Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: (Cultural) Relativism

Relativism or, more specifically, cultural relativism, is the notion that concepts and ideas are relative to the cultural context in which they are produced and understood. Like the image above suggests, the notion of oppression, or male-dominance, might very well differ depending on the culture in which a woman belongs. The idea behind cultural relativism is that ‘panhuman generalizations’ (Spiro 1986, 262) about “culture” and “humanity” are likely to ‘be either false or vacuous’ (ibid.), since (it is argued), no two cultures are the same, or maintain the same understanding(s) of any given concept or idea. Rather, ideologies – such as, for example, “morality”, or “knowledge” – are determined by the ‘historical and social conditions that gave rise to [those concepts]’ (Miller et al. 2019, 295).

Okay, you might be thinking. That sounds straight-forward enough. Different cultures interpret things differently. Got it. Well… not so fast. Just as the cartoon above could be considered reductive – reducing the agency of the women in determining what they wear and why; reducing the relative perceived “seriousness” of male-domination in both cultures; and not to mention the fact that depicting a woman in a full burqa does not necessarily specify her “culture”, merely her religion – so too has cultural relativism received criticism in the academic sphere for being reductive. These days, ‘the label of relativism is more likely to be levelled as an accusation that adopted as a positive description’ (Paleček & Risjord 2012, 10).

The debate has been going on for decades. Claiming that all cultures are inherently, intrinsically, fundamentally, different, implies that ‘there are no available transcultural standards by which different cultures might be judged’ (Spiro 1986, 260). Not judged in an aesthetic or superficial sense, but in a moralistic sense. For example, surely the age-old maxim of “murder is bad” should be held universally, no matter the culture? And yet we know it’s not that simple. More than that, though, claiming that cultures are “unique” and distinct from each other is ‘implicitly comparative, in that to be unique means something must be compared and judged different to others’ (Miller et al. 2019, 284). In this way, then, cultural relativism has completed an Ouroboros revolution; a snake eating its own tail. Anthropology especially, it is argued, is the most ‘formally aligned with the very idea of the comparative’ of all the social sciences, since comparing cultures is almost ‘definitional of the discipline’ (ibid.). Certainly, cultural relativism is a concept you’re bound to come across many times in your Anthropology studies, in both its positively and negatively associated forms

At this point, I wouldn’t blame you for heaving a great sigh of exasperation and thinking, Well, that doesn’t clear anything up! And you’re not wrong. But, I say, take comfort in its subjectivity: for just as cultural relativism dictates that concepts are relative to the culture in which they are understood, so too is the very concept of cultural relativism relative to the anthropologist in whose work it is being referenced.

Image Source: Malcolm Evans (Artist)


Miller, D., Costa, E., Haapio-Kirk, L., Haynes, N., Sinanan, J., McDonaldn, T., Nicolescu, R., Spyer, J., Venkatraman, S., and Wang, X. 2019, ‘Contemporary Comparative Anthropology – The Why We Post Project’, Ethnos, Vol. 84, No. 2, pp.283-300

Paleček, M. and Risjord, M. 2012, ‘Relativism and the Ontological Turn within Anthropology’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp.3-23

Spiro, M.E. 1986, ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp.259-286

See Also:

Cultural Appropriation and Cake?? A Bittersweet Analogy

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Precarity

Please appreciate this collage I made of Anna Tsing surrounded by mushrooms (not matsutake, but I’m sure they’re delicious).

The Capstone subject Theory and the Anthropological Imagination is the gatekeeper to your Anthropology major dreams. The main piece of assessment last year was a 5,000-word group project, which involved analysing an ethnography with reference to a theorist and a secondary ethnography. My group chose Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, with Kathleen Millar’s Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump as our comparative text. It was through these two works that I became interested in the notion of precarity: the condition of “life without the promise of stability” (Tsing 2015, p. 2).

Precarity is an important and topical concept for anyone studying anthropology as our world increasingly fixates on industrialisation and capitalist growth at the cost of the environment. How can we overcome this? How do we make a life out of these capitalist ruins, “at the end of the world”? Or, as Tsing and Millar contend, should we rethink precarity – not in terms of instability and fragility, but in terms of freedom, flexibility, placemaking; not “making do” but “making a life”?

Using the matsutake mushroom, a species that grows only in landscapes disturbed by humans, Tsing demonstrates that we must learn to live on this earth not in spite of capitalist ruination, but because of it.

