Anthropology: Defining Personhood around the World

How to define a person

In the Trobriand Islands, to the east of Papua New Guinea, there is the belief that the Baloma (the spirit of the dead) moves to Tuma (the island of the dead) after death. The spirits in Tuma age just like people do, but when they get old, they shed their skin and regress to a stage of youth. When they are tired of the cycles of rejuvenation and wish to return to Earth, they become Waiwaia (spirit children) and find a woman to impregnate. Detailed articulately by Bronislaw Malinowski (arguably one of the fathers of participant observation), this belief system has become known as the ‘Virgin Birth Controversy’. These beliefs amongst the Trobriand Islanders raise important questions about personhood. Defining personhood differs between cultures around the world and importantly tackles the question of when a person begins (and ceases) to be considered a person.

Malinowski sat on a wooden structure with two Trobriand Islanders on either side of him
Malinowski wrote about the Trobriand Islanders and their beliefs in the Baloma spirits. Photo: LSE blogs

Defining personhood also answers the question: what does it mean to be a person? The Cambridge English dictionary’s definition of a person is: ‘a man, woman or child/ describing someone’s character’. Not only does the first definition exclude non-binary people, it is also a biological and Western interpretation of the word. It discounts the extent to which a living body absorbs the culture around it. The concept of a ‘person’ is in itself quite abstract. There is no universal concept of what it means to be a person; it is culturally relative and  depends on a society’s cosmology.

The Blob

Anthropologist Maurice Bloch recognises the difficulties in defining what a person actually is. Whilst Clifford Geertz uses ‘person’ in his discussion of the Balinese, French anthropologist Louis Dumont uses ‘individual’ but Mauss (renowned sociologist) simply uses ‘moi’. Bloch amalgamates these various interpretations and uses the term ‘the blob’. Social anthropologists, he argues, will almost always claim that ‘the blob’ is culturally and historically variable. They say that there is little that unifies ‘the blobs’ together. On the other side of the debate, there are the universalists. They are proponents of the claim that there are specific aspects of a ‘generic’ human being. They argue that there is something to be said about human cognitive development that unites people together. On the side of this argument, they are usually joined, by implication at least, by cognitive scientists such as psychologists and analytic philosophers. 

Is a baby a person?

Exploring the concept of personhood in cultures across the world involves taking a closer look at when a person becomes a person. Some cultures believe that a child will become a person over time. For example, they will be considered a person when they’re fully initiated into a tribe or when they have built a house. In such cultures, personhood is something that has several components. This means that there is no set point in which a body ‘becomes a person’. Bodies discover and absorb different social components which are needed in order to make them into ‘a person’. In other cultures, there are defining moments in which embryos, foetuses or babies are given the social and legal rights that classify them as a person.

Returning back to the Trobriand Islands, does this mean then, that the Baloma spirits on the island of the dead are considered a person? They have already lived through adulthood, both in this world and the spirit world. This is where the argument becomes complex. The spirits could be given the social rights as they have had the life experience needed to classify them as such. The Baloma spirits may be considered autonomous individuals as they choose which woman to impregnate. But does autonomy necessarily give personhood to a human being?

Susan Montague discusses in an article the idea of ‘land ownership being the distinctive feature distinguishing man from other animate objects’. She writes that the father legitimises his child through feeding it and letting it urinate and defecate on him. It can be inferred that the father thus plays a key role in the Trobriand Islands in the transition from a baby into a person.

Scientific beliefs in personhood

Cultural perceptions of personhood in Western society are influenced by scientific beliefs that dictate the stages of the life course. Some scientists believe that personhood begins at the stage of fertilisation when the sperm and egg combine. Others will say it is when a baby can survive outside the womb and is able to survive on its own. Personhood and the discussion of when a baby becomes a person, is not only culturally relative but is also dependent on an individual point of view. The beliefs of the beginnings of personhood are strongly influenced by a number of fields, such as science, religion, philosophy and law. The consequences of the debate are far reaching into areas such as abortion, stem cell research, reproductive rights and foetal rights.

Image shows a cluster of embryonic stem cells.
Many scientists will consider an embryo as a ‘person’. Photo:

Abortion and personhood

In Western societies, the creation of a human organism is the same as the creation of a human being. This ‘being’ is then capable of acquiring cultural components as it matures. Some people may see babies as potential people, but may not consider them fully to be a person. When they are first born they lack the cultural components needed to become a person.

Of course, these views differ considerably between cultures and societies in the West, and are often heavily influenced by religious beliefs regarding the sanctity of life. In the US state of Texas, just last month they introduced the ‘heartbeat banabortion bill. This means that women are unable to get abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

Similar bills have been passed or are trying to be passed in other states, mostly in the south. These laws rest heavily on the idea that an embryo is a person. Often the bills do not even have a clause that has rape and incest cases as an exception, these women must still carry their pregnancies to full term. Journalist Mark Joseph Stern wrote that these bills essentially give “full legal recognition” to “unborn children”. In theory, this means that the law could allow women who terminate pregnancies to be charged with murder.

Beliefs of the Beng people

In the West African Nation of Côte d’Ivoire, there lives one of the smallest ethnic groups in the country. The Beng people have a population of around 12,000 people. In Beng society, all babies are said to be a reincarnation of someone who has died. They will often treat their babies in the same way as they would treat another adult. They think of their babies as ‘worthy conversationalist partners’ and train them in manners and politeness from a very young age.

