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No person is an island; there has never been a person born who was not also already part of a larger community. We cannot, then, understand what it means to be human without looking beyond the individual to the larger social environment. Each individual is not only a member of a community, they are a component of that community as a system.

Human beings have a social nature. In the same way, humans have an innate capacity to acquire specific patterns from their social environment, and in doing so, they can participate in and serve to maintain a community as a particular kind of system. This is the same as saying that the only thing that people have in common is that they have nothing in common, and this is a paradox. It has come up in several ways in our class, and is an important theme for Jadran's two modules, because it is the main problem that anthropology seeks to solve.

Claude Levi-Strauss finds this in the problem of the incest taboo. Like human beings, there are many animals who live in cooperative groups. Some apes have groups in which one can trace the genealogies of the members to see how they are related over many generations. These are durable societies just like what we might expect to find in human societies. Yet, for Levi-Strauss, a human society is different. He argues that all human societies impose the same kind of rule on people, a prohibition on incest. What counts as incest does not matter. For some societies, a brother-sister marriage is acceptable. For others, any one related through common great-grandparents is one's kin and hence not marriageable. In many societies the children of one's mother's sisters are forbidden as spouses but the children of one's mother's brothers or father's sisters may be required to be your spouse. None of these rules serves any practical purpose; it does not matter what kind of incest one prohibits. (For instance, there is little to no risk of deformity when children of siblings, or what English speakers call cousins, marry. See Kershaw 2009.) People who follow their society's rules prohibiting incest assume that the rules are based on nature. Yet, as we can see from the variety of definitions of incest around the world, this is a pattern of behavior which is acquired and particular. What is acquired, yet also universal is the rule itself. Many animals live in groups. Humans obey rules whose function is to make them into particular kinds of groups. Animal groups are biologically related to each other; human societies have rules that enable some of the members to marry each other.

For Levi-Strauss, kinship is thus divorced from biological heredity. One's biological mother (genetrix) often happens to be one's mother (mater) in a social sense. But the fact of being a genetrix has nothing to do with a mater. One has a mater and a pater, and through them, other kin because these people followed the rules of their society when they got married. Kinship itself is a social institution that derives from the social institution of two-parent, non-incestuous heterosexual marriages.

One can make the same kind of argument about descent, which was another concept developed by anthropologists to explain how many human societies are organized and structured. In many societies that are primarily organized in terms of kinship, people can recall many of their ancestors. Some people in these societies are especially gifted in the art of memory and can recite genealogies for dozens of generations. (In Auhelawa these people are called “computers.”) You might think that, then, the culture of this type of society places great value on knowledge of one's family history and ancestry. Yet this would suggest that descent groups are outcome of the parent-child bond. In fact, descent is a principle of group membership. In societies based on descent groups, everyone belongs to one group, and one's children also belong to the group of one parent. It is as though society is divided into categories of people, and children inherit the membership in a category. Just because people posit the existence of an ancestor for a clan does not mean that they are related through descent to the clan founder. A clan, a category of people, can also contain lineages based on descent. Lineages traced through one parent are usually based on people's genealogical memory, even very long genealogies that are passed down over time. But a lineage is not the group itself. People are members of the same lineage because they are members of the same descent group, rather than the other way around. A father and son are senior and junior members of the same descent group first, and in a relationship of parent and child second. As a social institution, kinship is a shared schema of social classification.

For most people in a place like Sydney, kinship does not take this kind of political and structural function. One's kinship is usually seen as an extension of one's self. Even if you come from a cultural background in which kinship groups are important, most people are compelled to talk about their kinship relationships in egocentric terms. That does not mean that we cannot see the same kinds of social institutions in this community. Another system of symbolic categories replaces the symbolic categories that define people's relatives. So instead of classifying people based on who their parents are, we learn to classify people on the basis of national origin, citizenship status, and race. Like kinship, we also assume that these are inherent, innate attributes of a person, and that their social status follows from their personal characteristics. Actually it is the reverse: Society classifies people, and then we attribute to members of the same category the same characteristics. A good example of this would be the ethnoracial category of “Asian.” What does it actually mean? The continent of Asia has a population of almost four and half billion people. That's over half the world's population! Yet people in Sydney use the term “Asian” to refer to all of them, anyone who has left and moved to Australia, and their children, and any other descendants. We assume that all of these people all have something fundamentally the same about them, but the term is nothing more than a symbolic category, much like the totemic categories based on birds in Auhelawa. When we say that being part of a community is universal, what this means is that everyone is classified by a shared system of symbolic categories within one society. In some places this is linked to terms for relatives. In other places it can be based on other symbolic categories.


Kershaw, Sarah. 2009. “Shaking Off the Shame.” The New York Times, November 25, 2009, sec. Home & Garden. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/garden/26cousins.html.

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community.txt · Last modified: 2021/07/02 05:31 by Ryan Schram (admin)