Aspects of Personhood


One significant topic in humanities and social sciences, especially in psychology and anthropology, is the notion of person. Terms such as self and individual have also been used with varying success either separately or as a set to include cross-cultural perspectives of experience and human action. In various societies, ideologies and beliefs circulate regarding requisite qualifications for categorization as a person (Mcintosh, 2018). Despite being a highly contentious issue, anthropologists often comprehend parenthood to signify the experimental and subjective sense that an individual has a locus of responsiveness.

Personhood Definition and Its Relevance to Anthropology

Personhood remains a fluid analytical word with debated and diverse meanings. It is frequently difficult to distinguish who is regarded as a person, what it entails, and how it varies from selfhood or even being an individual (Friedenberg, 2020). Many scholars have presented views to elucidate these antagonistic terms; nevertheless, they are continually used interchangeably. The challenge is not just a theoretical predicament, for personhood encompasses moral and legal repercussions, including responsibilities and rights. However, for precision, personhood can be defined as the state of a physical, social, and sentient being.

The term is relevant to anthropology through the substantial contributions to its understandings; perhaps, predominant cross-cultural ethnographies exhibit its lack of a universal constant definition and varying meaning in specific places and periods. Moreover, anthropology allows for the exploration of the type of identity within the individual actor. It also gives the relationship between symbolic forms, identity, and material practices across the sociocultural milieu (Friedenberg, 2020). Individualism illustrates the sociocultural conceptualization of behavior, whereas individuality pertains to a worldwide understanding.

Personhood and Relations to Having a Voice and Making Own Choices

Arguments regarding the nature of personhood and relations to having a voice and making own choices are metaphysical and comprise philosophical views, which might be correctly asserted in this concept. Personhood makes individuals have a universal value and an excellent standing on choices about different roles in the culture. Moreover, the transcendent nature of human personhood elicits the unassailable substance of human privileges (Mcintosh, 2018). It also manifests the unity of corporeal and spiritual in human existence, leading to a vital characteristic of humans.

Personhood in Physical, Material, and Legal Components

The component of physical personhood is unpopular due to the heavy lifting carried out by its metaphysical notion. Most physicalists or materialists consider humans beings as fundamentally physical persons, lacking metaphysically distinct minds or souls (Tangue, 2020). Moreover, idealists or dualists see human beings beyond bodily nature. From this perspective, corporeal personhood relates to the manner an individual has a continuity presence in society through their embodiment state.

The material component of personhood defines the basic classification of reality, such as moral agents and rational beings. In most scenarios, an adult human is regarded as a person without factoring in elements that constitute personhood. The legal constituent of personhood also remains an essential aspect in comprehending the concept. The law recognizes some individuals as an actor, a unit, or legal entities.

Consequently, legal personhood permits unitary groups to transact as a person. A corporation, for example, can engage in contracts and carry out legal matters as if it is a person. However, it is evident that this form of personhood is artificial and lacks material significance. In some circumstances, human beings are not seen as people or even individuals viewed to be lacking personhood. The situation is common as most people presume an individual and a person to be similar (Tangue, 2020). Nonetheless, the situation is not true and many philosophers and anthropologists have distinguished the two beings.

Relationship between Personhood and Kinship

Kinship has customarily been one of the main subjects in cultural and social anthropology for two reasons. First, even though not every human group has kinship, every person owns certain connections and has relations with people. Second, the classless, tribal, and economically undefined communities that anthropologists have mostly, the association has presented as the principal kind of social organization. Personhood through siblingship relates to kinship and transforms over time to consider and absorb a wider societal shift. Marriage and family establishment remain a chief aspect in advancing personhood and kinship in society.

Characteristics Associated with Personhood

Several characteristics are linked to the concept of personhood, as elaborated below. Common attributes include self-awareness, agency, and human nature, as well as possession of duties and rights. Since its meaning is contentious with no universally accepted definition as a result of cultural and historical variability, the notion also draws some characteristics. These features may encompass logical or rational reasoning capacity, consciousness, ability to start action, intelligence, moral agency, and capability to express right judgments (Friedenberg, 2020). The big question is whether having one or multiple of these attributes constitutes a person.

For example, individuals are commonly referred to as persons even when they fall asleep or become unconscious. Going by the requisite characteristics associated with personhood, an individual in such a state does not exhibit all the set criteria. Instead, they must have the capacity or disposition to manifest the necessary features.

Marcel Mauss Concept

Anthropologists’ deep attention to personhood dates back to a 1938 address in London by Marcel Mauss, a renowned French sociologist. Mauss proposed a logical distinction between personhood – playing social roles to manifest collectivism, and selfhood – awareness of one’s individuality. The self-consciousness, which appears natural to Westerners, he posited, is the moderately recent element of a shifting and long history (Mcintosh, 2018). Scholars have disparaged Mauss’s distinction and his evolutionist position, especially the repercussion that societies lacking autonomous individuals in a role of primacy are somewhat primitive. Nonetheless, his deep insights that various social organizations have different ideas regarding personhood and self-experiences remain highly influential.

Concept of a Person within Anthropology

Despite being human beings, personhood does not occur in everyone; rather, it is an attainable or imputed attribute. Therefore, this is the initial point for the anthropological concept of personhood. It is a trait comprehended differently by every society, and occasionally a quality understood to be gained throughout life through interactions and exchanges, moral bearing, and rituals (Tangue, 2020). A wide range of ethnographic work shows that even though not all societies have the word personhood, most of them have beliefs about the credentials required to be considered as a full person.


In conclusion, personhood, despite being a debated issue, forms a foundational conception for human beings. It remains an intriguing topic of investigation, and every society has accepted the construct of its meaning. Occasionally, personhood is regarded to be created across an individual’s lifespan, and different communities have unique ethnopsychological and ontological perceptions about self-constitution. Some of the distinct ideas have always included a person’s expression with others, interpenetration with the surrounding environment, and moral capacity.


Friedenberg, J. (2020). The future of the self: An interdisciplinary approach to personhood and identity in the digital age. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Mcintosh, J. (2018). Personhood, self, and individual. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, 1(1), 1-9. Web.

Tangue, J. F. (2020). An ape ethic and the question of personhood. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Video Voice-over

Cite this paper

Select style


PsychologyWriting. (2023, October 12). Aspects of Personhood. Retrieved from


PsychologyWriting. (2023, October 12). Aspects of Personhood.

Work Cited

"Aspects of Personhood." PsychologyWriting, 12 Oct. 2023,


PsychologyWriting. (2023) 'Aspects of Personhood'. 12 October.


PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Aspects of Personhood." October 12, 2023.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Aspects of Personhood." October 12, 2023.


PsychologyWriting. "Aspects of Personhood." October 12, 2023.