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CHAPTER 3

AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONCEPTUALIZATION OF SELF: THE SELF AS


EMBEDDED IN CULTURE

Learning Outcomes:
At the end of the chapter, you should be able to:

• recognize what the field of anthropology can contribute to the understanding of the
self;
• understand how culture and self are complementary concepts;

• discuss the cultural construction of the self and social identity; explain the concept
of identity struggles; and

• develop insights on how to achieve a sense of self, situated in multicultural and


dynamic situations.

“We are each a product of biological endowments, culture, and


personal history. Culture, ideology, and cultural events along with transmitted
cultural practices influence each of us. We are each the product of our collective
interchanges We are each a molecule in the helix of human consciousness
joined in a physical world. We form a coil of connective tissue soldered together
by cultural links.”

— Kilroy J. Oldster

Practices among different societies reveal ways how societies conceptualize what the
self is and how it relates to culture. Anthropology considered as one of the most
complex areas of discipline, has explored various meanings of culture, self and identity
in the desire to come up with a better understanding of the self. Some anthropologists,
however, arrive at a conclusion that there is no simple definition.

Anthropology is concerned with how cultural and biological processes interact to shape
human experience. Contemporary anthropologists believe that culture and self are
complementary concepts that are to be understood in relation to one another.
Compared with other disciplines, anthropology possesses a holistic and integrated
approach in examining human nature. According to a distinguished anthropology
professor, James L. Peacock ( 1986, p. 10), "anthropology encroaches on the territory
of the sciences as well as the humanities, and transcends the conventional boundaries
of both while addressing questions from the distant past and the pressing present—
perhaps with implications for the future." This definition of anthropology emphasizes
that it is an academic field for understanding the interconnection and interdependence
of biological and cultural aspects of the human experience at all times and in all places.
Employing an anthropological perspective, that is' perceiving holistically, what could be
the answer to the question: "Who am I?"
Anthropology considers human experience as an interplay of "nature," referring
to genetic inheritance which sets the individual's potentials, and "nurture,"
referring to the sociocultural environment (Haviland, Prins, Walrath, & McBride,
2013). Therefore, it could be understood that both biological and cultural factors
have significant influence on the development of awareness among individuals
within society. In addition, the field of anthropology has contributed indirectly to
the understanding of the nature of self through ethnographic investigations (e.g.,
sampling method, sentence completion, interviews) which discuss that cultural
variations may affect one's mental state, language, and behavior (Triandis,
1989). Perhaps, the most important contribution of anthropology is providing
insights into the nature of self based on continuous understanding of the basic
elements of culture (Peacock, 1986).

THE CULTURAL CONSTRUCTION OF SELF AND IDENTITY

British anthropologist Edward Tylor defines culture as "...that complex whole


which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other
capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Anthropologists
have emphasized that culture is not behavior itself but the shared understandings
that guide behavior and are expressed in behavior (Peacock, 1986). Therefore, it is
how people make sense of their experiences and behave according to socially
shared ideas, values, and perceptions. As such, culture has acquired a range of
different meanings that require reflection and analysis because the significance of
cultures has enormous implications for everyone's conception of self (van Meijl,
2008). Thus, one may say that culture provides patterns of "ways of life” Culture,
being diverse, self and identity may have different meanings in different cultures.

Yet, only a small number of anthropologists tackle the concept of self (van
Meijl, 2008). In effect, self is one of the most taken for granted products of culture
(Robbins, 2012). German anthropologist Martin Sökefeld ( 1999) believes that the
concept of self is a necessary supplement to the concept of culture in anthropology
and should be regarded as a human universal, Culture and self thus become
complementary concepts that have to be understood in relation to one another.

In the social anthropology, concept of identity was used mostly in the context
of "ethnic identity," pointing out the sameness of the self with others, that is, to a
consciousness of sharing certain characteristics (e.g., language, culture, etc.)
Identity is understood as a disposition of basic personality features acquired mostly
during childhood and, once integrated, more or less fixed (Sokefeld, 1999). This
identity therefore makes a human being a person and an acting individual. Peacock
(1986) believes that the individual is neither a robot nor an entirely independent
self-willed little god but a cultural individual existing in freedom but also embodying
that cultural mold in which he is cast in his particular society and historical epoch.
There are two ways in which the concept of self is viewed in different societies: egocentric
and sociocentric. In the egocentric view, the self is see as an autonomus and distinct
individual. Each person is defined as a replica of all humanity but capable of acting
independently from others. While in the sociocentric view, the self is contingent on a
situation or social setting. This is a view of the self that is context-dependent which
emphasizes that there is no intrinsic self that can possess enduring qualities (Robbins,
2012).
For anthropologist Christie Kiefer (Robbins, 2012), the Japanese possess a
sociocentric view of the self in which the membership of a person in a particular
social group defines the boundaries of the self. Interdependence between the person
and the group is more valued than independence. For the Japanese, social
interaction should be characterized by restraint. Likewise, Chinese American
anthropologist Francis Hsu attributes a sociocentric view of the self to the Chinese.
He explains that the Chinese prioritize kin ties and cooperation. For them, the very
essence of interpersonal relations is mutual dependence. Hence, they do not value
self-reliance but put importance to compliance and subordination of one's will to the
authority figures in the family. In contrast with the Japanese and the Chinese, the
Americans are egocentric. They believe that they should be assertive and
independent (Robbins, 2012).
From the similarities and differences in characteristics among individuals,
people construct their social identities. The identity toolbox refers to the features of a
person's identity that he or she chooses to emphasize in constructing a social self.
Some characteristics such as kinship, gender, and age are almost universally used to
differentiate people. Other characteristics, such as ethnicity, personal appearance,
and socioeconomic status are not always used in every society. Family membership
could be the most significant feature to determine a person's social identity. Another
important identity determinant that is often viewed as essential for the maintenance of
a group identity is language. In other societies, religious affliation is an important
marker of group identity (Robbins, 2012). In Mindanao, being a Christian or a Muslim
is possibly the most important defining feature of one's social identity.

