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Reading relations backwards*

Mari lyn Strathern University of Cambridge

It would hazardous for an anthropologist to read back from the present to admonitions from nearly a
century ago that the whole world is kin or that all forms of life are related. It would be even more
hazardous to read back from the present to three centuries ago. None the less, a contemporary issue
in social anthropology makes the risk conceivably worth taking. This is to do with the role that
generic terms play in knowledge-making, and specically in what we know about kinship. Pondering
on the adoption of a generic, relation, in the acknowledgement of kinspersons in England around
the time of the scientic revolution, this article points to a precise way in which the generic might
have been useful for both kin-makers and knowledge-makers. Describing relations without having to
specify the entities involved served both. This speculative exercise might be of interest in current
contexts where appeals are made to the relational and relationality.
In his popular book on anthropology for the Home University Library, Marett muses
on a heap of food-refuse that was uncovered near the remains of a re: we should, he
says, take rm hold of the fact that people with skulls inclining towards the Neander-
thal type, and using stone knives, may nevertheless have very active minds; in short, that
a rich enough life in its way may leave behind it a poor rubbish-heap (I,,o [I,I:]: ,,).
This last is a prelude not to inviting speculation but to warning against it. In like vein,
it would be hazardous for an anthropologist to take at face value Maretts own admoni-
tions, among them that the whole world is kin and there should only be one kind of
history for it, or that all forms of life are related together. It would be even more
hazardous to read back from the present to three centuries ago. None the less, there is
a contemporary issue in social anthropology that makes the risk conceivably worth
Part I
In the neighbourhood of relations
For some time now, Rabinow has been experimenting with language, assembling a
toolkit of concepts to advance inquiry in the human sciences, with attention to the
* The :oI, Marett Memorial Lecture.
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ways that information is given narrative and conceptual form, and how this knowledge
ts into a conduct of life (:oo,: :). Experimenting is apt insofar as, in changing
conditions of narration, he subjects such concepts to constant rethinking. The concept
of assemblages was one foray. These formations are specically not the type of things
traditionally identied in Western philosophy as totalities or essences (Rabinow :oII:
I::), and certainly not systems or structures reducible to a single logic. They are
identiable, for example, in problematizations of the forms and values of individual
and collective existence,
such as are made evident through new combinations of
entities. Synthetic biology is an instance of assemblages of organic entities being
brought into the world.
Things happen that did not happen before. While [an entitys]
properties are given and may be denumerable as a closed list, its capacities are not given
... since there is no way to tell in advance in what way a given entity may affect or be
affected by innumerable other entities (Rabinow :oII: I:,, quoting DeLanda :ooo: Io).
The terms and phrases that carry concepts are bound to become habituated with
varying degrees of explicitness, and this is my own focus in remarking on the now
implicit, now explicit, use anthropologists make of relations. From this point of view,
the following passage from Rabinow is quite lyrical.
Assemblages are composed of preexisting things that, when brought into relations with other preex-
isting things, open up different capacities not inherent in the original things but only come into
existence in the relations established in the assemblage ... Thus an assemblage brings together entities
in the world into a proximity in which they establish relations among and between themselves while
remaining external to each other and thereby retain their original properties to a degree (:oII: I:,, my
Entities expose features previously unknown, then, as functions of relations with
others, so that these features can never be exclusively properties of the entities them-
selves; relations open up the capacities of properties in unexpected ways and capacities
come into existence through new relations.
Ordinarily speaking, the termrelation in such a passage would not delay the reader,
who knows the work it does, pointing in an abstract way to the potential of intercon-
nections that are otherwise specied in their particulars. Indeed, the concept some-
times seems to do nothing more than point to itself. It is intriguing, therefore, that it is
precisely in its abstract form that the concept of relation often seems to carry a positive
By and large, it is a good thing to have found it! Indeed the positive aura or value
attached to relation(s) in the English vernacular gives it a tenor that serious students
of social relations beyond the English-speaking world often have to discount (and it as
often bounces back). That positive, even benign, gloss may of course evaporate as soon
as one starts specifying what kinds of relations are at issue: it is the abstract form that
entices. Perhaps such a value is no stronger than that of any term with an approving or
disapproving inection (capacity or conict, for instance). However, I wonder if in
the case of relation its positive tenor is not augmented by the role that relations play in
knowledge-making. In general, and again it may be completely different in its particu-
lars, knowledge itself carries a similar aura of approval.
