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

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

Kinship’s weak link is the proliferation of technical terms

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.

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?

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

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

Making kinship diagrams is very much in this scientific spirit.

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).

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.

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.

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.

Clarke, Morgan. 2007. “The Modernity of Milk Kinship*.” Social Anthropology 15 (3): 287–304.

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.

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. 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.

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.