Complex Personhood

Complex personhood is a term used to describe the idea that individuals have multiple identities, experiences, pedagogies, values, and thoughts – that may even seem contradictory or antagonistic. 

As Rachel Schiff describes in analyzing Avery Gordon’s book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, complex personhood is:

“…the idea that people are shaped by multiple histories and personal agency,which is affected by the interaction of their multiple histories. Thus, the way in which people describe and tell stories about their lives and society at large is entangled in past personal history, experience, imagination, and cultural tales. In this Gordon is suggesting that our lives are not as straightforward as they seem, to ourselves and to others observing our lives.”

To sum that up in less academic terms – I can both believe in feminism and find Tosh.0 funny – those two things do not need to be mutually exclusive. Although I may believe that Tosh.0 is offensive sometimes, there is another part of me that just wants to laugh it off and not view the show through that critical social justice lens. As much as I subscribe to feminist ideals, I also recognize the need to be flexible with my values and be able to metaphorically take off my feminist hat since it can be burdensome (and even painful) to wear at all times and in all situations. 

Contrary to a lot of forced dichotomies (working class vs. upper class, White vs. Black, East vs. West) – everyday life is much too complicated to be easily defined by one singular thing. Calling yourself one word – such as “yuppy” or “feminist” is far too restricting to be realistic and can only lead to guilt and confusion when you inevitably must act or think outside of that narrow identity. No one is only an artist or exclusively a banker or solely a parent; we all have multiple identities. And while some of them are deemed more or less desirable by society (saying you spend your Saturdays volunteering is much more socially acceptable than saying your hobby of choice is playing violent video games) – denying, hiding, or silencing certain parts of your life or experiences is akin to trying to erase parts of yourself that inherently define the make up of your personhood and how you see the world. 

How does the term complex personhood relate to you and your experiences?



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