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Anthropology and Kinship: Past, Present, and Future

Traditionally one of the key topics in Anthropology, the study of kinship encompasses how individuals are related to one another through biological, legal, and symbolic means (Peletz, 1995). Across all societies, kinship is marked by a set of relationship terms that define the universe of kin and that may be extended metaphorically to non-kin, and even to various aspects of the world of nature (Nuttall, 2000; Souza, 2006). Appreciating how kinship has been studied across the anthropological discipline and the direction it is taking today is crucial to understand whether postmodern cultures of consumerism, alongside technological advancements, are impacting the ways in which people connect and form meaningful relationships with each other across a range of mediums.


The study of kinship is widely regarded to have its origins in the mid-19th century United States with anthropologist L.H. Morgan (Schneider, 1972). Exploring the kinship classifications of Native American communities, Morgan conceptualized kinship with explicit reference to a genealogical grid defined in biological terms, arguing relationships to be founded upon a “community of blood” (Morgan, 1871; in Sousa, 2003). Morgan embarked on several ethnographic trips around America and Asia, gathering information on kinship terminology to culminate in his publication of Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871). Within this, Morgan would argue for kinship systems across the New and Old Worlds to be differentiated as ‘descriptive’ versus ‘classificatory’ systems; however, being a proponent of Social Evolutionism theory, Morgan used these findings to support imaginations of non-Western ‘primitive’ civilisations as contrasted against ‘advanced’ Western societies, later penning Ancient Society in 1877 to propel this view of the linear evolution of social institutions (Sousa, 2003).

Figure 1: A Family Tree Highlighting Relations by Blood (Consanguinity) and Marriage (Affinity).

Although Morgan’s social evolutionist views would not face critique until almost a century later, his research into consanguinity ignited an interest across British anthropology in the study of kinship, as imperatives for understanding the mechanisms for maintaining political order in stateless societies grew alongside the colonial enterprise. Influenced by Morgan’s initial comparative models, the formulation of descent theory was propelled by Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard in the early-to-mid twentieth century. This theory posited that biological descent was the basis for group stability in non-Western societies, informing how rights, duties, status, and property were transmitted within these decentralised communities from one generation to the next. Building on the sociological orientation of Durkheim (1892, 1898) who viewed kinship as ‘nothing if not social’ (Sousa, 2003), Evans-Pritchard (1940) and Radcliffe-Brown (1950) pushed for a structuralist-functionalist approach in their studies of African kinship systems, highlighting kinship organisation as informed by the social relationships between parents and children and resulting in arrangements that enabled persons to cooperate with one another in an orderly social life. Despite this social focus however, the assumption of a biological crux within kinship was something that would engender serious criticism in decades to come (Schneider, 1984).


While British social anthropologists in the mid-twentieth century were focused on social rules and the ways in which members of different societies acted within given frameworks, French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss (1949) turned to systems of affinity within kinship to explore the transition from notions of the animal world of nature to the human one of culture through the medium of reciprocity and exchange. Influenced by Marcel Mauss’ (1925) work on gift giving in ‘primitive’ societies, Levi-Strauss held that the act of giving away and receiving fertile women in the reproduction of one’s group constituted categories of communities of the Self against the Other, ultimately setting up a distinction between those who give wives (“wife givers”) and those who receive them (“wife takers”) to form the first kinship categories as an act of incest prohibition.


Terming this as the alliance theor, Lévi-Strauss’s theories placed him in opposition to anthropologists who saw kinship as based on descent rather than marriage. Yet a biological core remained implicit within Levi-Strauss’ theorisation as he saw the exchange of women as critical to the procreation and biological reproduction of societies (Schneider, 1965). Moreover, the perspective that women’s role was simply that of being exchanged would come under fire alongside the emergence of feminist and Marxist anthropology in the 1980s.

Figure 2: A Pair of Wedding Rings Emphasising Levi-Strauss' Position That Kinship Is Constructed Through the Exchange of Women Between Groups.

