Introduction: What is an individual? The view from Christianity

Jon Bialecki, Girish Daswani


The introduction to this special section of HAU focuses on the tensions between individualism and dividualism as modes of personhood; while this essay approaches this foundational anthropological question through recent debates in the anthropology of Christianity, its larger concern is to reopen the question of in/dividualism in order to see whether we can imagine different relations between these two forms of being. As part of this discussion, this introductory essay rehearses the history of individualism and dividualism as concepts, reviews the current controversy over partible Christian personhood in Melanesia, and attends to recent debates about the relation between religion, the nation, and the state in Papua New Guinea that have followed from defacement of the Papuan Parliament Building. Synthesizing this material, we argue for a shift in framing of the question of in/dividualism. Rather than viewing dividualism and individualism as merely heuristics, or as vying but extant modes of organizing the subject, we suggest that in/dividualisms are best thought of as actualizations of a unitary underlying generative problematic. This is a problematic not merely for the anthropologist but for the anthropologist’s interlocutors as well; and as this problematic is worked through in various locales, we should expect not merely a wide variety of dividual and individual crystallizations of the person but also we should anticipate particular ethnographic milieus expressing complex emergent relations between the various extant dividualisms and individualisms.


individualism, dividualism, Christianity, personhood, relationality

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.013