21A.01 | Fall 2019 | Undergraduate

How Culture Works


Ethnographic Assignment 3: Define Personhood

This assignment asks you to write a short ethnographic study of personhood, a seemingly obvious category that actually takes very specific, historically contingent forms.

Consider this anecdote:

“He would stride hurriedly down the sidewalks, almost running, but always, be it winter or summer, bareheaded, he didn’t have a hat at all. It was said that he had come to St. Petersburg during the stern reign of Emperor Paul I [1796–1801], and he happened once to be walking past Saint Michael’s Castle, where the emperor lived, and that this was the last time that he had a hat on his head. Noticed near the castle, he was chased down, had his hat knocked off in an impolite manner; and was himself taken to the castle. When it was learned that he was a foreigner, who did not know the customs of the time, he was released; but the fear so much affected him that he lost his mind on this point and never again put on a hat” (Pylyaev 1898: ch. 18).

In Notable Eccentrics and Queers, his 1898 collection of urban legend and folklore, M.I. Pylyaev notes that this was one of the few bareheaded people in 1840s St. Petersburg: a “slight old man, a teacher of the French language.” Assaulted for offending the hat-tipping traditions of the time, this unhappy Frenchman was disgraced so profoundly that he never recovered. The loss of his hat did not simply lower his status and decrease his opportunities, it somehow disturbed his sense of self.

It might sound ridiculous: four decades of nervousness over one hat! But to make some sense of this story, we should recall that up through the Second World War, throughout the “western world” (and not only there), it was often thought unseemly to be out in public bareheaded. Men and women covered heads differently. Often, women changed the type of headgear they wore once in their lives, when they got married, and men rearranged theirs many times a day—tipping the hat to one person, taking it off to another, touching the rim to a third. Such hat actions weren’t just about fashion. They were about decency: the physical enactment of social position in a gender-distinct and status-based social hierarchy.

What, for us today, might be an equivalent of shattering hat-loss? People wear hats in Boston today, but they rarely tip them. They have no need to, they don’t feel in their body the discomfort of a misplaced hat (like one might feel the discomfort of a misplaced pronoun). And yet, as we’ve seen throughout this semester, our Bostonian life is also ordered by social structures and hierarchies, transactions and statuses, ethics and glory and unquantifiable “extras.”

What persons inhabit this world, what relations and properties define and delimit their personhood?

Drawing on your own ethnographic observations of how persons relate to each other, and on our class discussions and texts, write a 3–4 page essay defining some aspects of personhood. Pay particular attention to which properties and relations are taken to be indispensable to being a person: which possessions, qualities, relations are commonly assumed to be inalienable, and which may be changed, forsaken, transacted? Gender and given name, for example, have long been highly inalienable but have quite recently become much less so. Today it is not out of the question that a person might choose a new legal and social identity in the middle of life, without fundamentally changing his/her self (perhaps explaining that s/he has now become the person s/he had really been all along).

How do persons relate to each other, and how do non-persons mediate these relations? Are there degrees of personhood and agency? Are some beings persons only in certain relationships? (Pet animals, maybe?)

Student Examples

“What is a Person but a Resume?” (PDF)

“Personhood Essay” (PDF)

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2019
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples