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Debate: The Relation, Not the Person, is the Elemental Unit of Society

Info: 2470 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 18th May 2020 in Society

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Debate: The Relation, Not the Person, is the Elemental Unit of Society

    Semiotics plays a key role in how we understand the world. Everything we understand as human beings come from sets of signs and symbols. Saussure discusses culture as being made up of these signs and symbols, applying Hegel’s dialectic structure to theorize how signs and symbol create societies through cultural evolution. Something important that we must consider is that in Saussure’s application of Hegel’s dialectic structure there is the possibility that some ideas dominate or break away to create new coexisting or new dominating systems. This explains the multitudes of societies, those living and dead. Another factor to consider is the migration of humans and how geography has affected the interactions within the structure.

    If we accept all of these assumptions, then we can infer that all societies and their respective cultures do not evolve in the same way, despite universalities we might perceive exist based upon being part of the human family. These signs and symbols that makeup cultures and societies dictate our definitions of the person, the individual, and self. Although terms like person, self, and individual can be interchangeable, they can also be defined as separate ideas. When looking at the debate— the relation, not the person, is the elemental unit of society— I feel that these terms of personhood can be interchangeable and that we should take a page from Marilyn Strathern and not put ourselves in a box through excessive defining of terms.

    Based upon the linguistic structure of the debate topic, the person and the relation are placed in opposition to each other. Rather than viewing the person and the relation as being in opposition, I argue that in reality they exist as more of a binary within society, and work together to ground the singular within the multiple. In order to further analyze the idea of the person and the relation as a binary, I want to analyze the discussion on the debate topic through Marilyn Strathern’s The Relation (1995). Then I want to bring both sides of the debate together by examining narcissistic personality disorder or NPD, in order to show that when the self or the relation becomes dominant, that the individual becomes inhibited from functioning within society.

    When analyzing this debate, we must discuss Marilyn Strathern’s The Relation, as the originator of the debate. Something I found very notable was that in The Relation, Strathern never explicitly dismisses the influence of the self within society. The fact that she focuses in on the relation and its role, without the mention of the influence of the self, is where most of the critique stems from. Strathern’s ideas surrounding the relation was born out of literature surrounding gift exchange and her experience with kinship relations in Melanesia. The basis of her theory is that because we live in societies, from the moment of birth, we are bound within the relation through familial relationships, she says, “”(). Strathern believed that in centering the relation, anthropological study becomes more empirical, decentering the “savage” and their customs.

    In general, I think Strathern does a very good job of proving her position, but there are some points she makes that are not logically applicable when we take the self into account. I agree with Strathern in that we are bounded to the relation at birth through kinship ties. However, I think that as individuals develop, a sense of self emerges to work in tandem with the relation. Strathern’s centering of the relation in order to make anthropological work more objective, more empirical, is a common idea in anthropological history. It is the desire to legitimize anthropology as a discipline of science.

    The problem with this is it moves anthropology toward its colonialist origins and opens up implications of ethnocentric attitudes. Strathern argued that an empirical centering of the relation de-centers the colonial narrative, but it actually pulls the anthropologist into a possibly problematic grey area and away from a more holistic form of practice that represents more aspects of social life. As proven by the development of anthropological study it is possible to move away from colonialist attitudes, de-centering the “savage”, without focusing solely on the relation.

    Strathern explores this idea of the inherency of the relation through many different avenues. She starts at the most fundamental level of biology giving examples of mother birds and chicks, “”(). Strathern is implying that the relation exists in nature between animals. She applies this to the formation of society through the discussion of kinship relationships and the socialization process individuals experience in the household. Because we are embedded in the relation, it becomes enacted through social life. Strathern viewed the relation as “the means to organize the self” () and the key to understanding kinship relations.

    Strathern’s example of the relation in nature implies that the relation is biologically embedded within the individual. I think she is both right and wrong in some sense. The relation becomes “biologically” embodied through evolution. Some species, like turtles, never develop a parental relation because of the course of evolutionary development. For humans, we developed that sense of relation as an evolutionary means for genetic survival. Kinship relations are not coded into our DNA as Strathern is implying, but rather it is an embodied practice that gets passed on through socialization. Strathern’s ideas on how the relation interacts with society makes sense, she just forgets that it is individuals who create and enact the relation.

    I also believe Strathern is partially correct in believing that the relation is the means to organize the self. In the world, there are many cultures and societies, and because they have all developed differently, there are varying levels of importance placed on the relation or the individual. I think her statement is correct when discussing cultures like the ones she studied in Melanesia, where kinship ties and collectivism are stronger cultural values. But in a country like the United States, ideas of individualism and autonomy are more prevailing. I would argue that in this case, the society favors the individual to the relation. It would be more accurate to say that the self is the means to organizing the relation.

    Strathern also theorizes that the enactment of these social relations is how culture becomes reproduces through the performance of things like gender, which becomes embedded within social relationships. Strathern analyzed the relation through feminism in order to show how it had informed the societal ideas surrounding gender dynamics. Strathern believed that inequality existed within the relation. She believed that is was not about distinguishing individuals as being unequal, but pinpointing the anomaly in the relation that allowed the inequality in the first instance.

    I believe Strathern’s feminist analysis of the relation, supports a more modern definition of feminism which could be applied to current debates in gender relations. Even so, I think based upon the time she developed her feminist analysis, I would argue that it does not acknowledge the geographical and historical origins that surround feminism. Because feminism grew from western thought, and the social and cultural understandings of western women, her arguments from a feminist perspective does not make sense. This is because she is applying it to a context in Melanesia, where values surrounding gender relations differ significantly.

    In order to strengthen my argument that the relation and the self exist within a binary, I want to discuss a case where people experience levels of the self or the relation in the extreme, and how it affects social functionality. The reason why I want to discuss narcissistic personality disorder, between a parent and child, is because it shows a clear connection between the relation and the self. In this kinship situation, we can see how the self can affect the relation through the parent, and how the relation can affect the self in the child.

    In Nina Brown’s Book Children of The Self Absorbed (2008 [2001]), she explains how NPD, is formed in a person. She asserts that everyone has a level of healthy narcissism, which equates to the self. There is also pathological narcissism, an overabundance of self, and an in-between, where self is regulated in some aspects but not all. Brown clarifies that the in-between area contains behaviors and attitudes expected from children and those who are not fully mature. Brown says, “Self-absorption occurs when there is a continual and extreme focus on one’s self in almost every situation and circumstance.” (2008 [2001]. pp 5).

    People with NPD act to only benefit themselves and display extreme attitudes and behaviors of grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy, extensions of self, impoverished self, attention seeking, admiration seeking, shallow emotions, envy, contempt, arrogance and exploitation of others. When a person has NPD, their relationships in society become centered around themselves and their expectations of others is that they must follow. When people refuse to be in a dominating relationship and limit the relation, the person with NPD will attribute the break in the relation to a problem with others rather than themselves.

    When a parent has NPD, this results in a relationship with their child that focuses on the parent’s needs and development rather than the child’s. This results in a kinship structure where the child is expected to care for the parent’s needs above their own. The parent will assume responsibility for the child’s achievements despite having no involvement, and the parent becomes intolerant of the child’s values and needs. This becomes detrimental for the child’s development of self. Because of this extreme situation of the relation and the power structure of the kinship relation, the child is always beholden to their parent. Even when the child becomes an adult, their autonomy is still limited and they may continue to behave as extensions of the parent.

    The effects of what Brown has called reverse parenting is that the child becomes very emotionally susceptible; an insufficient development in the psychological boundary between persons. This is where we can see the child has a lack of self, in order to regulate and navigate relationships outside of their narcissistic parent. As an adult, the child will tend to perceive themselves as always being impudent or wrong, betrayed and ashamed, not valued and respected, uncomfortable, over-emotional, selfish, bullied, or depressed in their interactions with others.

    In the second chapter of her book, Brown discusses how the lack of autonomy for the child can damage self-esteem, affecting adulthood. Brown explains that “There can be numerous lingering effects of your parent’s self-absorption because your self was injured and not allowed to be fully developed,” (2008 [2001]. pp 29). Brown goes on to discuss how parental messages of limited self become embodied to affect the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the child; extending into adulthood. This affects beliefs of the self, how the child perceives themselves and how they perceive others as viewing them. This way of self-regulation inhibits the child’s relationships as being one-sided, limiting their agency in order to please the people around them. This can take a toll on the mental health of the child, leading them to believe that they must always be perfect, take care of and see to the needs of others, hide their true selves, and that they are unable to change. This can lead the child to self-deprecation and disregard their own needs and wants.

    Another way that NPD can have effects in a kinship structure, is that the child can take on characteristics of NPD that they have learned through socialization. This not only can create tension within the kinship structure for the child as an adult, but it can also affect the relation outside of kinship structures. Adult children who take on characteristics of NPD can fall into similar patterns of the relation as their parent, or it can intensify the other effects of NPD associated with self-esteem and autonomy. Through both the parent and the child we can see how an emphasis on the relation or a limitation on the self can be detrimental in the person’s ability to function within society.

`    Societies and cultures are continually evolving and changing, and how we organize ourselves differ greatly based on time frame and location. We cannot maintain our explanations of organization based on this fact. Even so, however we evolve there is still some practical insight in the older methods of organization that existed within those societal values, as proven by our analysis and debate of Marilyn Strathern’s The Relation.

    Through Nina Brown’s explanation of narcissistic personality disorder, we can more clearly see the binary between the relation and the self rather than seeing them as oppositions. Viewing the self and the relation as a binary can move us away from a one-sided point of view, towards a more holistic anthropological approach. We must also realize that the self and the relation exist in varying levels in different societies. These levels are based upon the cultural significance they place on values of kinship and of individualism. In recognizing this, we must be wary of which ideas we apply to which cultures and how they become decontextualized.


  • Brown, N. 2008 [2001]. Children of the Self-Absorbed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. 2: 1-73.
  • Strathern, M. 1995. The Relation. Cambridge: Prickly Pear Pamphlets. 6: 6-3.


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