The two easily intertwine. When Marett allows Rivers a brilliant commentary on
social enquiry, in that its proper task is the study of the correlation of social phenomena
with other social phenomena (I,:o: ,, my emphasis), there is the sense that identifying
correlations brings a task to conclusion in a manner that has, regardless of the subject
matter, a satisfying ring to it. Whether or not named as such, relations constantly
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appear as solutions to anthropologists problems of description. Indeed, the more
so-called bounded notions of society and culture are held up to criticism, along with
the systems and structures that were once their scaffold, the more relations, relation-
ships, the relational, relationality, are evoked as prime movers (of sociality) in them-
selves. Quite aside from identifying relations in structures, systems of classication,
co-variation, and so forth, the concept is equally forcefully applied to any new object of
knowledge, emergent conguration, or co-construction, and not only in a passive sense
(everything is connected), but in the active sense of the observer making phenomena
appear, illuminating them, by the concept.
This may be very obvious to an English-speaker. The relation as an encompassing
term contains both itself and myriad other manifestations of the way phenomena
emerge from what are perceived as connections or links. Any concept, including that of
relation itself, can be shown to have relational properties: that is, be known by them.
Indeed, philosophically speaking, were one to take relation as a basic category of
human understanding, this would all seem self-evident.
Nonetheless, even if every-
thing that is known exists as a function of relations, the anthropologist might be
interested in when and how relations become an object of attention.
Abstract forms
Examples of relations being pressed into service also show us anthropologists deploy-
ing other high-order conceptualizations, of which there is a distinct cluster around the
concept of kinship. Most recently, Sahlins has concluded that kinship is a mutuality of
being or mutuality of existence: that is, a manifold of intersubjective participations,
a conjoint matter of interdependence, co-presence, and reciprocal belonging (:oII: Io).
This relational conclusion about the nature of kinship is offered in the context of a
comparative endeavour across numerous social formations. Although Sahlins nds his
evidence in all kinds of material, here I remark that what he calls mutuality of being
is evoked by considering kinship in the abstract. He has notable predecessors here, not
least Carsten in her elucidation of relatedness, as a place-holder for kinship,
Fortess axiom of amity.
When Schneider elucidated a code for conduct in American
kinship, he characterized it as enduring, diffuse solidarity,
and while he eventually
wanted to do away with kinship as an analytic, enduring and diffuse solidarity retained
its value; indeed one problem was that it could be found everywhere. Mutuality, amity,
solidarity: the positive resonances are clear. Unqualied, kinship like relation is in
English usage a motivated concept. Indeed, we might even come to perceive a particular
relationship between the two.
Anthropological readers know what Sahlins has captured by mutualities of being,
and he would be the rst to say that is not the end of the story. Yet perhaps the positive
tenor of mutuality, like relation, as it applies to these notions in the abstract (not
necessarily, to repeat, in their particular applications), gives pause; maybe that is just a
matter of English language usage, but then maybe that is germane too. For their
capacity to carry value conceivably points to the fact that such notions are not reducible
to particular instances of them: that is, they have specic features as abstract forms. So
it was Schneider thinking in terms of a diffuse solidarity as a matter of kinship conduct
in general who could nd no difference from such sentiments as expressed in American
ideas about nationalismor religion; the consequence was his denigration of the concept
of kinship altogether. No one, Sahlins drily observes (:oII: ,), has called out Schneider
on his interpretations of nationalism and religion. In any case, it does not follow that
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because kinship shares certain ontological characteristics with nationalism and reli-
gion, it therefore has no specic properties of its own (Sahlins :oII: ,). As a long-time
admirer of the work of Schneider and Sahlins alike, I do not mind calling them both
out, and it would be on the character of abstract concepts such as solidarity and
mutuality. Abstract concepts are not the same as neutral ones. Let us refer to these as
Now this is not to object to their innite reach, the ubiquitous occurrence that
troubled Schneider so, and certainly not to complain about lack of precision. The
interesting question is in what ways such generics might be precise. Sahlins is surely
taking mutuality as a precise term for a diffuse phenomenon. At the same time, calling
colleagues out on these usages would be a bit like calling out anthropologists in general
on their use of relation and relationality. That gives me pause. Since I am part of these
arguments, and given my own investment in the concept of relations, it would be more
decorous to consider that instead. So in this exposition, relation stands in the stead of
these other generics, and not inappropriately given a feature a precise feature it
shares with them. For just as it is possible to recognize the workings of mutuality of
being or solidarity while at the same time not knowing or not specifying what kind of
beings are mutually entailed or who responds to the call of solidarity, one can showhow
relations have their effects without having to, or necessarily being able to, specify
exactly what is related.
