Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Reflective Surfaces: the Individual as the Key Social Relationship in New Zealand Society

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posted on 2021-11-08, 21:57 authored by Wylie, Catherine Ruth

The variety of concerns and everyday practices found in the lives of members of Western societies has to some degree deterred their exploration by anthropologists. In this thesis, I hope to demonstrate that a commonality does indeed exist within and sustains this multiformity. However, it exists where we might least expect to find it: in a dialogue which takes place with reference to the physical person rather than, as in other societies, with reference to the relations between categories of people. This thesis posits that the individual is not merely a synonym for person, or human being, but a social mode of being which is characteristic of particular social formations, namely those of the industrialized West. By mode of being I refer to both human experience and the terms in which it is comprehended. The mode of being derives from two overlaid dialectics: the inner dialogue between what I have termed the active self and the sense of self, and the engagement between that dialogue and the stock of options available in any given social ambiance. The mode of being becomes individualistic (compared to those based on exchange, descent, patronage, hierarchy etc) when the inner dialogue refers back to itself, when it is stressed as the locus of reality. The sense of self can be seen as a reflective surface in which is caught the configuration of elements derived from the social options, a pattern which differs sufficiently from person to person for the active self to be affirmed as distinct amongst others, as 'individual'. In the body of this thesis, the constituents of this mode of being are articulated and explored through a spiralling sequence of portraits depicting nineteen individuals, their relationships, possessions, opinions, expectations and the concerns which colour their lives. Three prime styles of the individual mode emerge. The most common of these stresses complementarity, and so focuses on partnership in marriage, exemplified and made demanding (purposeful) by children and home ownership. Less common, though increasing in frequency, is the autonomous style, which focuses on the person as separate, on a capability which carries its owner through a range of situations in which its use refers solipsistically back to the person, demonstratrating to others, particularly peers, those like him or herself (more the former than the latter) his or her high worth. Finally there is the participant style, which in contrast to the other two is more open to options, more fluid; which if involved in family and house, or job, is unlikely to make of those the enclosures they form for the executors of the other two styles. This thesis attempts to refresh our understanding of both individuality and society; and to show that it is not possible to comprehend the former, even though we may sense its significance, unless we broaden our perception of the latter beyond something that is shared, stressing community and categorization, to encompass processes which may lack a shared flcus or ordering but which are nonetheless simultaneously common and transcendent.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Pouwer, Jan