On Personhood and its Subjunctivity

The following post reflects on shifting and malleable forms of personhood–a construct that we often consider to be a given and fixed throughout life. This is an enhanced version of some material originally appearing in Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. [1,300 words]

Elijah and I sat chatting with three elder men outside a compound. Earlier we were discussing spirits, but the postlunch conversation soon switched to more mundane topics. There was a brief lull in the conversation before Akolbire declared, to our astonishment, “I am a spirit child.”[i]

“What are you talking about? You shouldn’t be revealing this,” admonished a second, more vocal man sitting with us.

“These things are not to be shared. You should leave these things behind,” the third man added.

Akolbire ignored their reproaches and described the circumstances surrounding his childhood. “They went to the soothsayer and even brought the concoction man and gave me the medicine, but I didn’t die. Soon my mother was able to teach me how to walk. Now I am alive and strong. But if I die today, what will my family say? Am I still a spirit child to the community? People will still condemn me, so I wanted to reveal myself. [When I die] they will know that I am a spirit child.”

I was intrigued. Why would an adult willingly disclose that he is a spirit? While Akolbire’s disclosure would not result in immediate ostracization, his declaration nullified his status as a legitimate member of his lineage and the possibility that he would be regarded as an ancestor. To better understand spirit children and Akolbire’s circumstances necessitates an examination of Nankani personhood.

Mauss (1938) described personhood as a social fact rather than an individual phenomenon. Personhood is socially generated, culturally defined, and experienced in relation to the rights and responsibilities associated with one’s social role (Fortes 1987). Other anthropologists have described how personhood can even be bestowed upon other beings recognized within a society as having some degree of agency—trees, ancestors, spirits, and material objects can be defined as persons. Personhood is relationally generated. Meaning it is rooted in relationships with others and engendered through one’s morally acceptable behaviors. Personhood also encompasses one’s embodied status. Abnormality and debility, and their moral implications, can thus challenge definitions of personhood.


Personhood in a “Western” sense follows an ideology of individualism that ascribes family membership and personhood to the moment of one’s birth or, within some communities, conception. This pattern of instant and assumed personhood is not universal. Across societies, people often delay conferring personhood to children (see Lancy 2014). Personhood can also accumulate or be lost over time. The fact that personhood can be bestowed, contested, or denied points to how it is subject to power relations. Bob Desjarlais discussed how homeless people in Boston experience a dissolution of personhood. They were negated and reduced by isolation, disrespect, fear, and their prolonged exposure to the street (read more here). Examples abound demonstrating how personhood among the homeless or those with mental illnesses is remade and is contingent on their compliance with medicalized regimes, notions of independence, responsibility, and self-sufficiency, and neoliberal expectations of productivity.

Personhood among the Nankani is not immediately guaranteed, and one’s full status as a person is not known or bestowed until one dies. Hence, it is possible for an individual like Akolbire, despite his age, to not achieve personhood.

I liken personhood among the Nankani as a potentiality that dynamically accumulates throughout one’s life and can be questioned or withheld if one does not fit the necessary social expectations and characteristics. Similarly, John and Jean Comaroff (2001) offer a description of an “African personhood” involving the continuous and active practice of self-construction—or a cumulative gathering and exchange rather than passive accumulation—emphasizing one’s social position.

Expectations for personhood among the Nankani include reaching an old age, having children and a family, contributing to the household economy, participating in the sociopolitical system, and fulfilling other normative age- and gender-related social expectations and achievements. Personhood is also an outcome of one’s fate and the intercession of the ancestors. Divination during the final funeral rites determines the identity of the deceased and determines whether he or she was a true person for the family or, for example, a bush spirit masquerading as a person.

I characterize this tentative accumulation of the traits of personhood throughout the life course as subjunctive personhood—a form of personhood that is a contingent, potential, or prospective attribution. Subjunctive personhood is a state of possibility rather than inevitability. As individuals age, they accumulate the social and moral markers of personhood and enact a subjunctive form of “as if” that socially situates them in relation to others until it is rendered indicative after their death.

Inquiries concerning the status of future family members begin early. As family members determine if the new child is for the house, they inquire, through divination, whether the child is a normal human being (nirisaale vua, lit. “human alive”). This notion of humanness is the first prerequisite on the path to attaining personhood. The determination of whether an infant is a normal human being is dependent on its relationship with the ancestral world and the ancestors’ declarations obtained through divination, the infant’s physical and behavioral characteristics, and the circumstances surrounding its birth.

woman1gSpiritual entities are not human beings, are not for the house, and cannot become persons. Children identified as evil spirits do not have the potential to enter into meaningful relations and take on appropriate responsibilities within the domestic sphere and the larger social environment. While families are vigilant over infants, some spirits can be quite deceptive, appearing normal and feigning appropriate social relations into adulthood.

The assignment of humanness and the initial kernel of subjunctive personhood to infants and children is a dynamic process fraught with uncertainty. In the case of spirit children, interpretations are variable and families remain open to alternatives and consider new evidence, ranging from changes in health to shifts in ancestral sentiment. In these cases, families sometimes determine the child to be a neutral or good spirit and no action is taken. This is likely what occurred in Akolbire’s case after he survived the concoction and reached a developmental milestone. However, the suspicions surrounding his identity remained. Ultimately, one can never be too sure about the status of others, even family members, their intentions, and their statuses as members of the house.

Akolbire’s disclosure gives some insight into the construction of personhood and spirit—family relations. Akolbire openly declared his nonpersonhood and, by extension, his ineligibility to be an ancestor. Why would he condemn himself? It is likely that the divination session following his death would have revealed the truth anyway. His case was intriguing because he knew he was not a person, whereas other individuals might go through life unaware that they are spirits.

Personhood is a distinctive part of morality that characterizes who is socially recognized within the community. For the Nankani, personhood is not necessarily an either/or proposition, but a subjunctive state of becoming that is intersubjective and intercorporeal. Personhood is subject to one’s membership and contributions to the family, embodied status, behaviors, and forms of exchange and reciprocity expected of a family and community member. While a Nankani individual might appear to be a person, his or her true identity, like a person’s true intentions, might never be known until it is revealed after death. This results in an interesting paradox. One can appear and act as one is if a person throughout life, building a case for personhood, but it is not until death that this status is ultimately achieved.

[i] A child believed to be a non-human spirit sent to cause misfortune. Some children are given a concoction that causes death. Read more about what a spirit child is here: https://aarondenham.com/2017/10/13/an-introduction-to-spirit-children-the-case-of-nma/

Check out my other essays and reflections here


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