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Tamara Congdon 17409414

ANT2CAC

Individuals become a person at different times depending on their culture

Anthropology Essay
7 May 2013

Tamara CONGDON
Student ID: 17409414
La Trobe University
ANT2CAC: Childhood, Youth and Culture
Lecturer: Helen Lee
Tutor: Elisabeth Betz (Wednesday 10am-11am)

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Individuals become a person at different times depending on their culture

Many people believe becoming a person is just about being born and being a human.
But this is not always the case. There are a number of definitions of becoming a person
because it depends on how a community defines and relates to it. For example, the Malay say
that to fully become a person, an individual must become a grandparent, yet the Dogon say
you are working towards being a person your whole life, it is only when you die you are an
acknowledged person. This is not the type of person that will be discussed in this essay; the
main focus will be on socially recognising a child as part of the community and their kinship
which is often done when naming the child. To grasp an idea about the degree of
differentiation, different definitions are stated of when a baby actually gets conceived and
starts developing. Similarly however, it is shown that there is some common ground in the
beliefs and rituals in these case studies, however all differ slightly again. It is discussed what
certain communities believe about their own definition of becoming a person. Concluding
with the western point of view of when a person is a person, this essay will ultimately prove
there is no one universal point in time at which an individual is recognised as a person.
In the medical world, conception of the foetus happens when the sperm fertilises the
female egg inside her womb, however, this is not the belief in all cultures. In some patrilineal
societies, the baby is thought to start their life in the fathers body, and then transfer into the
womans womb to help it grow. Laderman (1982, p. 85) discusses this in her field work in the
Malay village, saying that their belief is that before conception, fathers have created and held
the entity (foetus) in his brain for forty days. It is then released from his brain when the father
experiences a point of rationality in his life, then is passed into the mother for growth and
nurturing (Laderman 1982, p. 85). This unconceived foetus may have influenced the fathers
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life and sent him rational, ultimately saying that it is ready to be transferred and developed
in the mother. Another similar belief is that the baby chooses its mother. In her research in an
Indigenous society north of Australia, Hamilton (1981, p. 21) mentions spirit children live
in a river and enter the mother through the vagina while menstruating, or the spirit takes a
form of a fish that the mother will eat and ingest in her body that way. This was the
explanation most of the community gave after she asked the causes of conception (Hamilton
1981, p. 22). This implies the spirit child has the intelligence to choose their mother and
implant themselves in her. Kitzinger (1982) points out that Jamaican women often do not
accept or acknowledge they are pregnant until they have a fertility dream. This superstitious
ritual can be thought of as the unborn child has a spirit which is contacting the mother.
Laderman (1982), Hamilton (1981) or Kitzinger (1982) did not link these psychological
experiences to personhood of the unborn child in their discussion, but it can be argued that
if the unborn child can alter the way the parents think, dream, conceive or act, then the baby
is communicating long before it is named.
Naming children occurs at different times of the babys life depending on the
community they live in. To protect the unborn child from evil spirits and illness for example,
the Yunnan community will name their child prior to birth (Aijmer 1992, p. 12). Aijmer
(1992, p. 12) notes that identification is the same as protection meaning that the Yunnan
believe the baby is unsafe if it is unknown and not recognised by name. The Malaya people
however, will name their children at birth (Carsten 1992, p. 28-29). It is thought that when
the umbilical cord is cut, the baby is its own independent identity with a name, a life force
(semangat) and a bound body (Carsten 1992, pp. 28-29). To ensure fluidity of identity, a
temporary name is often given by the midwife as she is cutting the umbilical cord, but it is
often changed after this (Carsten 1992, p. 29). Controversially, in other societies around the
world, children are named a significant amount of time after their birth. This is often done in
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naming ceremonies after the postpartum period of mother and infant (Beek 1992; Henderson
& Henderson 1982). In Wari societies though, infants only receive a personal name at the
time when they begin to interact with the wider community (Conklin & Morgan 1996, p.
672). Prior to this, infants are arawet which translates to still being made, and mother and
infant are classified as one unit (Conklin & Morgan 1996, p. 672). To avoid the feeling of
deep loss and sorrow if the baby dies, the Ayoreo community will not name their newborn
child until they are strong enough to not get sick and die, this may be weeks or even months
after birth (Bugos & McCarthy 1984, cited in Lancy 2013, p. 13). This is the same view
north-east Brazilians had in Scheper-Hughes (1985, p. 203) work, saying that babies are not
named or baptised until the baby can walk or talk. This means that the mothers need to
emotionally de-sensitise themselves from the baby until this time, so it is less painful if they
dont survive in their earlier age. This proves that name giving is directly linked to
personhood in many cultures and thus builds a stronger connection to the parents and
communities.
There are a number of things that need to be done post child birth. There are a lot of
similarities in a variety of cultures but all differ in a slight way. For example, most of the nonwestern references that have been listed here have a postpartum period to protect weak
mothers and newborn babies from evil spirits. However, the duration of these vary, with some
