Your Own Study
Examples of research findings. Representative examples illustrate how one can analyze personhood specifically. Carbaugh (1989) describes "popular American" talk as using key symbols such as "selves" and "individuals." Persons in this culture vacillate between difference and commonality. He posits that when speaking this way, "Americans" act based on a code of dignity (respect for individual rights, autonomy, freedom, equality). The cultural premises include, 1) one is an individual, 2) everyone should be unique, 3) cultural commonalties should be dispelled. If it is a group norm to be unique and yet one is not supposed to give recognition to group values but to individual ones, then the three premises seem contradictory. Yet, they form the complex web of communication rules that persons follow nonetheless (1990, pp.123-132). By examining personhood in this way, we learn that not only are there specific terms that "Americans" use to refer to persons, but that these terms signify the roles and positions that these persons have (and can have) towards themselves and one another.
Another example can be found in Geertz (1977) who describes ethnographic researchers as trying to find out what people think they are doing when they do what they do. In the process, Geertz advocates discovering person positions as a useful way to research a culture. Geertz examined the cultures of Java and Bali. Each culture illustrates a different way of being a person. In Java, for example, persons are positioned along two important cultural dimensions: insider-outsider and vulgar-polite. Thus, Javanese self is described by inward feelings (insider) or outward actions (outsider) and one would strive to be "polite" (alus) in both spheres of self. In another example, Geertz describes how the complex naming systems and time obligations function to structure social life in Balinese interactions. In this case, it is "dramatis personae, not actors, that in the proper sense really exist" (p.228). People are born into a drama that existed prior to their arrival and continues after their departure.
A third example of the importance of attending to person positions was advanced by Shweder (1991). He argued that personhood is differently expressed by Oriyas, from India, than from "Americans." While a standardized psychology "trait" test can be conducted with Oriyas, it is not a culturally meaningful way to describe personhood. A more meaningful description of personhood for Oriyas would focus on social and role relationships. In this way, when asked, an Oriya would more likely relate an account of what a person has done, in contrast to an American who would describe an individual's traits (to use Shweder's examples, "He curses at his neighbors" describes the former, and "He is aggressive and hostile" recounts the latter). Furthermore, Shweder found that the very strict rules that Oriyas use to order their culture require a taxonomic structure that illustrates this valuation, rather than a Western rational valuation structure.
Finally, Weider and Pratt (1990) explain personhood by the actions in which one engages. In "On Being a Recognizable Indian," Weider and Pratt describe the problem of "recognition and being recognized"(p.47). They describe who is regarded as a "real Indian" (p.48). The "real" Indian will know when and how to play the proper roles (p.60). Knowledge and respect as a "real" Indian becomes evident in several courses of action, such as: approaching strangers, razzing, face-to-face encounters, displaying modesty, recognizing quasi-kinship relationships, and public speaking. By recognizing these actions as culturally distinct and significant, one is able to better understand Indian "personhood." They explain, "being a real Indian is not something one can simply be, but is something that one becomes and/or is, in and as 'the doing' of being and becoming a real Indian" (pp.49-50).
From Milburn, T. (2000). Enacting "Puerto Rican time" in the United States. In M. J. Collier (Ed.). Constituting Cultural Difference through Discourse, The International and Intercultural Communication Annual (Volume 23). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.