The prevailing narrative is that certain circumstances, such as social or economic disenfranchisement, leave some people with little choice but to take up work situated on the fringes of capitalist economies. This work is termed “precarious labour”, and includes mushroom-picking, rubbish-sifting and subsistence-looting. Precarious labour implies job instability, financial insecurity, a lack of regulations and safety precautions, and is considered illegitimate by most.

However, I’d like to challenge you, as Tsing and Millar do, to reconsider this narrative. Precarious labour, because of its instability, enables people to accommodate the day-to-day emergencies that arise in a life of urban poverty (Millar 2018, p. 69). It offers a sense of escape from the rigid structures and demands of productivity that capitalism enforces and additionally creates a sense of communitas amongst those who work together on the peripheries of traditional capitalist economies or in the “gaps” between. As Millar observes in her ethnography of the dump in Rio de Janeiro, people who engage in precarious labour may gain formal, stable employment, but time after time will return to precarity.

But economic precarity isn’t, and shouldn’t be, as Tsing argues, the only concern for anthropologists. Tsing is a member of the Multispecies Salon, a group of anthropologists, artists and other social scientists who advocate for a multispecies approach to ethnography – a method of anthropological writing that isn’t anthropocentric. Her ethnography accounts for all the beings (“actants”) in the networks comprised of humans, animals, plants, fungi and microbes. Tsing’s argument is that “collaborative survival” – acknowledging our vulnerability and depending on other species – is key to existing in our current world.

Precarity is an increasingly common reality for humans and non-humans alike as industrialisation and environmental degradation force us into fragile circumstances. Rather than clinging onto capitalist ideals of stability and permanence espoused by an increasingly unsustainable narrative, Millar and Tsing demonstrate a constructive interpretation of precarity – how it can offer freedom and flexibility, create communities and relations, and compel us to collaborate with other species.


Millar, KM 2018, Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor in Rio’s Garbage Dump, Durham NC, Duke University Press.

Tsing, AL 2015, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press.

See also:

Kirksey, E 2014, The multispecies salon. Duke University Press.

Millar, KM 2017, ‘Towards a critical politics of precarity’, Sociology Compass, vol. 11 no. 1, pp. 1-11.

The Multispecies Salon

The Anthropo Scene, a comic by Imogen & Sarah.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Liminality

I have found some way to write about liminality at least once for every semester I’ve taken anthropology – I’m not planning on stopping now.

To my credit, it’s an attractive theory. There’s something rather magical about a space, a moment, or break before change, even when the reality is much more mundane.

Liminality is being at the threshold, where space and moments collide into something new altogether and reality feels altered; the ultimate result being some kind of change.

But for now, here’s a crash course.

Weddings, significant birthdays, graduations, wars, funerals, travel – these are all temporal (potentially) liminal experiences. These moments can also be grounded in places – seasides, airports, doorways, borders between nations, and prisons (Thomassen 2012). All points of transition, of change.

Theories surrounding the liminal state are attributed to two main writers: Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.

Van Gennep published The Rites of Passage in 1908, theorising the titular rituals as all the ceremonial patterns which accompany a passage from one situation to another or form one cosmic or social world to another (Van Gennep 1908). It is a marker of change in being, whether that be in status, time, or age, and signified in all sorts of ways, gifts, parties, eating special things, or making wishes. Van Gennep (1908) isolated three distinct rites: those of Separation, Transition, and Incorporation.

Separation takes the person (or people) from their “Known World” by breaking things apart, entering the liminal space/transitional period, until things are joined together once more through Incorporation (Van Gennep 1908). Take the example of a Western, heterosexual wedding: the bride is separated from her current state when her father walks her down the aisle, existing in an in-between state of being neither married nor unmarried until the proper rituals (putting a ring on, reciting vows) are complete. Thus everything is restored to how it was before, but with one key difference – the bride and groom are now married.

Rites of Passage was largely ignored until Victor Turner revisited it some 50 years later in The Forest of Symbols (1967), where he brought these ideas to the forefront of anthropology, emphasising the symbolic importance of the Liminal state and its necessity for social unity (see: Communitas). Described as being “betwixt and between”, it is anti-structure (see: Communitas – another important theme of liminality), and focused around experience and connections with other people outside of everyday life. This state thus provides people with freedom from their normal social confines and customs allowing them to express their creativity and be their true self (Turner 1967). It allows people to find out new things about themselves which otherwise would have remained unknown within the familiarity and routine of everyday life, and return to their Known World armed with this new knowledge (Harrison 2012).

