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Sökefeld, Martin (1999): Debating Self, Identity, and Culture in Anthropology. In: Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, No. 4: pp. 417-447




This paper explores relations between "identity" and "self"—concepts that tend to be approached separately in anthropological discourse. In the conceptualization of the self, the "Western" self, characterized as autonomous and egocentric, is generally taken as a point of departure. Non-Western (concepts of) selves — the selves of the people anthropology traditionally studies — redefined by the negation of these qualities. Similar to anthropological conceptualizations of identity, this understanding of non-Western selves points exclusively to elements shared with others and not to individual features. Consequently, anthropological discourse diverts attention from actual individuals and selves. A different approach is exemplified by a case from northern Pakistan in a social setting characterized by a plurality of contradictory identities. It is argued that an analysis of how a particular individual acts in situations involving contradictory identities requires a concept of a self as it emerges from the actions of individuals that is capable managing the respectively shared identities. Besides any culture-specific attributes, this self is endowed with reflexivity and agency. This concept of self is a necessary supplement to the concept of culture in anthropology and should be regarded as a human universal.