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Debates about personhood are popping up all over!

Eckholm, Erik. 2011. “Push for ‘Personhood’ Amendments Is New Tack in Abortion Fight.” The New York Times, October 25. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/26/us/politics/personhood-amendments-would-ban-nearly-all-abortions.html.

Greene, Natalia. n.d. “The First Successful Case of the Rights of Nature Implementation in Ecuador.” The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. http://therightsofnature.org/first-ron-case-ecuador/. Accessed 25 March 2015.

The concept of the person is a useful and surprisingly profound way to explore the differences between cultures. It is a very important concept in many anthropology units.

Every culture has its own patterns and rhythms. There are rules people follow, social statuses that they occupy, and each person occupies a position in a social structure through these statuses.

But there's more to it than that, and that is who exactly these rules apply to. Who is able and capable of occupying a position in a social structure? Well, people, right? While it may seem obvious, in fact this assumption that only biological human individuals occupy positions in a social structure is debatable. Many cultures deem certain kinds of beings as incapable of being social actors. Many other cultures extend this recognition to nonhumans and other beings that one might not consider to be people at all. The difference is one of personhood. Should animals have “human” rights? Should abortion be defined as the murder of an unborn citizen? When people debate these things, they are in fact debating the limits of personhood.

Meyer Fortes defines personhood in a general way: A person is the culture's construction of the basic unit of society (Fortes 1987, 248). That is to say, to be a person is to occupy a unique position in a social structure, and every culture extends the boundaries of that category around some things and not others.

In this light, 'individual' is just one type of person, or one type of a subject of a social system. The defining traits of the individual actor – having consciousness and reason, having interests and desires, ideally being able to make choices and decisions – is simply one culture's construction of who is a person, and how that person fits into social order as a unit. This personhood is, arguably, not a natural fact. It is a potential which a culture recognizes in some beings and thus includes them in society as a whole.


Fortes, Meyer. 1987. Religion, Morality and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

personhood.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/29 02:31 (external edit)