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  Marcel Mauss opened the anthropological debate on the nature of ‘the person’ in 1938 by considering the notion of persona, or mask, and how it was utilized in different societies. In anthropology, the individual is generally described as an agent of the institutions in a society. The term personhood is used to refer to the individual as a social actor, often an idealized (sociocultural) state. In the West, ‘person’ has been contrasted with the ‘self’ which refers to the individual as the locus of experience. Such notions of agency are typical of a specifically Western view.

Until recently, the nature of the person was taken for granted in anthropology. However, it is apparent that the idea of personhood as a unified self, which experiences things privately, has been reinforced by psychoanalytic theories. According to this view, the experiential realm of selfhood and emotions were thought to be the province of psychotherapy. Other societies do not necessarily make this distinction between a self and social agent. Selfhood may be intimately bound up with social status and identity, where roles and behaviour are prescribed according to one\'s place in the social order. The Chinese, for instance, have a notion of holism in which the individual is seen as a microcosm of an ordered macrocosm. In Confucian philosophy the self is a nexus of possibilities which has to be cultivated. The individual is not fully developed if he or she did not cultivate proper social relations. Notions of individual identity are subsumed to the demands of the group.

The awareness of individuality may also be dissolved in states of trance, possession and mystical experiences. In cases of spirit-possession the body becomes something that is passively acted on by spirits. The topic, opened up by Mauss, has led to wider explorations of indigenous metaphysics.

Hindu theories of partibility see the ‘individual’ as a divisible entity able to take in and give out a variety of influences and essences. For the Hindus, the unstable and composite nature of the person bears little relation to the biological notion of the individual rooted in the physical body, which is prevelent in our own society, and demonstrates the value of examining basic conceptions of personhood. CL

See also altered states of consciousness; emotions; transactionalism.Further reading M. Carrithers, Collins and Lukes (eds.), The Category of the Person.



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