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Kinship as social action

Kinship as social action

Week 5: Family matters

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Slides available at https://anthro.rschram.org/1002/2022/5.2

Main reading: Eriksen (2015)

Other reading: Carsten (1995)

A final note from Monday’s lecture

What’s the difference between kinship and descent? Are members of other unilineal descent groups still your kin?

This is an excellent question, because it’s really asking what we should call the topic of this module, Module II.

Family, ancestors, relatives, buʻuna, susu, etc., etc…. What are we talking about?

Historically, anthropologists have used the term kinship as a replacement for all the other vague terms people use. They also break this down as

  • Consanguineous kin (relatives through parents).
    • Kinship in general, i.e. the socially-recognized ties to other people through one’s parents.
    • Descent specifically, a principle that determines membership in a larger group or category of people, e.g. Nuer lineages.
  • Affinal kin (relatives through marriage, or what English speakers call in-laws, e.g. father-in-law).

Just because we have specialized, precise terms for people’s relationships doesn’t mean that we understand them better.

We’ve just applied a name to them.

Kinship as exchange

A major theory of kinship argues that the rules by which people trace descent are the mechanism by which people in society are assigned to discrete groups. Kinship categories give a structure to society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss ([1949] 1969) argues that a society’s rules governing marriage are in fact the basis of a society’s kinship categories.

The universality of the incest prohibition

Lévi-Strauss ([1949] 1969) notes that all societies prohibit “incest” (marriage of relatives), but which marriages count as incest is different everywhere. Another classic problem for anthropology.

  • It doesn’t matter which relatives are prohibited as spouses. Only some have to be prohibited.
    • If some are prohibited, then a spouse must come from the category of people who are not prohibited. Incest prohibitions are important because they prescribe exogamy (marriage out) of a specific category.
  • The significance of the prohibition is for the whole community, not for individuals and their choices.
    • In the simplest form, there are two categories, each half of the whole community: marriageable people and unmarriageable people. The people in the first half are required to marry someone in the second half, and vice versa.
    • Prohibiting incest (or requiring a degree of exogamy) means that society divides itself in half, and the two halves exchange people.

For Levi-Strauss, marriage is a system of alliances, or a system of exchange among groups in which people are the gifts. Marriage rules are in that light a system of reciprocity; kinship is fundamentally the system of total services.

A lingering bias

Kinship is a purely social system of categories, and need not have any connection to biology and reproduction. So what’s with all this talk of marriage, parents, children?

  • Do people have to form heterosexual, opposite-sex marriages in order for people to have kinship classifications?

In fact, many societies have forms of kinship that have nothing to do with heterosexual conjugality.

  • Nuer “ghost marriages” (or “woman marriage”) allow women to be treated as husbands, and as fathers for purposes of patrilineal descent (Evans-Pritchard 1951, 108–9; see also O’Brien 1977; Krige 1974).
  • Societies like Kawelka consist of small groups of people who say that they are all related to each other through men (agnatic kinship), yet there are many, many exceptions. But even non-agnatic kin are still said to have the same male blood in them because they work, live, and eat the food of the group’s land (Strathern 1973).

In many societies people speak of kinship as a natural fact in their “blood,” but that doesn’t only mean their birth to parents.

Why did early anthropologists ignore all these exceptions?

The study of kinship in anthropology reveals a lot about the history of the field.

Early anthropologists focused on kinship because

  • it challenged the ethnocentric biases of Europeans (including past anthropologists), and
  • by studying people’s genealogical connections and the categories that they used to divide them up, they thought they could examine a society objectively and arrive at scientific explanations for many common forms of kinship, like the cross–parallel distinction and the prohibition on incest.

Making kinship diagrams is very much in this scientific spirit.

  • By boiling down masses of information to lines and shapes, we can reveal a lot that is obscure, but
  • We also can easily assume that the lines we draw are objective, empirical things, and that a symbol used for one group of people means the same for another group of people somewhere else.
    • ◯ = △ means a marriage between a woman and man, and a marriage is a marriage is a marriage.

If kinship is not a cultural representation of reproduction, then what is it?

In Egypt and other Arab societies, women nurse each other’s children, and receiving a woman’s milk creates “milk kinship” with her and with other children whom she nurses (Clarke 2007).

  • Both milk siblings and blood siblings cannot marry.
  • Is there a symbol for milk kinship on a kinship diagram? Does there need to be one?

In Pulau Langkawi, kinship develops through acts of feeding. We need an time-lapse image of relationships, not a diagram, to properly represent them (Carsten 1995).

In rural villages of Bahia State, Brazil, children’s choices about where to eat determine who their parents are (De Matos Viegas 2003).

Are all families chosen?

You could say that kinship is not a structure of categories, but that people do kinship.

Does this mean that everyone’s relatives are chosen (e.g. Weston 1997)?

If people do kinship, then it is important to remember that other people do kinship to each of us.

  • This still seems fundamental to every sense of kinship everywhere: There are some relationships which are ascribed (or assigned) to us without our own choice.
  • Furthermore, all of the acts that create kinship are also mutual. They take place in a sphere of exchange of care. Acts of kinship are also services for others: feeding, nursing, adopting, granting permission to garden, or even just explicit recognition of someone as a member.
    • Kinship is not just an act, it is an act of “nourishment,” or perhaps nurture in a fuller sense (Carsten 1995, 225, 234).

Late edition brain candy: Are your memories an out-of-body experience?

When we remember, we can see ourselves as others see us. Do we see what they also ascribe to us? Or, do we see only what we think we are?

Stern, Jacob. 2022. “You’ve Probably Seen Yourself in Your Memories.” The Atlantic, August 29, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/08/memories-third-person-perspective-psychology/671281/.

References and further reading

Carsten, Janet. 1995. “The Substance of Kinship and the Heat of the Hearth: Feeding, Personhood, and Relatedness Among Malays in Pulau Langkawi.” American Ethnologist 22 (2): 223–41. https://doi.org/10.2307/646700.

Clarke, Morgan. 2007. “The Modernity of Milk Kinship*.” Social Anthropology 15 (3): 287–304. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00022.x.

De Matos Viegas, Susana. 2003. “Eating With Your Favourite Mother: Time And Sociality In A Brazilian Amerindian Community.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9 (1): 21–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.t01-2-00002.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2015. “Kinship as Descent.” In Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, 4th ed., 117–35. London: Pluto Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt183p184.11.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1951. Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Krige, Eileen Jensen. 1974. “Woman-Marriage, with Special Reference to the Loυedu. Its Significance for the Definition of Marriage.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 44 (1): 11–37. https://doi.org/10.2307/1158564.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1949) 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Edited by Rodney Needham. Translated by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

O’Brien, Denise. 1977. “Female Husbands in Southern Bantu Societies.” In Sexual stratification: a cross-cultural view, edited by Alice Schlegel, 109–26. New York: Columbia University Press.

Strathern, Andrew. 1973. “Kinship, Descent and Locality: Some New Guinea Examples.” In The Character of Kinship, edited by J. Goody, 21–33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weston, Kath. 1997. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.

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