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Department of Social Anthropology

Prof James Laidlaw: Recovering the Human Subject

Based on a conference held in Cambridge to mark Caroline Humphrey’s retirement from the Sigrid Rausing Professorship of Social Anthropology, this volume includes a reprint of Humphrey’s already classic 2008 article, ‘Reassembling Individual Subjects’, which serves as a focus for debate. Responding to decades of 'anti-humanist’ deconstruction of the idea of the human subject, and a sometimes knee-jerk anti-individualism, Humphrey asks what anthropologists should make of situations where the people they work with, not only in ‘the West’ but in very diverse societies, think emphatically in terms of particular, distinctive, individual human personalities, and where their accounts especially of dramatic social change turn on the decisions and actions of specific individuals. Even if the individual can no longer be taken for granted as a natural given, anthropologists need an account of how distinctive individual subjects come to be, and to be recognised as such. She offers an account on this, drawing widely on ideas from philosophy and psychology as well as anthropological theory. The contributors to this volume respond to Humphrey’s provocative and far-reaching argument, drawing on ethnography from across the world, to develop an account of the human subject which builds on, but also moves beyond, post-structuralist anti-humanism.