This paper explores the ways in which the concept of the “dividual” has functioned as a heuristic device for varied forms of anthropological thinking. Anthropologists study different cultures or societies to reconsider their own (often Western or universal)concepts. However, that has led to controversy, especially in terms of essentializing the “other” by exaggerating and reifying differences between “us” and “them.” This paper avoids the tension inherent in the binary of the Western/universal self and non-Western/local personhood by exploring “dividuality.” Dividuality, as opposed to individuality, has taken form through comparisons not only between the West and non-West, but also between two non-Western areas, namely South Asia and Melanesia. This paper extends the comparative enterprise to also take into account the di erent theoretical discussions that helped shape the concept in di erent ways across regions. Rather than relying on the conventional, linear assumption that concept-making is a matter of abstraction that necessary follows the concrete specificities of ethnographic data, the dividual offers a particularly strong illustration of the co-emergence of data and theory.
Section II examines the Indian model of the dividual. David Schneider, emphasizing the importance of natives’ categories, proposed a framework with substance and code comprising American kinship. In McKim Marriott’s Indian ethnosociology, those elements were combined as inseparable “substance-codes,” exchanged by transactions of food, sexual fluids, or everyday conversations. The personhood thus constituted was dividual. In the Indian context, dividuality supported Marriott’s critique of Louis Dumont’s rigid dualism, centering on purity and impurity, since it emphasized the more dynamic and uid exchanges of substances. In spite of that, the Indian model was neglected for decades, most importantly because Marriott’s ethnosociological inquiry focused only on pure indigenous categories in an isolated way, which reinforced the assumption of different, Western categories.
Section III traces how the dividual was subsequently recovered and applied to Melanesian anthropology. Roy Wagner transported David Schneider’s model to Melanesia, and Marilyn Strathern extended Wagner’s argument by transforming the dividual to explore the main topics of contemporary Melanesian studies. In particular, central to Strathern’s endeavor was a critique of mainstream Marxist feminist theory deployed to analyze systemic gender inequalities in Melanesia, and her alternative elaboration of the gender of the gift. Of equal importance were Wagner’s heuristic approach toward Melanesian personhood and Strathern’s strategy of continuous comparison between Melanesian and Euro-American contexts. Rather than seeking local dividual personhood or indigenous categories, their projects have suggested how individuals emerge through dividuality. Because of that attitude, their arguments were widely influential among Melanesianists, who sought novel explanations for continuities and changes in Melanesian societies. Furthermore, Strathern has re-contextualized her idea of dividuality to the West, drawing an analogical comparison between the dividual in Melanesian personhood and merographic relations in English kinship.
The final section summarizes differences in concept-making between Indian ethnosociology and the Melanesian heuristic approach. Moreover, juxtaposing the Indian model with contemporary situations, it suggests fresh insights for understanding humanity when individuality is not taken for granted.