However, due to its anti-structure nature, liminality is and should not be a desirable state of being, nor should it be celebrated. Spend too long in this space, creativity and freedom sour into boredom, imprisonment and a sense of exile and homelessness (Thomassen 2012). Thus everyone must inevitably reincorporate themselves back into their own society, and return to the concreteness and belonging of a lived space that has been refreshed because of experiences within the liminal state.

It’s at least a little bit magical right?

And to see it as anything but, well, where’s the fun in that?


My Article on Communitas

Harrison, J 2006, ‘A Personalized Journey: Tourism and Individuality’, in V. Amit and N. Dyck (eds.), The Cultural Politics of Distinction, Pluto Press, London, pp. 110-130.

Thomassen, B 2012, ‘Revisiting Liminality’, in H. Andrews & L. Roberts (eds.) Liminal landscapes : travel, experience and spaces in-between, Routledge, London, pp. 21-35.

Turner, V 1967, The Forest of Symbols, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Van Gennep, A 1960, The Rites of Passage, trans. M. B. Vizedom & G. L. Kaffee, Psychology Press, Chicago.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Communitas

The late Yale graduate Marina Keegan captured the world’s attention in 2012. First, when she died in a tragic car crash at 22, just five days after her graduation, and next, when her last essay for the Yale Daily News, The Opposite of Lonelinesswent viral. It writes, hopeful and glittering bright with youth:

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you.” (Keegan 2012)

What she didn’t know was, at least in anthropology, we do.

It’s called Communitas.

A word tied to Victor Turner and his work on liminality, it is described as a mystical solidarity, or an egalitarian, non-rational bond that forms between people during the liminal state betwixt and between worlds that may not necessarily have been possible or conceivable outside that space. In fact, the state is often characterised by experiences of communitas.

So how does this happen?

Such is the anti-structure nature of liminality that status ‘dissolves’. The boundaries that previously held people apart socially in society, age, status/class, gender, kinship position are all gone and people are instead equal in terms of a shared humanity. It is a sharp contrast to the hierarchy of everyday life, yet it is the place where people can be one and create connections that would not have existed within the social structure of an everyday reality. “… Every normal action is involved in the rights and obligations that defines status and establishes ’social distance’ between men” (Turner 1967, p. 110), but in the liminal space, people are free to “be themselves” as they are released from their normal social confines and customs and no longer feel as if they have to “act” their role. 

However liminality cannot be maintained forever without some sort of social structure or order to stabilise it, thus, moments and periods such as these end, and things inevitably return to the categories to which they belong, but, thanks to communitas and the unlikely bonds that people have made in the process, they are not necessarily in the same form in which they left… Thus Turner emphasises the liminal state for social unity due to its capacity to bring people together, inducing solidarity and social order (Turner 1967). It is a way of renewal, and a vehicle for transition, social cohesion, and restabilising order in society.

Although Marina Keegan never discovered this word, I think she encapsulated its feeling rather beautifully – like human-made magic that brings us closer together in this messy, complicated world.

Image Source: Amazon


My article on Liminality

Keegan, M 2012, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Article, 27 May, Yale News, viewed 7 June, <;.

Turner, V 1967, The Forest of Symbols, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

See Also:

Lani’s article on Collective Effervescence – a similar, but slightly different experience

Olaveson, T 2001, “Collective Effervescence and Communitas: Processual Models of Ritual and Society in Emile Durkheim and Victor Turner”, Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 26, pp. 89-124.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Emic + Etic

Emic. Etic. Inside. Outside. Or wait, is it the other way around? Etic. Emic. Outside. Inside? Wait, but inside and outside of what? Of everything? What exactly does this mean? I feel so confused. What exactly was Monica talking about? Wow, she really lost me when she started with this whole emic, etic business. Eh, maybe it’s not so important…

I first came across the terms ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ in Monica’s third year subject, The Anthropology of Nature. My head was already being turned inside out by each new nature/culture concept, let alone trying to fully understand and remember forms of anthropological analysis. I am not ashamed to admit that it took me a while to catch on to this whole ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ thing. As it turns out, they are pretty important approaches to constructing anthropological knowledge. So, here I am to help you out so you’re not sitting in class lost in space (like I was).

