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What kinship is not – Schneider, Sahlins, and Shapiro
D av id B. K ronenfeld University of California at Riverside and Kronenfeld Designs

I. Marshall Sahlins (a; b) is the latest distinguished and honoured elder to tell us ‘What kinship is’. His title, like his article, is a response to David Schneider’s supposed demolition of kinship.1 I will not offer any opposed view of what kinship is, but, rather, wish to offer a discussion of what kinship is not – in particular, to demonstrate that it is not an it at all. Mine is not the Schneiderian claim that the things that we describe as kinship are all figments of our anthropological imagination; I agree with the strength of Sahlins’s repudiation of that view. Instead I claim that there exist a number of component strands that we can describe for kinship systems, and that different of these strands get picked up by different kinship systems, and that the picked-up ones often get bundled differently in different systems. My claim is that we need to focus on identifying and describing these different strands, and then look to see what consistencies there are in which culture picks up which and in how they get bundled. Among the strands are residential groupings (whether hearth groups, extended households, or localized village segments), kin terminology, social categories of kin, corporate kin groups, social categories of kin groups, rights of succession (and inheritance) among kin, various kinds of described parental contributions to a child’s physical and social make-up (whether pre-natal or post-natal), customary rights and obligations among kin (whether legal, moral, or religious), units of labour exchange, and so on. Obviously, no one group has a kinship system that encompasses all of these strands, but each has been included in the characterization of kinship for one or another cultural group. And similarly, only a few of these strands seem present in all cultural groups – and these few seem inadequate to capture the essence of any group’s kin system. Instead of dealing with this diversity, Sahlins comes up with what he sees as the basic common element of kinship – ‘its specific quality, viz. mutuality of being’, as he describes it (Sahlins a: ). The problems are, first, that this feature is too vague to be meaningful or useful, and, second, that it misses too much of what ethnographers have considered basic to the particular kinship systems with which they have dealt.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) , - © Royal Anthropological Institute 

not even useful as a target (see.B. presumptively shared physicality. And.) D. the articles by various authors in Kronenfeld a). . That nexus is the social placement of the new child. So.2 that allows us to speak of a ‘kinship system’. II. kinship terminologies in general – is also addressed. rather than re-burying honoured dead ancestors.) . I’d prefer to see discussions of kinship terminologies (as well as of kin groups. and then on the development of an improved typology that captures a wider range of regularities more effectively than does our present traditional one. cognitive and social issues. behaviour among kin. is biological or cultural. This argument is irrelevant to the present article. -. but (unoriginally!) see the roots of kinship as involving both biology and culture. for the record. the wider case – that is. quoted in Kronenfeld (b: - n. It is this range of variation that makes Sahlins’s task. including her or his ascribed memberships and affiliations. rights and obligations. even though Schneider is mostly not the target there. but does so in a way which unduly focuses on Schneider’s claims. Shapiro’s  Comment speaks to some of these issues. Introduction: the uses of formal analysis re. anent Shapiro’s further discussion (Shapiro ). and so forth. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.) NOTES 1 Sometimes arguments between Schneider and others on the nature of kinship get taken as being about whether what is basic to kinship.) focus more on refined and complete analyses of individual cases. there does exist a cross-culturally applicable nexus around which all of the strands I speak of cluster. but.C omment 679 However. (See Kronenfeld  for a discussion of the present typology’s weaknesses and of what improvement thus is needed.g. or universal to it. Anthropological Theory Special Issue: Kinship (ed. Anthropological Theory Special Issue: Kinship.. But which wider systems get built in what form out of this shared nexus does vary widely across the range of human cultures. In short. : . my claim is that there exists no ‘one size fits all’ interpretation of kinship that fully encompasses the rich range of understandings that have been described in the literature as basic to one or another kinship system. (ed. the Fanti case is strongly inconsistent with Schneider’s views of what kinship is not. based on social placement (as F. semantic extension from prototypes is clearly demonstrated for the Fanti case (Kronenfeld : chaps -) – as also is behavioural extension. The shared nexus that I spoke of above does not speak to what participants in different cultural systems consider to be the basic essence of their conception of kinship.K. REFERENCES Kronenfeld. 2 Personal communication.) a. with reference to analytic examples for a range of kinship terminologies. I see no ‘either-or’ here. Kronenfeld. - © Royal Anthropological Institute  . and thus to their emic view of what kinship is. an impossible one. D. As is extensively documented all through my Fanti kinship and the analysis of kinship terminologies (Kronenfeld ).S.B. the description of the crucially shared content that makes for human ‘kinship’. It follows that every child has a mother and a father and relationships which flow from these. e. In my  book. ) and reprinted in Kronenfeld (: ). etc. ——— b. And similarly the shared nexus itself does not speak to the extended ethnological theories of classes of kinship systems that have shed etic light on what systems within these classes do and how they do it. Lehman has noted). But I have to confess that Schneider’s work seems increasingly irrelevant to modern kinship studies – that is. and it is this shared nexus. . and . especially in chapters .

——— b. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N. Riverside. and has attended to variability within terminological systems. CA .680 C omment ——— . kfeldster@gmail. david. USA. Sahlins. -.) . W. What kinship is (part one). He has analysed kinship terminologies from a variety of perspectives.edu. David B. Kronenfeld is a retired but still active cognitive anthropologist whose primary research interests remain in collective knowledge systems. What kinship is (part two). -. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N. - © Royal Anthropological Institute  .com Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.) . using a number of formal analytic approaches. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.kronenfeld@ ucr. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N. . -. Shapiro. Extensionism and the nature of kinship. Anthropos .S.) .S. ——— . including the semantics of ordinary language and the variably distributed pragmatic systems that make up culture. M.) . Issues in the classification of kinship terminologies: toward a new typology. Department of Anthropology. University of California at Riverside. Fanti kinship and the analysis of kinship terminologies. -.S.S. a.

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