That last formula (apropos knowing relations) is not mine: it comes from the
seventeenth-century philosopher Locke. One of his favourite examples is those who
have far different ideas of a man, may yet agree in the notion of a father (n.d. [Io,o]:
:,). And again:
[T]he ideas which relative words stand for are often clearer and more distinct than of those substances
to which they do belong. The notion we have of a father or brother is a great deal clearer and more
distinct than that we have of a man ... [Thus] comparing two men, in reference to the one common
parent, it is very easy to frame the ideas [ideas is correct] of brothers, without yet having the perfect
idea of a man ... [So] to have a clear conception of that which is the foundation of the relations ... may
be done without having a perfect and clear idea of the thing it is attributed to (n.d. [Io,o]: :,o-,).
Locke was writing more than three hundred years ago; what were relations to him? He
tells us, extensively, that his exploration is in aid of clarifying the workings of the mind,
illustrating the logical nature of the relation and its innite applications. (The argu-
ment is in direct debate with suppositions concerning innate principles or categories.)
What is interesting about his formula are its echoes in other domains. To give a
dramatic example: at the beginning of the century at whose end Locke was writing,
Galileo was staking everything on his detection of relations. Whether it was Jupiters
satellites or the surface of the moon or the appearance of sunspots, it was relations that
gave him evidence. These were rst and foremost relations between observations made
at different times. In the case of the satellites, which he dedicated to his Medici patrons,
Galileo did not need to know what he was looking at through his telescope: tracking
over time the changing positions of the entities with respect to one another, and to the
planet, was enough to show that there was a phenomenon to be observed (Biagioli
Like Lockes, these were logical or epistemic relations.
And without our knowing exactly what he understood by relations, does not Lockes
formula, like Galileos practice, have present-day resonance? Is this not what Rabinows
characterization of assemblages indicates? Interrelations have effects, regardless of
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whether such effects can be predicted from the properties of pre-existing entities;
indeed Rabinow comments to the contrary that bringing entities into relation may
point to properties, release capacities, hitherto unknown. What is true of what is
observed is true also of the manner of observation. Is it not a similar release of capacity
that informs the pursuit of knowledge itself (and in which I see a positive inection)?
No self-acknowledged knowledge-maker can do without relations, and least of all no
anthropologist who sees problems in relationships that call for relational elucidation.
But that makes it more interesting, not less, to ask about the preciseness with which the
abstract concept holds us.
Glances backwards and forwards
Let me elaborate further on that hold. An anthropologist reading Marett these days is
unlikely to imagine that when he said that all the forms of life in the world are related
together or that, apropos human life, there is a fundamental kinship and continuity
between all [its] forms (I,,o [I,I:]: ,, II), he was doing anything more than reproduc-
ing for a popular, if educated, audience assumptions with which his academic col-
leagues would have been long familiar. He was explicit about their evolutionary context
in Darwinism (the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin [I,,o [I,I:]: II]).
This renders it, for example, an obvious anachronism to read back into his declaration
the kinds of problems and possibilities imagined in some of the cross-species discourse
of the present time. Different kinds of relating are at issue. The briefest avour must
A recent journal issue hosts a special section on ethnographies of naturalism
(Candea & Alcayna-Stevens :oI:). It is concerned with the heterogeneous approaches
through which Euro-Americans, not least in their guise as behavioural or environmen-
tal scientists, understand the worlds of their subjects, and thus what they show of their
own. Included is an anthropologists attempt to account for apparent understandings
in cross-species interactions. The anthropologist was struck by the keepers of a chim-
panzee sanctuary who acted at one point as though it was obvious to know what a
chimpanzee thinks and feels, and at another as though such knowledge was quite
impossible (Alcayna-Stevens :oI:).
This is not Maretts evolutionary relationship of
continuity; if anything, it is closer to the kind of agnosticism to which Locke gave vent.
The keepers would say they know who they and who the chimpanzees are, yet between
them is a relation that throws such certainty into doubt. Their being able to enact a
relationship was evident; specifying it in terms of the prior properties of this or that
primate, of how either thinks, feels, and anticipates, was not.