Before this, however, by the 1960s and 1970s the salience that was being placed on kinship itself within anthropology began to be challenged. Questioning its theoretical validity, American anthropologist Schneider (1968) and British anthropologist Needham (1971) unpacked how attempts to construct kinship through theories of descent and alliance in a universal manner had not only subsumed the heterogeneity of relationships into concepts and typologies, but that such concepts were rooted in ethnocentric notions of biological procreation that miss non-Western understandings of kinship.


Conducting a home analysis in the United States, Schneider (1972) undertook a culturalist approach, examining kinship as a cultural system based in shared symbols, norms, and values. Revealing how American views rested on the symbolic notions of blood and shared genes as equating to social relationships, Schneider highlighted how kin ties of “diffuse, enduring solidarity” were ultimately a genealogical conception entertained only in the anthropologists’ subculture (Sousa, 2003). Comparing his ethnographic research to his analysis of the Micronesian Yapse, who did not link sexual procreation with kin ties, Schneider (1984) maintained that the anthropological study of kinship was based on biological assumptions of sexual procreation that were not valid cross-culturally, and that instead kinship was culturally specific, unfixed, and fluid, changing between societies.

Figure 3: Two Yap Women Sheltering From the Sun.

Similarly, Needham criticised how anthropologists had succumbed to a craving for universality across kinship studies, bypassing the particular complexities of social life. Looking to the institution of marriage, Needham argued that none of the rights that are part of this concept of matrimony exist in all empirical instances, that it is instead an idea of a “contractual union of sexual statuses” (Needham 1971). Both Schneider and Needham challenged existing theories of alliance and descent as well as the biological focus at the crux of the field, citing the lack of analytical consistency in the comparison of social relations across cultures as invalidating kinship as an analytical category (Sousa, 2003). As such, anthropology’s ‘love affair’ with kinship began to cool, with Needham (1971) declaration of “the death of kinship” seemingly condemning the subfield.


With this damning critique, studies of kinship across anthropology suffered a twenty-year decline, kept alive only by the interest of feminist anthropologists in the intersection between kinship, gender and personhood. The work of Nature, Culture, and Gender by Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (1980) further enforced the position that past theories of kinship were particularities of Western thought, as the authors examined the dichotomy between nature and culture and how this became mapped onto Cartesian constructions of women and men as a universal phenomenon for the purpose of female subordination. The later publication of Jane Collier and Sylvia Yanagisako's edited collection Gender and Kinship: Essays Towards a Unified Analysis (1987) reinforced the importance of gender relations and asymmetries in understanding kinship systems cross-culturally, contending how women’s positions within patrilineal societies had long been usurped by attention on the male ego and thus how the work of social reproduction in domestic, private spaces had not been given due consideration.


Nevertheless, the death knell for kinship within anthropology did not ring true, as with the 1990s came the revitalisation of the subfield into a paradigm of new kinship studies (Read, 2007). The work of feminist anthropologists surrounding gender and personhood, queer studies into gay and lesbian kinship, and the rise of new reproductive technologies (NRTs) alongside perceived changes in the institution of the family in Western societies suggested new practices and experiences of Western kinship emerging outside of the biological and domestic spheres that had been core assumptions of old kinship studies (Strathern, 1992).

Figure 4: The Process of Artificial Insemination That is Behind In Vitro Fertilisation.

Ethnographic research into the kinship practices amongst gay and lesbian communities was crucial in critiquing the Schneiderian analysis of kinship in the United States as rooted in understandings of blood and biology, forcing a rethinking of what constitutes kinship in Western societies. Studies in the United States by Kath Weston (1991, 1995) and Ellen Lewin (1993) revealed how informants conceptualised biological kinship as temporary, as such kin had been known to sever ties upon learning of a relative’s homosexuality. On the other hand, the friendships of informants were described in terms of certainty and permanence, presented as replacing the kin ties that had been lost across biological family members. The distinction between biogenetic and social worlds was therefore disrupted through the analysis of non-heterosexual kinship practices, highlighted the performative qualities of kinship (re)production (Butler, 2002), and the puncturing of the conjugal and nuclear family allowed for recognition towards new and complex, recombinant families and partnerships (Edwards, 2014).


