A CSSH Introduction to Kinship

Geoffrey Hughes, Anthropology, London School of Economics

Kinship tends to produce two reactions. The first is a fond smile and some mumblings about mother and hearth and home, with perhaps a nod to the trials and intrigue that come with kin. The other reaction, common among anthropology students, is a look of terror, followed by traumatic stories of impenetrable jargon, equation-like prose, and anxiety-inducing diagrams.

This syllabus will provide some balance, introducing nuanced takes on the nostalgia and emotional trials of family life while keeping what Malinowski called kinship’s ‘bastard algebra’ to a minimum. The following articles are presented both to indulge and to frustrate common preconceptions about kinship.

We begin with FAMILY DRAMAS. Feeley-Harnik introduces us to the varied preoccupations of kinship’s early pioneer, Louis Henry Morgan: anxieties about incest and his own marriage to his cousin; his role as a cog in early America’s settler colonial machine; and even his fascination with beavers. Meanwhile, Leinaweaver examines what it means to abandon one’s child or parent, and Brettell uses inheritance squabbles as an anayltical window into European peasant society.

Feeley-Harnik, Gillian
1999. “‘Communities of Blood’: The Natural History of Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America.” 41(2):215-262

Leinaweaver, Jessica
2013. “Toward an Anthropology of Ingratitude: Notes from Andean Kinship.” 55(3):554-578

Brettell, Caroline
1991. “Kinship and Contract: Property Transmission and Family Relations in Northwestern Portugal.” 33(3): 443-465

Next we turn to ROLE PLAY, emphasizing the pre-given scripts and expectations that so often connect kinship to the broader social order. Our examples include Brazilian oligarchs (Lewin), Indian district lawyers (Morrison), Manchu widows (Elliott), and wheeler-dealers in the informal economy under socialism (Ledeneva).

Morrison, Charles
1972. “Kinship in Professional Relations: A Study of North Indian District Lawyers.” 14(1):100-125

Ledneva, Alena
2008. “‘Blat’ and ‘Guanxi’: Informal Practices in Russia and China.” 50(1):118-144

Lewin, Linda
1979. “Some Historical Implications of Kinship Organization for Family-based Politics in the Brazilian Northeast.” 21(2):262-292

Elliott, Marc
1999. “Manchu Widows and Ethnicity in Qing China.” 41(1):33-71

We then take a slight detour in KINSHIP GETS WEIRD, looking at the margins of kinship and how kinship, as an organizing frame for sociality, can be strategically extended in the breach. Parkes’s long-running comparative project, which focuses on the use of special rites and substances like milk to create often highly unequal social relations of fosterage, takes precedence here.

Parkes, Peter
2001. “Alternative Social Structures and Foster Relations in the Hindu Kush: Milk Kinship Allegiance in Former Mountain Kingdoms of Northern Pakistan.” 43(1):4-36

2003. “Fostering Fealty: A Comparative Analysis of Tributary Allegiances of Adoptive Kinship.” 45(4):741-782

2004. “Fosterage, Kinship, and Legend: When Milk Was Thicker than Blood?” 46(3):587-615

2006. “Celtic Fosterage: Adoptive Kinship and Clientage in Northwest Europe” 48(2):359-395

Next, we explore the connection between kinship and historical change in THROUGH THE AGES. Here the emphasis is on how kinship norms produce a stable, endlessly iterable life course that holds societies together (Byron’s joint maritime household and Gose’s segmentary hierarchy), but also on how subtle changes in kin relations can have wide-ranging consequences (Kottak’s ecological approach to the origins of states).

Byron, Reginald
1994. “The Maritime Household in Northern Europe.” 36(2):271-292

Gose, Peter
1993. “Segmentary State Formation and the Ritual Control of Water Under the Incas.” 35(3):480-514

Kottak, Conrad
1972. “Ecological Variables in the Origin and Evolution of African States: the Buganda Example.” 14(3):351-380

Finally, we scale up to SYSTEM BUILDING, tracking how well-placed influencers try to reformat family relations en masse—and why their recourse to abstraction is part of the whole project of kinship itself, in places as diverse as Stalinist Russia (Alexopolous), the Mediterranean (Ben-Yehoyda), Africa (Ekeh), and the Arab Gulf (Samin).

Alexopoulos, Golfo
2008. “Stalin and the Politics of Kinship: Practices of Collective Punishment, 1920s–1940s.” 50(1):91-117

Ben-Yehoyda, Naor
2014. “Transnational Political Cosmology: A Central Mediterranean Example.” 56(4):870-901

Ekeh, Peter
1990. “Social Anthropology and Two Contrasting Uses of Tribalism in Africa” 32(4):660-700

Samin, Nadav.
2016. “Da’wa, Dynasty, and Destiny in the Arab Gulf.” 58(4):935-954

From the most intimate of interpersonal dramas to the most exacting social engineering schemes, the role of kinship in human societies reveals deep, underlying commonalities. Indeed, academics have no monopoly on the search for commonalities when it comes to kinship—most people do that. In following the kinship interests of our historical and ethnographic interlocutors to the bitter end, we are doing justice to their lives and the worlds we seek to understand—even if it requires a diagram or two.

Geoffrey Hughes is a Postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics. His research looks at how technologies, family structures, and institutional arrangements format people’s most intimate emotions and relationships. His dissertation, Affection and Mercy: Kinship, State, and the Management of Marriage in Jordan, examined how Jordanians are reimagining the family amidst widespread public debate around a “crisis of marriage.” His new research project is focused on envy, analyzing how kinship and various institution-building projects channel the antagonisms associated with inequality and social difference in particular directions.