lasting a week (Bloch 1992; Davis-Floyd 1993; Moser 1982) and others as long as 40 days
(Carsten 1992; Beek 1992; Coklin & Morgan 1996). The placenta is buried usually in a
coconut underground to protect the childs soul from evil spirits (Aijmer 1992). The Malay
villagers add salt to the placenta as a way of assuring the separation between the living so the
spirits stays present (Laderman 1982, p. 94). Since the umbilical cord has power as it is the
link from the mother to the baby, it is often reused as medicine (Cedercreutz 1999, p. 99).
Often midwives are present during the birthing process and stay to care for the mother and
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child. They may not be needed anymore after the umbilical cord has fallen off (Cedercreutz
1999, p. 99) or after the celebrations following the postpartum period (Cosminsky 1982, p.
224). Ceremonies following this postpartum period often introduce the newborn to their
kinship and wider community by giving them a name and celebration (Beek 1992; Henderson
& Henderson 1982). This may include shaving the babys head to start a new life, ear
piercings and circumcision (Carsten 1992; McGilvray 1982). This is often the point at which
the child becomes its own identity and ultimately a person in the community.
So what do communities think about what it means to be recognised as a person in
their own society? Even though there are many similarities with rituals, spirits and
postpartum periods, there is still a huge range of diversity when it comes to labelling it in
their own societys. With the Malays community, the individual is recognised as a person
after six months of pregnancy as this is when the foetus receives a soul or nyawa (Carsten
1992, p. 28). This suggests that the Malay community defines the process of getting a soul
with humanity. It can be suggested that having a soul means having feelings, being aware of
what is around them, and is socially conscious. The Dogon community on the other hand,
start to classify their humans when the mother starts showing visible signs of pregnancy
(Beek 1992, p. 50). At 6 weeks, it is attributed to all of the essential human characteristics: a
body, intelligence and soul (Beek 1992, pp. 51-52), so consequentially, the baby has the age
of 8 months when born. Some cultures however do not recognise personhood at all; rather
they would say the start of a new life for mother and child after the post-partum period and
ceremony (Cosminsky 1982, p. 224; McGilvray 1982, p. 60). Generally, these definitions of a
person have been when the individual has a soul, a body and is ready to form social bonds
within the wider community.
It will now be discussed what it is to be a human in the western societies.
Chamberlain (2013), an American psychologist, states that an unborn babys heartbeat starts
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at about three weeks after conception; they start to sense touch at eight weeks, and are even
known to start dreaming as early as twenty-three weeks. Chamberlain relates the foetuss
development to our own bodies and relates this to personhood. The Australian Law requires a
register of birth and death certificates if a foetus passes away after 20 weeks gestation
(Bears of Hope 2013). This proves that by law, Australians consider a person at the age of or
after 20 weeks gestation. However, the United States Constitutions 14th Amendment states
that all persons born or naturalized in the United States, are citizens of the United States
(Legal Information Institute 2013). This statement, although not clarified, proves that in the
United States, babies are only recognised as a person after birth and thus only then, a member
of society. The same goes for the United Kingdom, where Nixon (2013) argues that
conception should be the point in which legal personality initiates. It shows that in Western
societies, that even if the individual had different views on personhood, the law will override
this. There are some similarities in the United States and the United Kingdom but Australian
law is different when it comes to unsuccessful pregnancies (including abortions, still births
and miscarriages.
Through discussion about different cultures and beliefs, it was argued that there is no
one universal definition of when an individual becomes a person. It was explained that the
point of conception cannot be distinguished either because some cultures believe the baby
originated in the fathers body for a certain amount of time before implementing in the
mother. And some believe the foetus takes the form as a spirit baby or the baby comes to
them in a dream. These samples were analysed and concluded that, the spirit of the baby was
communicating before conception and can be associated to personhood. Associating the
naming of the child to the recognition of personhood, it was discussed that no naming times
are the same and thus no same time of labelling a person. Using examples from naming
before, immediately after birth, and after the postpartum period supported this by linking
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their beliefs to their individual naming process. It was then discussed that most of the
resources available have one way or another had a period after birth where mother and child
were inside and away from the community. A ceremony often followed this to invite the
mother and baby into the community again and to have a new life. This is the point where
most children will become a person. It was then stated what communities thought as the
point in time their personhood got recognised e.g. first signs of pregnancy or when the baby
has a body and soul. Contrasting this was facts about Australian law and when a baby is
legally recognised by law. It was also argued that due to research, Chamberlian was able to
confirm at what stages foetuss feel and start sensing the world. It was then when the link to
personhood arose. The United States and United Kingdom are similar in their laws saying
that a person begins being recognised as a person at birth, whereas in Australia, the child is a
human with rights at 20 weeks after conception. This discussion has proven that there is no
universal stage at which an individual gets the status of a person - due to many factors, we are
all different.

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