The terms ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ were first coined by linguist Kenneth Pike (1967) to refer to the particular sounds of a specific language (emic) and how they are represented and transcribed from an outsider’s perspective (etic).  It has since become a common way of describing the research perspectives of anthropologists in the field.

So let’s break this down:

Emic – The ethnographer engages in participatory observation within the field, living or working within a specific cultural place (‘field’) to learn about people and their ways of life. Essentially, emic research is focused on the perspectives of those being studied (participants/peoples/informants).

Etic – The ethnographer tends not to integrate themselves into the culture they are observing and become an ‘outsider looking in’. In this case, the researcher acts as an ‘outsider’ and is expected to have more detached and objective observations of that culture. Etic research is an objective analysis of a culture by the researcher.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. These terms may be useful in understanding the groundwork of ethnographic research; but ultimately, they cannot really be divided into two separate categories. An ’emic’ perspective assumes that the ethnographer can detangle themselves from their Ethnocentric beliefs and enter the field from a neutral position that enables them to adopt and fully comprehend the cultural belief systems of the ‘other’. However, the idea of neutrality in the field is an illusion. The researcher is always attached to specific relations and identifications from their own culture, histories and personal narratives.

Marvin Harris (1976), an American anthropologist, argues that creating an ‘etic’ and ’emic’ division can produce problems in the construction of anthropological knowledge. He stated that ’emic’ models and observations of culture are ‘invented’ rather than ‘discovered’ by the researcher. He questioned whether there could actually be a cultural authority and if we could guarantee that the observer’s supposedly ‘etic’ research perspective isn’t actually their own ’emic’ one. In this respect, the mere presence of the researcher brings their ‘subjectivity’ into the field site and results in unique interactions specific to their personal characteristics. As a result, these interactions are un-replicable and become “artefacts” of the field instead of true reflections of what is actually there (Pachirat 2017, p.19).

The division of ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ alludes to broader philosophical debates on ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’, which highlights controversial issues revolving around the construction of anthropological knowledge.

So, where to from here?

Well, I am no expert in this debate. However, one of our core philosophies as anthropologists is to understand. Perhaps the magic in our work actually emerges from our continual efforts to merge the ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ observations we have. While there may be subjectivities inherent to all work that academics conduct, we can seek to maintain a higher level of awareness of our positionality and the repercussions this has in the ‘field’.  


Harris, M 1976, ‘History and significance of the emic/etic distinction’, Annual review of anthropology, vol. 5, no.1, pp.329-350.

Pachirat, T 2017, Among wolves: Ethnography and the immersive study of power, Routledge.

Pike, K.L 1967, Etic and emic standpoints for the description of behavior.

Collective Effervescence – it’s bubbly & it’s everywhere!

Warning: Once you know this concept you will overthink group situations FOREVER! 

I first learned of ‘Collective Effervescence’ in third year when I was telling another anthro major about my study habits. I told her how much trouble I had studying at home, but there was something about going to the Baillieu library. Being surrounded by other people working hard (or appearing to work hard) always gave me more motivation. She immediately replied, “Collective Effervescence!” Embarrassed that I didn’t know this term (or had forgotten it) I simply nodded and looked it up as soon as she left.  

Image result for baillieu library

Collective Effervescence was first introduced by Emile Durkheim in his book ‘Elementary Forms of Religious life.’ He used the phrase to describe the inner experience that can occur during religious events. When a group with shared beliefs, such as a belief in God, come together and engage in ‘sacred’ rituals there is a build of energy and emotion. Praying, chanting and meditating are experienced quite differently when performed alone because in a group there’s a kind of ‘social heat’ in the air. Durkheim believes this ‘social heat’ sparks feelings of excitement within the individual and unifies the group. Religious rituals were thus seen as integral to maintaining solidarity within society.  

One critique of Durkheim’s work is that he paints religion as a social enterprise, but is this always this case? E.g. Ascetic traditions in which connection to God is achieved through withdrawal and isolation. Another major critique of Durkheim’s work is his distinction between the sacred (E.g. important religious rituals) and the profane (E.g. Everyday tasks like cleaning and cooking). Collective effervescence was seen as limited to the ‘sacred.’ However, the line between the sacred and the profane isn’t always so clear cut…and who is say mundane tasks can’t also evoke collective effervescence?  

