Surely, I hear you say – as I once did – a person is just a person, a human being, someone who has consciousness and rights, cogito ergo sum, y’know. A person.
Well, you’re not wrong. Personhood, defined succinctly, accurately, yet not completely, is the status of being a person (Lyons 2012).
The slightly less succinct and, I’d argue, more complete definition by Conklin and Morgan (1996, p. 662) sees personhood as a “social status granted – in varying degrees – to those who meet (or perform) socially sanctioned criteria for membership.”
What this means is that personhood is a social construction; what counts as a person, where that threshold is located and what that criteria comprises, differs between and even within societies, as seen in divisive reproductive ethics debates. It’s an intensely contested and indefinable domain further complicated by its varied implications in legal, medical, social and political sectors (Heriot 1996, p. 176).
But what about after birth? Surely there’s no question as to whether a newborn, child, or adult constitutes a person, or even a human? It’s likely you haven’t given this a second thought – perhaps because in the predominant Western tradition, personhood is inseparable from humanhood and bestowed permanently at the time of birth, if not before. In some societies, however, humanhood isn’t guaranteed until the newborn reaches a certain age or performs certain rituals.
For example, Fortes (1987, p. 260) writes that the Tallensi people of North Ghana treat plural births, such as twins or triplets, with suspicion, because they signify the possible embodiment of malicious bush-sprites or Kolkpaarəs. If a twin dies before it reaches the age of four, it is evidence that it was never really a human child. So, humanhood can sometimes be more than a biological, intrinsic birthright, instead a condition that must be proved or earned after birth. Still, being a human may not be enough to be a person: as Fortes notes, only a Tallensi adult with a sibling, who has raised a family, gained autonomy with their father’s passing, and had a “proper” death will be buried in a manner that expresses full-fledged personhood. It must be remembered that conceptions of personhood can change over time and are not homogenous, even within cultures, and that Fortes belongs to a long imperialist tradition of white male anthropologists who tended to present prescriptive, stagnant judgements.
In other cases, greater emphasis is placed on the relation between personhood and the sociality of the body. Personhood for the Wari’, according to Conklin and Morgan (1996, p. 658), is “fluid and contingent”, and may even “be lost or attenuated…with changes in social interactions or bodily composition.” Whilst many Western societies see the body as an individual entity that belongs solely and permanently to one person from birth, others require social interaction with the community to reify an individual’s attainment of personhood. These might include commensality (eating together), being identified with one’s kin, and “sharing and pursuing collective ends” (Callegaro 2012, p. 460).
The question of what constitutes personhood is open-ended: it can be fluid, impermanent, contingent on sociality or humanhood, acquired gradually or all at once. The varied cross-cultural conceptions of personhood after birth are well-suited to a culturally relative perspective and illuminate the importance of recognising one’s own ethnocentric assumptions.
Callegaro, F 2012, ‘The ideal of the person: Recovering the novelty of Durkheim’s sociology. Part 1: The idea of society and its relation to the individual’, Journal of Classical Sociology, vol. 12, no. 3-4, pp. 449-478.
Conklin, BA and Morgan LM 1996, ‘Babies, Bodies, and the Production of Personhood in North America and a Native Amazonian Society’, Ethos, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 657-694
Fortes, M 1987, Religion, Morality and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion, J Goody (ed.), Cambridge University Press.
Heriot, MJ 1996, ‘Fetal rights versus the female body: contested domains’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 176-194.
Lyons, J 2012, How Do We Judge Nonhuman Beings’ Personhood?, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, viewed 14 May 2019, < https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET2/more/lyons20121004>