The ‘poetics of personhood’ in Mediterranean societies. Jill Dubisch

The narrative of honour and shame in the Mediterranean has not only played out in anthropology but also in books and films. Whilst it is possible that the prevalence of this notion has diminished throughout history due to social change, anthropologists, such a Jill Dubisch (2009), seem to argue that the concept of honour and shame is no longer so commonly portrayed in the Mediterranean, and if present, it is quite different than one would expect.

Drawing from Michael Herzfeld’s work, Dubisch (2009) expands on his ‘poetics of manhood’ and introduces the ‘poetics of personhood’. The thesis of this essay is to explore whether Jill Dubisch’s (2009) ‘poetics of personhood’ adds anything new to our understanding that honour and shame as a moral code, rigidly determines a Mediterranean person’s behaviour.

Honour and Shame

To expand on this idea, one must first understand what the paradigm of honour and shame in the Mediterranean consists of. In order to explain this, it might be useful to start out as Julian Pitt-Rivers (1997) did, by discussing the importance of reputation in a Mediterranean community.

honour and shame in the mediterranean

A good or bad reputation depends on the opinion of others, and thus, as Jill Dubisch (2009) relates, it is a “community opinion” (pp. 4) that effects whether one should retain their honour. As a result, one must be wary of what one does in public, as their actions (whether truly occurring  or not) depend on public opinion.

Pitt-Rivers (1997) conveys that when is comes to “repute, honour and shame are synonymous” (pp.20), in view of the fact that having no shame is considered to be dishonourable. Therefore, someone with a good reputation is virtuous of having both honour and shame, whilst someone having neither is considered to have a bad reputation (Pitt-Rivers, 1997).

For people to have good repute, to have honour and shame, they must be loyal and honest (Pitt-Rivers,1997). That being said, this proposed moral code of behaviour does not apply to all and sundry in the same way, to the point where honour and shame are “no longer synonymous” (Pitt-Rivers, 1997, pp.20).

Gender Differences in Honour and Shame

There are distinct differences in what honour and shame demands from a woman and a man.  

In the case of women, their honour is closely tied to their chastity (Pitt-Rivers, 1997). Consequently, proper women are those who are bashful and diffident relating their virtuous attributes to shame rather than honour (Pitt-Rivers, 1997).

Conversely, men are more closely related to honour and are seemingly constantly defending it, both for their sake and that of their family (Pitt-Rivers, 1997). Men, are therefore, encouraged to engage in physical conflict  and (Pitt-Rivers, 1997).  

It is interesting to note that men are, in a sense, excused from the bounds of sexual purity and that the only lack of sexual piety a man’s honour can be tainted by is that of his female kin who are the greatest threat to his honour (Dubisch, 2009).

In her lecture, Dubisch (2009) also relates that while men are more associated with the proper aspects of religion, such as priesthood, women are more closely linked to the perversion of it, such as witchcraft.

She also conveys that through their different significant actions, i.e. the woman caring for the domestic household and the man defending its honour, women are something of private figures while the male’s activity is public (Dubisch, 2009).

Whilst taking all this into consideration, Jill Dubisch (2009) did point out some criticisms regarding this view. She conveys that some consider the people who wrote about honour and shame to be either mistaken, wrongly inferring or only observing small communities where this might be the case.

While she asserts that places like Greece have changed from the 1960’s she refrains from committing herself to any of these critiques. It is useful to add that Paul Sant Cassia (1991) relays that anthropology has had the tendency of interacting with ideas rather than with observable individuals.

In spite of this, it is interesting to consider that Baldacchino (2019) stated that one cannot exclude the idea of honour from the Mediterranean. Rather than that, he conveys that there are “different senses of honour within a particular cultural environment” (pp. 102-103) and that it thus must be studied case by case (Baldacchino, 2019).

honour and shame

Culture Changes over Time

Jill Dubisch (2009) highlights the fact that the actual flaw with the honour and shame concept  in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean (and other areas)  is that it is seen as fixed and unchanging rather than an observed aspect which logically fits into the societal system. 

She explains how her own fieldwork in Greece led her to approaching the idea of honour and shame in a different way (Dubisch, 2009). During her fieldwork, she found that reality did not reflect what she had read in anthropological text (Dubisch, 2009).

Contrary to what was previously mentioned, for example, she found that  women could be considered to have honour. Dubisch (2009) recalls that in his work, Michael Herzfled gave the idea that the men of Crete are involved in what he called ‘the poetics of manhood’ which is a somewhat public portrayal that depicts just what being a man is all about.

As Dubisch (2009) states, Michael Herzfeld held that ‘poetics’ (or performance for Dubisch) has three criteria: the operating formation of sense, the multiple degree of societal conditions and the extrovertive distortion of the standard mould within bounds. In light of the fact that it is presumed women’s lives are performed privately (as previously mentioned), it seems like there cannot be any ‘poetics of womanhood’ (Dubisch, 2009). However, as stated by Dubisch (2009), Michael Herzfeld views women’s seemingly timid behaviour as the ‘poetics of womanhood’.

Dubisch (2009) begins to introduce her ‘poetics of personhood’ by discussing a 1980s anthropological approach of viewing culture as a performance with society as the stage. Whilst adopting this view, she asserts that it is imperative that one considers the socio-economic and history that may have affect a society.

By using James Fernandez’s words to illustrate what she wishes to convey she goes on to say that when one conducts oneself self in a socially acceptable way, it is a performance (Dubisch, 2009).

She conveys that she encountered many instances of this during her fieldwork in Greece and that she often felt like many events were carried out in a stage-like manner (Dubisch, 2009).

She recounts her observation on the ‘performance’ or ‘poetics’ of the women in Tinos on 25th March, the Feast of the Annunciation. During the pilgrimage, women were moving towards the church on all fours with babies on their back, no doubt suffering while doing so (Dubisch, 2009).

Dubisch (2009) claims that these women were acting in this manner as an outward performance to exhibit that they were fulfilling their duties as women who cared for the physical and spiritual needs of their household and were willing to suffer for it.

Gender differences, she declares, might serve as a hindrance in recognising important aspects of community life (Dubisch, 2009). She claims that just as there are similarities which apply to both women and men with the honour and shame paradigm, there are performative roles which apply to both genders (Dubisch, 2009).  

In order to illustrate this she gave the example of a divorced father who was sacrificing his time in order to cater to the needs of his son, thus resembling the role of the suffering mother (Dubisch, 2009). As a result, she conveys that we can use the ‘poetics of personhood’ to understand the performative social roles of both men and women because whilst men/women might perform certain roles fitting into the their gender description more often, it is applicable to all (Dubisch, 2009).

Thus, this is an operating and pliable moral code (Dubisch, 2009). Dubisch (2009) herself adds why her theory adds to our understanding. She relates that these ideas are important to discuss as notions similar to that of honour and shame create a somewhat socially constructed divide between groups of people (2009). In a way, these concepts tend to help societies relate to one another but also has the potential to detach them.

Consequently this creates a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which is quite common when examining cultures. The notion of honour and shame, which cannot be forgotten, also echoes a dated approach in anthropology. Unsurprisingly, Dubisch (2009) conclusion is very different to that given by Pitt-Rivers (1977) where he conveys how honour serves as a tool that administers different positions of power in society and the exemplifies how a person should act. Pitt-Rivers (1977) also presents an image that the idea of honour keeps society’s systems running smoothly.

Linguistic Traditions

There is also a linguistic characteristic tied to honour and shame. Pitt-Rivers (1997) conveys that this can be found Andalusia where many terms are found in their vocabulary to convey different situations – “los sin vergüenza” (pp.7) refers to someone who is dishonourable and to whom no respect is ever shown, whilst “darle vergüenza” (pp.21) means to make one ashamed.

Dubisch (2009) also recalls the term filotimo, which is male term meaning love of honour in Greece, being surprisingly used in various situations, such as an interaction between women. As a result this also led her to re-assess the boundaries in which honour and shame are controlled by. She also imparted that the word for shame, dropi, could be used to mean shy or ashamed through drepetai (Dubisch, 2009)Jean-Paul Baldacchino (2019) showed how Unur has the double meaning of both honour and pride while Gieh can be used to mean both honour and honesty in Maltese.

Through this definition it could be argued that Jill Dubisch’s work on the ‘poetics of personhood’ definitely adds to our understanding as most concepts (even the ones we don’t agree with) do. This is due to the fact that her understanding correlates well with how cultures operate.

Cultures and societies, just like people, morph and expand, which is reflected  in the ‘poetics of personhood’ which allow for a person’s actions to be perceived in a meaningful way regardless of gender. Her work may be more useful for our comprehension of the world now more than ever with the evolution of social movement and globalization which has arguably had quite an influence on the Mediterranean. Not to mention the fact that the countries in/surrounding  the Mediterranean Sea have long been areas of “major trade and piracy centres, sources of emigration and immigration, and multiethnicity” (pp.7) which has resulted in a cultural infusion (Sant Cassia, 1991).

One may also find her view interesting as it can be seen that through these ‘performances’, caused by social conditioning, people are reinforcing certain cultural norms or exhibiting the emergence of new ones which could not have been portrayed through the honour and shame explanation.


In conclusion, through understanding what is meant by the honour and shame paradigm and examining Jill Dubisch’s (2009) reasoning one could come to their own understanding to whether her work adds to their understanding. By virtue of living on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, the way the ‘poetics of personhood’ could be performed and how they can be used to understand Mediterranean cultures, is recognised.


Baldacchino, J.P., 2019. Is There No Honour among the Maltese? Paradigms of Honour in a Mediterranean Moral Economy. Anthropological Journal of European Cultures. New York: Berghan Books., 28 (1), pp. 94-113. URL accessed 05/06/2021: doi: 10.3167/ajec.2019.280112

Dubisch, J., 13/09/2009. Toward a “Poetics of Personhood”: Beyond Honor and Shame, 2009 Platsis Symposium.. Michigan: University of Michigan. Lecture. URL accessed 03/06/2021: *2009DubishTowardPoeticsofPresonhood=.pdf

Gilmore, D., 1996. Above and below: Towards a social geometry of gender. American Anthropologist. New York: State University of New York at Stony Brook, 98(1) ,pp. 54-66. URL accessed 04/06/2021: DavidG 1987.pdf

Pitt -Rivers, J., 1997. Honour and Status in Andalucía. The Fate of Shechem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 18-47. URL accessed 04/06/2021: Pitt_Rivers.pdf

Sant-Cassia, P., 1991. Authors in Search of a Character: Personhood, Agency and Identity in the Mediterranean. Journal of Mediterranean Studies.  Malta: Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta, 12(1), pp. 191-221. URL accessed 04/06/2021: *PSC.pdf

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