The journal section concludes with a short manifesto, Anthropology beyond the
human, which states that an important way of thinking about being human is to
ponder on just how our relation to that which stands beyond us also makes us who
we are (Kohn :oI:: I,o), and the author means cross-species. This was the theme of
a paper on how dogs dream. It opens with the dismay of an Amazonian Runa house-
hold when their dogs had failed to divine their own imminent death, and people
pondered on this lapse of foreknowledge: if death was not knowable, nothing was! In
principle (Runa imagine), the dreams and intentions of dogs are knowable. The paper
is about knowing and interacting with other species (Kohn :oo,: ): how to under-
stand dogs, and how dogs come to understand people, requires a particular approach
to the life of selves. The author refers to Haraways conviction that there is something
about our everyday engagements with other creatures that can open new kinds of
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possibilities for relating and understanding (Kohn :oI:: I,,). This brings me to
Haraways (:oo,; see also :oo8) own manifesto on the notion of companion species,
which it takes two to make one embraces domestic animal and plant species, and
more widely the life that makes human life possible. The idea of life that makes other
life possible echoes Sahlinss aphorism about kin, people who live each others lives
and die each others deaths (:oII: I he quotes Carsten on the intrinsic truth of
this). Life that makes other life possible: I cannot imagine a more profound articula-
tion of ecological understandings in present times. And what brings Euro-Americans,
especially English-speakers, to such an imagining are certain apprehensions of
What is fascinating in the anthropological present is the way that relations behave
like allies. Haraway talks of their future: The recognition that one cannot know the
other or the self, but must ask in respect for all of time who and what are emerging in
relationships (:oo,: ,o, original emphasis). Or in Kohns words, relation is represen-
tation (:oI:: I,8, original emphasis): that is, is recognition.
Despite everything that is
turned around in our understandings, then, the relation is still there. In the formula-
tion of these understandings, the concept seems an ally as companionate as a dog. Now
of all that Haraway says about relations, I am struck by her comment that dogs are
about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships co-constitutive relation-
ships in which ... the relating is never done once and for all (:oo,: I:). The never done
introduces a specic temporality. It suggests an ongoing role for the ever-unnished
nature of the relating that keeps it in play, unnished in that knowing and not-knowing
perpetually create one another. Companion to our knowledge of ourselves as much as
companion to our knowledge of the world: the relation as our companion concept? We
seem willing to allow such a hold on us.
So who are our and who is interested in howwe recognize relations? Rather more
than anthropologists, though I have them most in mind. One possible answer: the heirs
of (if it existed) the scientic revolution. To think of ourselves that way might make us
appreciate just how poignantly Haraway entwines the strands in depicting the relation.
The relation she says, is the smallest unit of analysis, and the relation is about
signicant otherness at every scale (Haraway :oo,: :); and this twines around her
description of The companion species manifesto as a kinship claim (:oo,: ,).
It would be going from the sublime to the ridiculously obvious to say that such
understandings work for us in ways Marett could not have conceived, and it is as well
to be reminded of his comment about speculation. A hazard indeed to read back from
the present admonitions about relations from a century ago if we are not also prepared
to embrace the evolutionary framework of the time; Marett himself hated
uncontextualized analogies. However, it is not clear that three centuries simply triples
the risk. Having stated it, let us leave the question of risk open.
Part II
What kind of kinship?
Lockes analogy between the conceptual capacity of relations as an idea and relations
between kinsfolk leads to a thought.
Without knowing the nature of the relation that
he, or anyone for that matter, was summoning, might we none the less be able to
apprehend a relationship at play: to wit, that between relation and kinship? What
might we know, then, of English kinship at the time?
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Whateverit was,it isnot goingtobeonething.Seventeenth-centuryEnglandwitnessed
numerous political and theological divergences, not to speak of constitutional experi-
ments, with philosophers reecting on the legitimacy of government and the sanctity of
kings. How to think about this as a period, often called early modern, is a continuing
source of historical controversy. Amongwell-knowndisputes has beenthat over the form
of family and household relations, which proceeded, in the words of one historian, with
some asserting that the family in early modern England was just emerging from its
traditional state, [while] revisionist historians used the same categories [that is, data]
to emphasize that the family in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England was in fact
already modern (Tadmor :ooI: ,). Although I have no particular axe to grind here, it
is impossibletoavoidtrackingaroutethroughtheinterpretations of others; thefollowing
is based on a handful of mostly recent works.
Intheforward-rollinglanguageinwhichthepast oftengets presentedthat is, interms
of its futureit has beensuggestedthat what was gatheringmomentumintheseventeenth
century was the drift of a formerly bilateral, cognatic kin system to a lineage system
denedpredominantlythroughthemarriageof rst-bornsons ... [with] theconsequence
of disinheritingdaughters(Perry:oo: o).
accumulationerodedboththewealthandtheautonomythat womenof property-owning
Thesamematerial suggeststhat,withthisdrift,
womens power came no longer from their positions as daughters and sisters but from
being positioned as wives and mothers. There were also changes in household compo-
sition, in the way people extended themselves through the labours of their servants
(Steedman :oo,), and what it meant that servants were wage-workers. And as anthro-
pologists have done before her, Tadmor argues that, while in the seventeenth (as well as
eighteenth) century the English household/family was characteristicallynuclear, it does
not meanthat therewasnonexusof connectionsbetweenhouseholds(:ooI: I8).Wemight
wonder what was changing there too.
