Mary Douglas and Steven Ney. Missing Persons: A Critique of Personhood in the Social Sciences. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 223 pp., $US 25.00 cloth.

Missing Persons is an ambitious book - ambitious in the sense that it is interdisciplinary in the full meaning of the term. The volume addresses a series of questions which transcend more limited disciplinary boundaries and it does so by engaging a wide range of literature. Arguments here are painted with a large brush and the sweeping strokes which are used to bolster the authors’ claims are apt to understate the subtleties and diversities found within various disciplinary areas. At the risk of being charged with failing to live up to the interdisciplinary challenge of the text, I will leave my colleagues in cognitive psychology to respond to the charge that they “subscribe to something like the eighteenth-century illusion of the feral child” (p. 79) and those in emotions research to address the claim that “emotions may be there, but they explain nothing” (p. 147). Rather, I wish to place the central project of the book in relation to sociology - in particular interpretive sociology.

Douglas and Ney undertake the sort of theoretical task that can make one quite unpopular. By advocating a multi-dimensional conceptualization of the person the authors endow the concept with an essential quality which demands attention by any adequate theory of group life. “Person” belongs with notions like “culture,” “language,” “social,” “action,” and “society.” These are concepts about which every discipline and theoretical tradition within the social sciences must be conversant. That it could be otherwise seems farcical - allowing for utterances such as “it is a wonderful socio-economic model except for the bit about the people.” Clearly, a flawed “theory of the person” is of sufficient magnitude to destroy any house of cards built upon it. Make no mistake, Douglas and Ney are in the demolition business.

Their target of choice is a synthesis of their own creation that they have named Homo œconomicus. It is not the construct itself which is central to their position but rather the process by which a rational-choice model of the person has become pervasive and the implications for our social science of importing an ego-centred, culturally-inattentive understanding of the person. Douglas and Nye’s position is both simple and clear - while economic man serves the professional needs of the theorist (notably by allowing for the pretense of objectivity) it is ultimately an inadequate model for the rationalities of human action. The consequences of this assertion are illustrated throughout the text and are typified by the charge levelled against Allardt, who is accused of “trying to have a theory of personal development without any coherent theory of what a person is” (p. 51).

So what is to be done? The authors argue the solution is to be found in the extension of cultural theory to a theory of the person. By drawing upon a cultural model which posits four, and only four, stable organizational forms (or cultural biases) we see the creation of “four whole persons”. Through a two-by-two table organized around the variables “structure” and “incorporation” the authors articulate a version of self which accompanies a commitment to each quadrant.
In the individualist quadrant the person is expected to be robust; in the egalitarian quadrant, fragile; in the isolate’s quadrant, mysteriously unpredictable; and in the hierarchical one, in need of structure (p. 108).
All of this is well and good if the solution to the problem of Homo œconomicus is to be found in more of the same. While perhaps more reflective and thoughtful than earlier variants, we are ultimately left with more boxes inside of little boxes. Douglas and Ney suggest that “by reducing the viable number of ways of living in society to a list of four, cultural theory affords a flexible way of thinking about the inherently social human person” (p. 105). This is flexibility in much the same way that Parsons is flexible - fully responsive to any circumstance which is tailored to fit. His was a theory of structure to which was attributed an elasticity which transcended issues of scale. Here we have much the same - a theory of culture applied to the person.

The strength of the position that is argued here is that it affirms the priority of the social person above that of the rational actor. In so doing it affirms that there are multiple ways of acting “rationally” and it locates claims of rationality within a cultural context. There is an interest in the situational, in choice-making, in selecting from lines of action, in developing allegiances and abandoning them. However Douglas and Ney’s person is so deeply politicized, so imbued with the conflict borrowed from cultural theory that the authors are vulnerable to the charge of having done for the concept of the person what they so passionately resist of the economist. Even though Homo politicus would be a more lively dinner companion, caution is warranted here as I fear “he” walks no more upright than Homo œconomicus.

If we are to reclaim the person in our sociology it is not to be found within culture, or economics or the polity. The person is not a structural product. It is a processual accomplishment. This was Mead’s lesson and Blumer’s insight. Unfortunately neither merit attention in this volume, and it is poorer for it.

Scott Grills
Augustana University College

January 1999
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