Kinship is culture, not nature

Kinship is culture, not nature

Week 5: Family matters

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Monday, August 29, 2022

Slides available at

Main reading: Eriksen (2015)

Other reading: Carsten (1995)

Are genetic relatives your “roots”?

You can buy at-home DNA testing kits to discover your relatives and supposedly your ancestral origins.

Would you be interested in a “heritage” vacation in the land of your ancestors?

Valle, Gaby Del. 2019. “Airbnb Is Partnering with 23andMe to Send People on ‘Heritage’ Vacations.” Vox. May 22, 2019.

Nature and culture

DNA-based ancestry reports want users to believe that they have a fixed, natural essence. In their philosophy,

Do we in fact have natural relationships? What is the line between natural existence and social membership in a community?

Kinship is universal, but takes variable forms. A classic problem for anthropology. Which matters more?

Biological kinship and social kinship

Reproduction and birth are universal, but whether they count as kinship is different everywhere.

A useful distinction

Everyone has a genitor and a genetrix, but pater and mater are positions in a social system.

In societies with temporary marriages,

Some historical and contemporary examples are:

Many forms of family

I expect that the idea that family comes in many forms, and that people in different cultures have different ideas of families, is not surprising and controversial.

Yet do we see this diversity in family form the right way?

We need to see it from the inside, not from the outside.

Kinship is a system of categories

Compare these two different languages and their words for relatives (PDF version):

A table comparing several English terms for relatives with several incommensurable terms in Auhelawa

Learning terms for relatives in Auhelawa is not just a matter of translating.

What is a cousin?

In English, several different people in different genealogical positions are called cousin. In Auhelawa, terms exist to make a very specific distinction among these people (PDF version):

An analysis of the range of the English word cousin compared to the several precise terms used in Auhelawa for the same people.

[Column headings are parents and row headings are parents’ siblings.]

The distinctions made in Auhelawa are not unique. Many other languages make the same distinctions.

Categories of kin, groups of people, structures of societies

For many societies, tracing one’s kinship through either a mother or a father locates one in space, and in a comprehensive system of exclusive groups. One’s descent is one’s primary social identity (Fortes 1953).

In societies whose kinship is used to construct groups based on unilineal descent, either matrilineal or patrilineal, everyone in the society belongs to exactly one group. Everyone has a place in a distinct group.

Kinship’s weak link: The proliferation of technical terms

Naming something does not mean we understand it.

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.

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.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. (1940) 2002. “Nuer Politics: Structure and System.” In The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique, edited by Joan Vincent, 34–38. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Fortes, Meyer. 1953. “The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups.” American Anthropologist 55 (1): 17–41.

Gough, Kathleen. 1961. “Nayar: Central Kerala.” In Matrilineal Kinship, edited by David Murray Schneider and Kathleen Gough, 298–384. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hua, Cai. 2001. A Society Without Fathers Or Husbands: The Na of China. New York: Zone Books.