What is self? / an anthropological concept

A. I. Hallowell on ‘Orientations for the Self’

The following summary of Hallowell’s analysis as set out in his paper The self and its behavioral environment (most easily accessible as Chapter 4 of his book Culture and Experience (1955; 2nd Edition, 1971): University of Pennsylvania Press, has been taken from A. Lock (1981) Universals in human conception, in P.L.F. Heelas and A.J. Lock (eds.) Indigenous Psychologies: The Anthropology of the Self. London: Academic Press, pp19-36, with minor revisions.


Alfred IrvingPeteHallowell (1892–1974) was an American anthropologist, archaeologist and businessman. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania receiving his B.S. degree in 1914, his A.M. in 1920, and his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1924. He was a student of the anthropologist Frank Speck. From 1927 through 1963 he was a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania excepting 1944 through 1947 when he taught the subject at Northwestern University. Hallowell’s main field of study was Native Americans.


NOTE: I’m “looking into” concepts of “self” and “self-awareness” after confronting, over and over again, the claim that “some high number” of Asperger types lack “self-esteem” – another of those sweeping generalities that likely is a ‘social judgement’ from the “outsider” – parent, teacher, psychologist, counselor, therapist, hairdresser, clerk at convenience store, neighbor or any bystander caring to comment on child behavior. This “lack of self-esteem” has become a “fad, cliché, causal certainty” for almost any perceived “human behavioral problem” in American psychology, education, child-rearing, pop-science, media and common gossip. 

My observation of this presentation of “self” (in a socio-cultural context) is that it’s BAD NEWS for Asperger types, or any individual whose inclination is to “develop” his or her own particular expression of self. Here is the problem: self, self awareness, self-control, self-determination and the myriad applications of the concept of “self” are commonly held to be “real things”; they are not. As pointed out in the selection below, in “normdom” the self is “fictitious” – a creation of culture; culture is a creation of selves. 

If an individual is for some reason, “out of sync” with the concept of self that is a co-creation of “homogeneous individuals” who subscribe to the same “cultural code” of belief, behavior, and perception of “reality” – well, it’s obvious that one is “in trouble” from the start: How does one “grow, create, construct” a familiar, comfortable, interesting, exploratory concept of self in a hostile socio-cultural environment? Even more difficult is the “biological, evolutionary” possibility, that one’s brain organization, and indeed, one’s experience of the environment, and perceptual fundamentals, are truly “alien” to those of the majority.  

As for “self-esteem” – is this not a concept of social conformity? 

In contemporary culture, the selfie = the self. Posting selfies on social media advertises one’s conformity to a culturally “approved” definition of “self” – which for girls and women, is an “image only” competition for social status. The desperation of “adult” women to conform to “imaginary standards” results in some very regrettable behavior. 

If one’s internalized “picture” of self matches that of what is expected and demanded by the dominant culture, then one is judged to “have self-esteem”. Any person who doesn’t measure up to the cultural “image” (imaginary standard) lacks self-esteem. The most obvious example today, is the crisis of “self-hatred” in young women due to highly distorted “ideals” of body type, promoted by misogynistic American cultural standards. External form is declared to be the self.    


Excerpt. Full article: http://www.massey.ac.nz/~alock/virtual/hallowel.htm

This info is from the anthropological POV. 

Three things may be said about self-awareness:

(i) Self-awareness is a socio-cultural product. To be self-aware is, by definition, to be able to conceive of one’s individual existence in an objective, as opposed to subjective, manner. In G. H. Mead’s (1934) terms, one must view oneself from ‘the perspective of the other‘. Such a level of psychological functioning is only made possible by the attainment of a symbolic mode of representing the world. Again, this mode of mental life is generally agreed to be dependent upon the existence of a cultural level of social organization. We thus come to a fundamental, though apparently tautologous point: that the existence of culture is predicated upon that of self-awareness; and that the existence of self-awareness is predicated upon that of culture. In the same way as in the course of evolution the structure of the brain is seen as being in a positive-feedback relationship with the nature of the individual’s environment, so it is with culture and self-awareness: the self is constituted by culture which itself constitutes the self.

