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Contribution to Book
Chapter 09: Societal order, personhood, and human rights (the anthropology of constitutional justice)
Law and Anthropology - Outlines, Issues, Suggestions (2008)
  • Wolfgang Fikentscher
Inclusive online updates jan10. Next to family and kinship, society is the closest framework and mark of orientation to a “higher mammal” such as the human being (cf. Chapter 7; and I., below). Chapter 9 deals with societal and social ordering of human life and thus represent the “public side” of personhood. This gives rise to a simultaneous discussion of the concept of personhood in anthropology. Johann Wolfgang Goethe once remarked in his drama “Dr. Faustus”: “It’s in their gods that humans paint themselves” (In seinen Göttern malt sich der Mensch). Similarly, Goethe could have said: “In his companionships man paints himself”. Also he could have said: “It is in terms of family relationships that a person assumes the qualities and roles of its personhood”. Family, society and supranaturality define what a person is:because the three cultural tasks with which a human being is confronted is incest regulation, regulation of societal power, and regulation of human relationships with supranatural phenomena (see Preface, the last two paragraphs). In detail, Chapter 9 on human organizations contains a redesigned explanation of the segmented society (encompassing big man societies and chieftaincies), its history since Durkheim, its restatement by Evans-Pritchard, and its relation to other fragmented societies including Islamic societies. The focus on superaddition as gist of any organization (that deserves its Greek name) owes much to the Thai studies of the sociologist of law Ludwig Hamburger. Also, Chapter 9 attempts a correlation of cultural and economic development with systems of government and religion. This leads to an explanation of existing forms of government by what is called here the phenomenon of societal inertia. Again, the axial age will serve as a background.. The picture of any society also reflects how the persons who make up that society see themselves as a group. A dialectical relationship exists between the understanding of oneself and of one’s society.. It would mean putting the cart before the horse to start from a preconceived idea of a person (for example the individual which is typical for a western style society), and then try to study what kind of society is being formed by that kind of person (note that many anthropologists, political science experts, and sociologists, let alone psychologists, take this approach). Likewise, it would be wrong to simply postulate a society that works under certain observable, describable and obviously inherent rules, and then derive in a monocausal manner from that type of society and those rules a fitting idea of personhood (Emile Durkheim’s and his followers’ approach). Rather, societies constitute cultural qualities of their members, and persons define their societies contingent upon the way they define themselves as persons. In anthropology, in conformity to available and accepted generalizations, concepts of person and society may best be developed together (a principle that could be called personhood-society interdependence). This is not a gnostic statement on subject-object identification, but a consequence of what society and persons are as mutually reflective ideas: A Muslim is part of a Muslim type of society, the citizen of an ancient Greek city state is citizen in the sense of the polis, a Hinayana Buddhist monk is a member of his Wat (monastery) society, the President of Afghanistan is defined by his and his government’s understanding of what Afghanistan is today, an Amerindian is what his tribe or nation expects him and has educated him to be. These and other examples are used in the following text. Chapter 9 could be entitled “anthropology of organization” if the word organization would be used in a wide sense as human societal general. However, we will see that not every societal order is an organization in the strict sense of the term. Therefore, the word organization is not contained in the headline of Chapter 9, but the expression societal order instead. Keeping in mind this terminological remark it may be said: In spite of many known details and well researched materials, in theoretical respect ethnography, ethnology, and cultural anthropology of organization (Organisationsanthropologie) are noticeably underresearched. The Max-Planck- Institute for Multireligious and Multiethnic Societies, established in Göttingen (2008), under its director Steven Vertovec, may help fill this lacune.
  • interspecies associations,
  • segmentation,
  • societal inertia,
  • superaddition,
  • big man,
  • chieftaincies,
  • kingdoms,
  • individuality,
  • risk,
  • majority rule,
  • liminality,
  • Rites de passage,
  • sodalities. stratification,
  • Islam,
  • introduction of democracy
Publication Date
Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, C.H. Beck in Kommission
Citation Information
Wolfgang Fikentscher. "Chapter 09: Societal order, personhood, and human rights (the anthropology of constitutional justice)" MunichLaw and Anthropology - Outlines, Issues, Suggestions (2008)
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