Furthermore, the influence from cultural and feminists theorists to consider gender and personhood within conceptualisations of kinship led to the expansion of old understandings fixed in biological procreation towards a new paradigm that situates kinship as established through daily interactions (Read, 2007). Built on by Janet Carsten with her publication of Cultures of Relatedness (2000), kinship was presented as embedded in the everyday experience of ‘becoming’. In her eighteen-month ethnographic study exploring food, residence, and friendship within a Malay family in Pulau Langkawi, Carsten experienced how kin relations were built and reproduced through commensality (the act of sharing food) and living with one another. Such acts of caring and sharing supported the construction of kin relations regardless of biogenetics, highlighting kinship as a process that is embodied and practiced rather than essentialised within our biological being (Butler, 2002).


Figure 5: Building Relationships Through Commensality, or Sharing Food.

Marilyn Strathern was also a key figure within the study of kinship at this time: her research into Melanesian society led to her formulating the concept of the dividual person, a contrast to the Western concept that imagines persons in a “permanently subjective state” (1988, 338) towards instead a singular body that manifests itself as partible and permeable representing a social microcosm of multiple relationships (Strathern, 1988; in Linkenbach and Muslow, 2019). Maintaining that to act, the singular dividual must be individuated shedding “half the dual form” (1988, 275), such as Strathern saw a person within society as moving from one state to the other. While Strathern’s work was praised as a milestone, critiques have formed through concerns of essentialism and cultural relativism, with Melanesian and Western personhood appearing as incommensurable and the dividual as the ‘other’ of individuality (Gell, 1999; LiPuma, 1998). Nevertheless, in/dividuality is an important concept in the study of kinship as it explores how persons can be constituted through their relations, becoming inherently relational beings.


In the last three decades, Anthropology has taken a turn towards New Kinship studies, propelled by the rise of genetic science and Artificial Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) (Laibman, 2013). Challenging how English kinship used to be grounded in natural facts, Strathern (1992) proposed an anthropological shift towards a post-natural world where artificial reproduction combined with neoliberal ideals of choice were transforming established understandings of kin relations from primordial to technological, social, and political. The 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was key in generating such interest, as constructing the legal frameworks governing infertility treatment, medical services ancillary to infertility treatment such as embryo storage, and all human embryological research performed in the UK (La Tourelle, 2014) quickly led to discussions surrounding how surrogacy (Thompson, 2001), gamete-freezing (Carsten, 2004), abortions and designer babies (Gilding, 2002) enabled by new reproductive sciences were reshaping practices and experiences of relatedness and parenthood.


Across studies involving ARTs, a flexible choreography between the biological and the social has emerged where kinship could be forged just as much through care, desire, and attention as it could through biology and genetics (Edwards, 2014). Poignant examples include research across fertility clinics within discussions of those providing the egg and sperm, those who gestate, and those who raise the child. Charis Thompson’s (2001) study of Californian infertility clinics explored the ‘de-kinning’ of Vanessa, a gestational surrogate, who after being paid an agreed-upon $12,000, became unlinked from the kin network after giving birth to the baby who she was carrying for another couple. Labelling Vanessa’s experience as part of the process of ‘strategic naturalising’, Thompson highlights how certain biological facts become recognised only through social activation, suggesting the biological as inherently deeply social. Kinship thus becomes reinforced as “an artefact of the organisation of knowledges from different sources, with different ways of verifying connections between persons” (Strathern 2005: 46; cited in Edwards, 2014: 57), ultimately reflecting postmodern tenets of subjective ontologies and epistemologies (Haraway, 1989) where overarching metanarratives regarding how kin relations form are rejected.

Figure 6: A Couple With Their Surrogate.

ARTs and new kinship studies have highlighted the centrality of choice and circumstance in how relatedness is conceptualised, emphasising how today a family may consist of any grouping regardless of biogenetic ties. Regarding the development and commercialisation of genomic testing for personal health and ancestry information however, research into the medicalisation of kinship through the biological nuclear family (Finkler et al., 2003) alongside bio-essentialist narratives of relatedness through constructions of ethnicity and race (Panofsky and Donovan, 2019) are complicating the extent to which past ideas of consanguinity and shared genes have been laid to rest. Notions of finding one’s true identity through their biological connections are increasingly being employed as a marketing strategy by DTC companies, impacting who is considered kin, and through what means.

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Emily Duchenne