Marshall Sahlins What kinship is and is not. 2014.
Chapter 2. What kinship is not: biology
Chapter 1 offered a definition of kinship as “mutuality of being”: kinfolk are members of one another, intrinsic to each other’s identity and existence. Coming in various degrees and forms, such intersubjective relations of being, I argued, will account for performative or “made” kinship as well as relations of procreation. Persons participate in each other’s existence by a variety of meaningful attributes besides the presumed connections of “biology” or even common substance. In New Guinea, as reported by Robert Glasse, “those who behave towards one another in a positive manner regard each other as kin, whether or not they are known or believed to be genealogically related” (1969, 33). As if in confirmation: “A striking pattern here is the frequency with which Korowai describe someone they were not previously related to as having ‘become a relative’ (lambi-lelo) through relations of reciprocal visiting, cooperation, and food-giving” (Stasch 2009, 135). Or then again, consider the Fijian’s response to the naïve question of the ethnographer:
“Suppose two men, one a relative of yours and one not, had something you needed, which would you go to [to kerekere, ‘request aid’]”? The reply was to this effect: “I would go to my relative of course. If he didn’t give it to me, and the other man did, I would know that the other man was really my relative.” (Sahlins 1962, 204)
Although ethnography testifies that these peoples and numerous others expressly accord kinship status to persons with whom they have no genealogical connection, many anthropologists, not to mention sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, have long contended that the relationships in question are only “metaphors” of kinship, or else they are “fictive kinship,” precisely because no biogenetic relationship is involved. “Real kinship” is the relationships established by birth— as we might know from our own concepts of “blood” kin. As Harold Scheffler and Floyd Lounsbury wrote in a well-known monograph: “Relations of genealogical connection” are “kinship proper”; moreover, they are “fundamentally different from and are logically and temporally prior to any social relations of kinship” (1971, 38) — which would apparently rule out any performative constitution of kinship a priori. (In any case, this can’t possibly be so, for sexual intercourse is not prior to the social relations between persons, rules of marriage, etc.). Again, as Scheffler put it, persons related by birth are relatives “by definition” (1976, 76). Birth relations comprise the “distinctive feature” of what he calls “the central, primary, or principal category of ‘relatives’”: a person is “ego’s relative if and only if he or she is the genitor or genitrix, or offspring, or related to ego through some chain of relationships of this kind.” Going back another few decades, the argument was very much the same, as in the text from the American Anthropologist of 1937 penned by the eminences Kingsley Davis and W. Lloyd Warner:
… kinship may be defined as social relationships based on connection through birth. This holds for relationships by affinity as well as for those by consanguinity— for although husband and wife may have no recognized common ancestry, they are nonetheless related by blood through their common offspring. Even relatives by adoption are relatives only in so far as they are treated as if they belong to the family by reproduction. Whenever one finds two relatives, no matter which two, there are one or more births (real or fictitious) connecting them. It makes no difference what conception of reproduction the particular culture may have. (1937, 292; emphasis in original)
The determination of kinship relations as genealogical connections has been dominant in the anthropology of kinship ever since Lewis Henry Morgan founded the subject on that premise in Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity in the Human Family (1871). Few concessions have been made to later ethnographic reports, none on the essential matter of the biological basis. One, however, is that the biological basis is “folk biology.” The relations of procreation and birth turn out to be culturally relative, differently understood in different societies according to the local “theory of reproduction.” This so-called “theory” usually remains unexamined, however, on the supposition, as Davis and Warner had it, that “it makes no difference.” Secondly, the network of actual genealogical relations is variously inflected by other social considerations, particularly by different descent schemes. This again makes no difference— if it is not an analytical virtue, allowing us to know systems of descent with some precision. Thus Ernest Gellner, for instance, contends:
Kinship structure means the manner in which a pattern of physical relationships is made use of for social purposes, . . . the way in which a physical criterion is used for the selection of members for a group and the ascription of rights, duties, etc. . . . But the elements of the physical pattern are essentially simple and universal, whilst the social patterns imposed on it are highly diversified and complex. And it is just this, the existence of the universal and simple physical substrate, which makes it possible to describe descent systems with some precision and compare them meaningfully. (1960, 193; emphasis in original)
And finally, the immediate relations of birth— the genitor and genetrix of a given Ego and their other offspring, as Scheffler has it— are “primary,” both in the sense that they are the focal instances of kin categories and that terms used for them are extended to other relatives, or are derived from them by reducing the specificity of the attributes by which primary kin are defined. The further extension of kinship terms proper to persons assumed or known to be without genealogical connection may be analytically allowed as “kinship” on an “as if” basis; or disallowed as metaphorical; or else, in the usual academic mode of “the answer lies somewhere in-between,” taken to indicate that the kinship order is a combination of biologically given and culturally constructed relationships.
This chapter is an argument against all such “biological” understandings of kinship: not only because they are encompassed in meaningful determinations of “mutuality of being”; or because postnatal, “made” kinship often enough takes priority over relations of procreation; or because the latter are culturally variable, sometimes to the point that they are of no particular interest to the people concerned; but also importantly because the relations of birth are reflexes of the greater kinship order and are incorporated within that order. If, in regard to the last, children are conceived, say, from the “blood” of the mother and the “sperm” of the father, these are not mere physiological substances of reproduction but meaningful social endowments of ancestral and affinal identities and potencies. For they link the child to others with whom the parents are known to share such substances. It follows that what is reproduced in the birth is a system of kinship relations and categories in which the child is given a specific position and positional value. It likewise follows that kinship is a thoroughly symbolic-cum-cultural phenomenon— as Lévi-Strauss said, for all his lingering nostalgia for the “biological family”:
Of course, the biological family is ubiquitous in human society. But what confers upon kinship its socio-cultural character is not what it retains from nature, but, rather, the essential way in which it diverges from nature. A kinship system does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals. It exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation.... The essence of human kinship is to require the establishment of relations among what Radcliffe-Brown calls “elementary families.” Thus, it is not the families (isolated terms) that are truly “elementary,” but, rather, the relations between those terms. (1964, 50– 51)
Contrary, however, to an anthropology of kinship whose elementary forms are relationships, the long-standing determinations of kinship from the position of an Ego and his or her “primary” kin suggest that a consistent complement of the going biologism in kinship studies is an equally entrenched egocentrism. Even before Malinowski foolishly claimed he was present at the origin of classificatory kinship when he saw a Trobriand child apply the term he had learned for “father” to his father’s brother, kinship has too often been analyzed from the way it is lived and learned by individuals, as if a domestic logic of cognition were the raison d’être of the system. The kinship organization of the society is conflated with the way it is acquired by an (abstract) individual in the context of his or her nuclear family. Indeed, the way it is acquired is taken for how it came to be. Hence the supposed “primacy” of “elementary” family relations, the sense that people may have that these are the “true brothers,” “true mothers,” etc., and that such familial terms are extended outward through genealogical connections to form kinship classes. A socially constituted network of relationships between persons and among groups is thus dissolved into the logic of its cognition by an individual subject (as in componential analysis). Society is subsumed in and as the individual’s experience of it. Welcome to America…