Personal naming, a universal practice with numerous crosscultural variation


establishes a child's birthright and social identity. A name is an important device to
individualize a person and legitimize him or her as a member of a social group such as
a family (Haviland, Prins, Walrath, & McBride, 2013). Personal names in all societies
are intimate markers of a person which differentiates him or her from others. A person's
name may symbolically represent his or her cultural self. Hence, many cultures mark
the naming of a child with a special ceremony. For example, Aymara Indians do not
consider an infant as a true human until a name is given to him or her. When the child
is around two years old and ready to speak the Aymara language, a special ritual is
performed to give it a name. This marks the Aymara child's social transition from a
state of nature to culture which also consequently makes him or her fully accepted into
the Aymara community. Different from the Aymara Indians, Icelanders name their
infants soon after birth. The baby receives the paternal given name as its last name.
The boy's name is added with a suffix sen and the girl's name with dottir. Whereas
patronyms (surnames based on father's name) are common in Iceland, matronymic
traditions prevail in an Indonesian island of Sumatra where an ethnic group known as
Minangkabau lives. In Minangkabau culture, children inherit their mother's family name.
Another unique naming is practiced in Arctic Canada where children are named after
their deceased relatives and other people with admirable qualities which they believe
will be helpful for their character formation. Similarly, in the Philippines, it is a common
practice of Catholic parents to name their children after saints. Perhaps, they think that
by bearing a sacred name, their child will be blessed and protected throughout life.

One's identity is not inborn. It is something people continuously develop in


life. For instance, rites of passage usually involve ritual activities to prepare
individuals for new roles from one stage of life to another such as birth, puberty,
marriage, having children, and death. Arnold van Gennep believes that changes in
one's status and identity are marked by a three-phased rite of passage:
separation, liminality, and incorporation. In the separation phase, people detach
from their former identity to another. For example, in a wedding, the bride walking
down the aisle to be "given away" by the parents to the groom implies the separation
from one's family to become part of a new one. In the liminality phase, a person
transitions from one identity to another. For example, the wedding ceremony itself is
the process of transition of the bride and groom from singlehood to married life.
Finally, in the incorporation phase, the change in one's status is officially
incorporated. For example, the wedding reception and parties that celebrate the
wedding serve as the markers that officially recognize the bride and groom's change
towards being husband and wife.
Rites of passage help a person adjust from one social dimension of his or
her life to the others. However, sometimes individuals disagree on their respective
identities. Anthony Wallace and Raymond Fogelson coined the term "identity-
struggles" to characterize interaction in which there is a discrepancy between the
identity a person claims to possess and the identity-attributed-to-that-person by
others. Moreover, individuals may also be confused in defining their personal identity
when there is a clash between self-identification and inherited collective identification
emerging from the cultural changes and conflicting norms and values in the
postmodern society. When universal values and moral principles of an individual or
group become relatively determined by politics and ideology among other external
factors, an identity crisis may occur. Golubovic (2011) suggests that in order to attain
self-identification, individuals have to overcome many obstacles such as traditionally
established habits and externally imposed self-images. On the other hand, the works
of cognitive anthropologists suggest that in order to maintain a relatively stable and
coherent self, members of the multicultural society have no choice but to internalize
divergent cultural models and should reject or suppress identifications that may
conflict with other self-presentations (van Meijl, 2008). Katherine Ewing's “Illusion
of Wholeness” exhibits how individual selves throughout the world continuously
reconstitute themselves into new selves in response to internal and external stimuli.
Therefore, the cohesiveness and continuity of self are only illusory. For the reason
that the postmodern man has lost his right and stopped striving to become an
autonomous and active part of the process of self-determination and a particular
identification with one's own community, the most important philosophical task of the
postmodern man today is to "work on yourself" just like in the Socratic message
"know thyself" (Golubovic, 2011).
THE SELF AS EMBEDDED IN CULTURE

Clifford Geertz (1973), an American anthropologist, offers a reformulation of the


concept of culture which favors a symbolic interpretative model of culture. He defines
culture as a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of
which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and
attitudes toward life. Further, he proposes that it is necessary that humans give
meanings to their experiences so that order in the world can be established. He agrees
with Max Weber, that "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself
has spun," in which those webs are perceived to be symbolic of culture. This semiotic
approach to culture is helpful in getting inside a conceptual world where human beings
live. Thus the concept of culture has its impact on the concept of man. In his attempt to
illustrate an accurate image of man, Geertz suggests two important ideas: (1) culture
should not be perceived only as "complexes of concrete behavior patterns —customs,
usages, traditions, habit clusters—as has, by and large, been the case up to now, but
as a set of control mechanisms--- plans, recipes, rules, instructions—for the governing
behavior, and (2) man is precisely the animal most desperately dependent upon such
extragenetic, outside-the-skin control mechanisms, such cultural programs, for
ordering his behavior" (1973, p.44). Therefore, man is defined by his genetic potentials
shaped into actual accomplishments which is made possible by culture. Geertz also
emphasizes that human nature is interdependent with culture; "Without men, no
culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men" (1973,
p.49).

Likewise, Robbins (2012) considered human beings as cultural animals as


they create the meanings of objects, persons, behaviors, emotions and events and
behave in accordance with the meanings they assume to be true. Every aspect of their
lives is filled with meaning, and if they share the meanings they impose on their
experiences they are operating within the same culture. Cultural differences exist when
groups of people assign different meanings to different life events and things. Hence,
the self is embedded in culture.