Image result for afl grand final

There are a number of circumstances which can foster a sense of collective effervescence that aren’t ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’ – like my example of studying in the Baillieu library. Another popular example is an AFL grand finale (I’m sure many would argue it’s sacred). The experience of watching this match while in the crowd is obviously very different to that of watching it alone on T.V. In the crowd fans are united by their common devotion to the team and throughout the match will feel a shared sense of triumph or heartbreak.  

Here are some other examples of activities in my life where I’ve felt or witnessed collective effervescence (whether these are sacred or profane is debatable):  

  • My friends gathered together to watch the Game of Thrones final episodes. I was intrigued by the fact they didn’t really speak or socialize before or after the episode. Their only interaction was the collective gasps to the events on the screen. At first I thought why don’t they just watch it at home where it’d be more convenient, but then I remembered – Collective effervescence.
  • Going to a lecture vs. listening to it online. There’s something about seeing other people enthralled by the lecturer’s every word that makes me more invested. When I listen at home I’m always more likely to zone out.
  • Music festivals – these feel like a kind of ‘modern’ religious gathering with a shared devotion to music. The colours, sounds, the ‘flow’ of energy certainly excite the individual (hence post festival depression). 
Related image


Durkheim, E 1915, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology, Macmillan, Oxford.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

Given this ‘upside down’ map, consider how the map of the world as we normally see it is ethnocentric. Source
Ethnocentrism – from the Greek ‘ethnos’ and centre

The term was coined in the late 19th Century by the German sociologist Gumplowicz, and soon after popularised by the American sociologist Sumner (Bizumic 2014). Most commonly ethnocentrism is described as a belief that:

  • One’s own ethnic group or culture is at the centre of everything
  • One’s own group is superior to other groups, and all other groups are scaled and rated in reference to it (Etinson 2018, p. 210)

What is often called ethnocentrism’s antithesis, cultural relativism, is meant to overcome ethnocentrism and evolutionist beliefs that there are superior and inferior races and cultures.

Here is a simple explanation of ethnocentrism from Khan Academy, with the example of eating insects.

Everyone is susceptible to ethnocentrism. Like in the video above it can occur in more innocuous ways when we’re like ‘Ewww that’s so weird they do that!,’ but ethnocentrism also occurs in the form of colonialism where people are forced to assimilate into another culture because their culture is deemed morally and otherwise inferior and wrong (Etinson 2018, p. 18).

Another way ethnocentrism is described is not that it is a belief in itself, but that it is a bias that affects the process of forming or maintaining beliefs (Etinson 2018, p.213) . This bias may kick in when:

  • Someone attempts to interpret and evaluate a phenomenon occurring in another culture with limited cultural experience and understanding of that culture
  • Someone projects their cultural experience into a foreign cultural practice blinding them to the underlying values of that practice, which may actually familiar
  • Someone exoticises a foreign culture and over-emphasises differences, sometimes in order to justify colonial domination – two good examples are the early anthropological myth of the ‘noble savage’, and Saïd’s ‘orientalism’
  • Someone dogmatically holds onto a culturally held belief or opinion, for example the role of human activity in causing global warming, despite evidence to the contrary (Etinson 2018, pp. 214-218).

Anthropocentrism - from the Greek 'anthropos' - 'human being' and centre

Gumplowicz compared the term ethnocentrism to geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the centre of the universe, and anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are the most important entity on the earth and in the universe (Etinson 2018).

And while I think ethnocentrism a really important concept to think through in anthropology, if we are to think about the current anthropology we also need to be thinking seriously about anthropocentrism (which I wasn’t introduced to until third year anthro).

But what is anthropology without humans at the centre? … Simply, it exists!

This is what I wish I knew about in first year—the multispecies turn, and more-than-human anthropology. It’s an anthropology that fights against anthropocentrism and the false dichotomy between humans and Nature that follows. Humans and human culture does not exist outside of nature. Humans are entangled is ecological relations with all sorts of non-human beings. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World about the matsutake mushroom is one popular example of an ethnography about these entanglements. In an age that some are calling the Anthropocene we, as anthropologists, need to be more aware than ever of our anthropocentrism!


Bizumic, B 2014, ‘Who Coined the Concept of Ethnocentrism? A Brief Report’, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 3-10.

Etinson, A 2018, ‘Some Myths about Ethnocentrism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 96, no. 2, pp. 209-224.

See also:

Sarah and my post on the ‘Anthropo Scene’ Part I and Part II

Dyan’s post on cultural relativism

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Personhood

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, <>