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Review : Permeable and Partible Persons: A Comparative Analysis

of Gender and Body in South India and Melanesia

Written by Cecilia Busby in 1997, carried out fieldwork between 1991 and
1993. Article became part of a book published in 2000 entitled ‘The
Performance of Gender
An Anthropology of Everyday Life in a South Indian Fishing Village’ in
which she draws on the social theory of Judith Butler, Pierre Bourdieu and
Michel Foucault to highlight both the performativity of gender but also the
embodied notions of gender. Busby was influenced by Marilyn Strathern
(Dividual) who read an earlier draft of her work and offered some of her
own insight.

“This article puts into relief the concept of the partible person…Gender in
South India is fixed and stable, based on bodily difference between
women and men, and importantly focused on the capacity for procreation.
In Melanesia gender is performative, shifting and contextually defined.
This contrast related to differences between the two areas in notions of
the person and of the exchange of substances or parts of persons”

Busby is highlighting the differences in ways of viewing gender. She is

contrasting two different cultures that both view people as partible in
order to get a more nuanced understanding of gender than one might
acquire from comparing a partible culture to a western outlook that views
people as bounded individuals. “western anthropologists confront other
ways of understanding not with neutral analytical terms but with the
skeleton of their own society”

Her main argument is highlighting a most significant contrast in the

understanding of the person – in Melanesia, a person is seen as internally
divided and partible whereas in South India a person is viewed as
internally whole but with a fluid and permeable boundary.

Question? In the west can we be seen as completely bounded individuals

when it comes to gender or is there more of a similarity than we might
think with South India, and viewing our offspring as a continuation of

It could be argued that in many western societies we also have a fluid and
permeable boundary. We look to our children to be extensions of
ourselves, family members ‘share the same blood’, we look for our facial
features and characteristics in our children and wider family. Main
difference is that children are viewed as an equal mixture of mother and
father (girls not more connected to mother, boys not more connected to
father as in south India - Marianad)
If, in the west, we’re seen as an equal mixture between mother and father
surely we should be seen as a mixture of both male and female? Why are
we so fixated on genitals being the main signifier/definer of gender? Is it
because, similarly to Marianad (south India) there’s a strong correlation
between gender and our ability to procreate?

Things to use in presentation:

Link Werbner (2011. The charismatic individual and the Sacred self).
Christian belief of the ability of the holy spirit to enter humans is a strong
example of Dividuality.

Passing on of gendered substance. The links between women and

daughters and fathers and sons, are links of gender: a metaphoric relation
based on similarity merges with a metonymic one based on assumed
partial identity. Gender focused on the reproductive potential of women
and men.

Focus on reproduction clearly shown with a study of Hijra’s they are

defined, not by themselves but by other people as what they’re not, so
they’re defined negatively as neither man nor women because they are
not able to reproduce. Shows focus on reproduction for gendering of
people. (again is this not similar to our society, the most obvious portrayal
of a woman is as a mother. People who choose not to have children often
thought of as strange


While gender in South India is a fixed and stable attribute of the body,
gender in Melanesia appears to by primarily performative, concerned with
what people do (or how they do it) rather that what they are.

South india, male and femaleness in genitals, Melanesia, male and

femaleness form mosaic of different parts of the body


Busby C. (1997) ‘Permeable and Partible Persons: A Comparative Analysis

of Gender and Body in South India and Melanesia’ The Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute, Vol.3, No.2 pp.261-278. Published by: Royal
Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Accessed here:
Werbner, R. (2011). The Charismatic Dividual and the Sacred Self. Journal
of Religion in Africa, 41(2), 180-205. Accessed here: