How would you describe yourself: outgoing, intelligent, quick thinking, a person, or an individual? For years anthropologists have struggled to differentiate between what a ‘person’ signifies and how it contrasts to an ‘individual’. Within my essay I am going to discuss my opinions on the concept of a ‘person’ and look at how non-Westerners perceive the ideas of both ‘person’ and ‘individual’. I will do so through the use of two ethnographies: Read, K.E. 1967 ‘Morality and the Concept of the Person among the Gahuku-Gamma’ and Tsintjilonis, D. 1997 ‘Embodied Difference: the “Body-Person” of the Sa’dan Toraja’. To me both words mean completely different things. You say ‘individual’ to me and I think of personality, emotions and scent. All these three things are unique to that one individual, thus making them separate from all others around them. An individual has his/her own thoughts, ideas and opinions which others may agree or disagree with. This idea of right of thought defines the “individual” as by having different views on subjects he/she will contrast from the person sitting next to them. Whereas, from my point of view, a ‘person’ could just be a stranger walking down the street. I believe that until a connection is made (ie a conversation is had) they will simply remain a physical form with no other aspects, for example a personality, to them. A good example of how I would differentiate between a “person” and an “individual” would be through the use of a policeman. If I was to see a policeman walking down the street, at first he would just be a person amongst all other people on that same street. However; say I got talking to this policeman I would discover that not only does he have some form of emotion and personality, but he also has a wife, three kids and loving parents. This policeman has now become an individual with a past, who leads a different life to mine and most likely several others. Because I now know that he possesses all of these things he is shone in a different light and I can relate to him in some way. The next time I see him walking down the street he will stand out as a connection has been made and I recognise him due to him making an impact therefore; he is no longer just a “person” but more an “individual”.
Another example of when someone is an “individual” rather than a “person” would be a foetus. Although this foetus has no personality, it is alone in the womb with no interaction with anyone else and therefore I would consider it an individual until born. Once born, the baby will gain personhood as it is able to have social interactions, ie with its mother and other family members. As the baby grows older his/her social capacity will increase due to meeting an increasing number of new people. Thus, their personhood will expand and they can be classed as a “person”. Not only can personhood be gained, but at the same time it can also be lost. A “person” has both freedom and rights however; both these things can be easily lost. For example; when someone gets locked up in jail, although they still obtain rights, they lose all freedom that they previously had. In doing so, this person will lose personhood as they can no longer interact with many others and are stuck in a cell, thus turning them into an individual.
Personhood therefore, from a Western point of view, is dependent upon social relations and social significance: ‘If the self is an individual’s awareness of a unique identity, the “person” is society’s confirmation of that identity as of social significane’ (J.S. La Fontanie ‘Person and individual in anthropology’). Radcliffe-Brown also follows this line of thought regarding the connection between a ‘person’ and social relationships and significance. He states that ‘the human being as a person is a complex of social relationships. As a person the human