(ii) Culture defines and constitutes the boundaries of the self: the subjective-objective distinction. It is an evident consequence of being self-aware that if one has some conception of one’s own nature, then one must also have some conception of the nature of things other than oneself, i.e. of the world. Further, this distinction must be encapsulated explicitly in the symbols one uses to mark this polarity. Consequently, a symbolic representation of this divide will have become ‘an intrinsic part of the cultural heritage of all human societies‘ (Hallowell, 1971: 75). Thus, the very existence of a moral order, self-awareness, and therefore human being, depends on the making of some distinction between ‘objective’ (things which are not an intrinsic part of the self) and ‘subjective’ (things which are an intrinsic part of the self).

This categorical distinction, and the polarity it implies, becomes one of the fundamental axes along which the psychological field of the human individual is structured for action in every culture. … Since the self is also partly a cultural product, the field of behaviour that is appropriate for the activities of particular selves in their world of culturally defined objects is not by any means precisely coordinate with any absolute polarity of subjectivity-objectivity that is definable. (Hallowell, 1971: 84)

Similarly, Cassirer (1953: 262) in the context of kinship terminology, writes:

language does not look upon objective reality as a single homogeneous mass, simply juxtaposed to the world of the I, but sees different strata of this reality: the relationship between object and subject is not universal and abstract; on the contrary, we can distinguish different degrees of objectivity, varying according to relative distance from the I.

In other words, there are many facets of reality which are not distinctly classifiable in terms of a polarity between self and non-self, subjective or objective: for example, what exactly is the status of this page – is it an objective entity or part of its author’s selves; an objective entity that would exist as a page, rather than marks on a screen, without a self to read it? Again, am I responsible for all the passions I experience, or am I as much a spectator of some of them as my audience is? While a polarity necessarily exists between the two – subjective and objective/self and non-self – the line between the two is not precise, and may be constituted at different places in different contexts by different cultures. The boundaries of the self and the concomitant boundaries of the world, while drawn of necessity, are both constituted by cultural symbolism, and may be constituted upon differing assumptions.

(iii) The behavioural environment of individual selves is constituted by, and encompasses, different objects. Humans, in contrast to other animals, (that need for human exception again) can be afraid of, for example, the dark because they are able to populate it with symbolically constituted objects: ghosts, bogey men, and various other spiritual beings. (Supernatural, magical entities grew out of “real” danger in the environment: just as did “other” animals, we evolved in natural environments, in which “being afraid of the dark” is a really good reaction to the “the dark” because it’s populated by highly dangerous predators – it’s still a good “attitude” to have when in a human city today.)

As MacLeod (1947) points out,

purely fictitious objects, events and relationships can be just as truly determinants of our behaviour as are those which are anchored in physical reality. Yes, this is a serious problem in humans; the inability to distinguish natural from supernatural cause-explanation relationships leaves us vulnerable to bad decision-making and poor problem-solving.  

In Hallowell’s view (1971: 87):

such objects, (supernatural) in some way experienced, conceptualised and reified, may occupy a high rank in the behavioural environment although from a sophisticated Western point of view they are sharply distinguishable from the natural objects of the physical environment.* However, the nature of such objects is no more fictitious, in a psychological sense, than the concept of the self.

*This sweeping claim to “sophistication” is typical over-generalization and arrogance on the part of Western academics, who mistake their (supposedly) superior beliefs as common to all humans, at least in their cultural “fiefdoms”. The overwhelming American POV is highly religious, superstitious, magical and unsophisticated; the supernatural domain (although imaginary) is considered to be the source of power that creates “everything”. 

This self-deception is common: religion exempts itself from scrutiny as to its claims for “absolute truth” above and beyond any rational or scientific description of reality. It’s a case of, “You don’t question my crazy beliefs, and I won’t question yours.” 


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