New born babies are not considered to have emerged from wrugbe, the spirit village of the dead, until the umbilical cord stump has fallen off. The process then begins of gaining personhood. From the ages of three up until seven, the child is said to be in a state of liminality. They gradually emerge from wrugbe over time. It is only once the child has completely left wrugbe and its old life behind that it can be fully considered as a person, despite in many aspects being treated like one.

Image of Alma Gottlieb sat holding a Beng child on her lap
In Beng society all babies are said to be a reincarnation of someone who has died. Photo: Alma Gottlieb

Personhood and the Zafimaniry

Amongst the Zafimaniry, a sub-group of the Betsileo ethnic group of Madagascar, the exact point in which a baby becomes a ‘person’ varies greatly between individuals. The point at which a human being acquires personhood is known through the process of marriage, children and house building. In contrast to Western society, the focus point of personhood is the social becoming of a person, rather than the biological one.

Therefore, the point of birth for the Zafimaniry is insignificant in determining a person. Rather, it is the journey of becoming a ‘socialised’ being that defines a person in their culture. This brings the nature/ culture debate to the foreground. In Western cultures there is a higher focus on nature; with the birth of a baby being a significant step in a baby becoming a person. Whilst for the Zafimaniry, whose focus is on cultural constructions of personhood, birth is entirely insignificant as ‘it doesn’t mark entry into the social world’.

Image of a cluster of wooden zafimaniry houses amongst the green fields and trees
House building is a key element of personhood amongst the Zafimaniry. Photo: Wikipedia

The process of becoming a person amongst the Zafimaniry is a highly ritualised and extensive event. It emphasises two people becoming one through marriage, having children and the ‘hardening’ of a house. House building serves as a ‘permanent element of Zafimaniry moral society’. Before this, babies and children are considered animals because of their ‘lack of moral responsibility and tireless vitality’. Zafimaniry place great importance on the moralistic and responsible aspects of becoming a ‘person’.

Poverty and personhood

In many societies that live below the poverty line, socio-economic circumstances can heavily affect the cultural beliefs of when a baby becomes a person. Amongst the Zafimaniry, the infant mortality rate is high and the likelihood of a baby becoming a ‘person’ is low. This potentially influences how the Zafimaniry do not consider babies as people. It functions as a coping mechanism in response to the high chance of their babies not surviving.

Image of UC Berkley professor Nancy Scheper Hughes stood close next to a woman wearing a headscarf
Anthropologist Nancy Scheper Hughes, who wrote the influential ethnography, ‘Death without weeping’. Photo: UC Berkley news

In Nancy Scheper Hughes’ phenomenal book, ‘Death without Weeping’, she describes how mothers living in Alto de Cruzeiro in Brazil will all too often watch their children become sick and die. The shantytown is riddled with poverty, social discrimination, violence and hunger. As a coping mechanism, mothers practice ‘selective neglect’ towards children that are weak, or ‘ill-fated’. They show little emotional attachment to the child, because of the very high chance that they will pass away. In this sense, mothers do not afford their children full personhood until they are sure they will survive past infancy.

The Mapuche

The Mapuche are a group of indigenous people who live in southern Chile and Argentina. The etymology of the word ‘Mapuche‘ is interesting. ‘Mapu’ means land and ‘che’ means people or, more specifically, ‘true persons’. Personhood, from the perspective of the Mapuche, is a status which is attributed to others through linguistic and nonliguistic practice. There are two criteria for the attribution of personhood: human physicality and the capacity for productive sociality.

Image depicts a traditionally dressed Mapuche women smiling at the camera
Mapuche personhood depends heavily on their sociality. Photo: Culture Trip

Similarly to the case of the Zafimaniry, the Mapuche’s personhood is acquired over a long period of time. They don’t fully become a person until their death. The mortuary ritual disintegrates their lives into parts- only then are they considered ‘complete’. The Mapuche are a product of their social relations. Their achievement of personhood is dependent on the relationships they build upon throughout the course of their lives. This means that a baby in Mapuche society cannot be considered a person as it has yet to acquire the ability to form relationships with people.

Significance of personhood from an anthropological perspective

The exact point in which a human organism becomes a ‘person’ is impossible to articulate. There is no universal concept of personhood- therefore the question of whether a baby is a person remains unanswerable whilst remaining objective. Looking at the various interpretations of what it means to be a person through ethnographic work brings focus to the anthropological studies of babies- which are so often ignored within anthropology.

Through exploring different socio-cultural perceptions of personhood around the world, we can see how, more often than not, a baby cannot be considered a person. Infants must achieve personhood through adhering to the cultural norms of society, which is accomplished throughout stages of early life, into adulthood or even into death, like in the case of the Mapuche. Cosmologies that involve forms of spiritual reincarnation, like the Trobriand Islanders, complicate our linear understandings of personhood. Looking at such beliefs helps challenge our own cultural perceptions of what constitutes personhood.


Bloch, M (1993) Zafimaniry birth and kinship theory. Social Anthropology Vol. 1, Issue1b pages 119-132.

Bloch, M (2011) The Blob. Anthropology of this century [blog post]. Issue 1.

Course, M (2011) Becoming Mapuche: Person and Ritual in Indigenous Chile. University of Illinois Press

Gottlieb, A (1998) Do Infants Have Religion? The Spiritual Lives of Beng Babies. American anthropologist, 100(1), pp.122–135.

Malinowski, B. (1916) Baloma; The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 46, pp.353-430

Montague, S. (1971) Trobriand Kinship and the Virgin Birth Controversy, Man New Series, Vol. 6, No. 3 pp. 353-368

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992) Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. University of California Press

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