Tadmors own interest is in the evidence we have for the way people thought about
family and kinship, and she offers a detailed account of language usage, tracing key-
words as they occur in diaries or literature. She is perhaps best known for her elucida-
tion of a principal connotation of family as commonly embracing everyone living in
a household, parents and children with diverse dependants, such as servants and
apprentices. Co-residence went with submission to the authority of the household
head, which existed alongside contractual arrangements. Diverse terms were used for
kin living elsewhere, with the core vocabulary of consanguineal terms incorporating
afnes of all kinds; these existed alongside generic terms such as kin or kindred, and
friends as a term for kin (Tadmor :ooI: Ioo, I:,). The generic terms are interesting, in
Tadmors view, since they at once suggest an inclusiveness to which indigent kin might
appeal and an opacity about the degree of connection involved, the latter equally
affording grounds on which help might be refused.
It was at this time that into the pool of generic terms dropped relations and
relatives. Apart from a reference in the sixteenth century, all the recorded kinship
connotations of relation and relative stem from the seventeenth.
By the time with
which Tadmor is mainly concerned (the eighteenth century), relation is thoroughly
embedded as a generic term for kin. In commenting on the plurality of terms that
existed for kinsfolk, she observes that usages stem back to different roots and occur in
different registers (:ooI: I,-,). And something that happens to be well recorded in
seventeenth-century writings is the explicitness that developed over language use.
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The language in question was English, and its relationship to Latin. With
vernacularization on all sides came scope for extensions of meanings and applications
to changing situations. Obviously it is not just the appearance of a word that is
signicant: words may undergo periods of popularization or discursive lift-off
(Withington :oIo: :,).
For instance, the termsociety was not just recast: it came to
acquire new connotations consonant with fresh attention to the public sphere as an
extra-familial space that is, as a kind of social interaction lying somewhere between
the realms of the family and state (Withington :oIo: I, I,). By the same token,
relation itself had long existed in the vernacular, at least since the fourteenth century,
to refer to logical or epistemic relations, with the sense of correspondence or associa-
tion, as in making a contrast or comparison, or to recital and the action of narration.
Was the concept of relation subsequently affected by new appropriations from the
Latin, and was it to have discursive lift-off in other elds as well? What were the
circumstances of its introduction into the sphere of the interpersonal ties of kinship?
We might ask: what was happening (rst) in kinship practices that made new usages
plausible, and what was happening (second) to make new usages plausible for those
concerned with words?
On the rst, kinship practices, the stability of the core (consanguineal) English kin
recorded over many centuries, is part of the evidence on which commenta-
tors draw to argue about the antiquity of family arrangements in England. Of course,
they would allow changes in patterns of use, but the terms were remarkably constant.
However, there was an arena where novel terms ourished, and we have seen what
it was. When it came to thinking of kinsfolk generically, relations (and relatives)
was added to the repertoire. And somewhat later the move happened all over again
with connection. In the seventeenth century, connection was a new term for the
linking together of words and ideas or being related by a bond of interdependence,
causality, logical sequence, coherence (in the twentieth-century phrasing of the
Oxford English Dictionary editors, with a reference to IoI,). It was then to gain popu-
larity in the eighteenth century as a key term for relations with kin of all kinds.
Did new concepts come with these new terms? What was the character of these
Tadmor observes that there was at this time hardly a term for kinsfolk, specic or
generic, that could not also be used of persons in non-kinship contexts (:ooI: I,,, Io).
The precise signicance of generics, such as relations and friends (and later connec-
tions) for kin ties, was that they combined recognition acknowledging the kinship of
this or that person, that is, choosing to know them without specifying degree,
without, in short, specifying the nature of the tie, and thus the kinship properties
embodied (my phrasing) in those who were related. With its emphasis not on the
actual degree of the relationship, but on its recognition ... the term relation conveys
the idea that an individual has kin, rather than any specic information about the
structure of the kinship relationship (Tadmor :ooI: I:,, I:,). Non-identifying generics
could refer to intimate kin such as parents or children as well as to distant people one
may not have heard of before they were on the doorstep. In other words, one might
allow that a person was a kinsman without exactly knowing how the connection was
A diarist reported just that of a Mr Wallace we found in the house who said he
was a relation (quoted by Tadmor :ooI: I:);
Tadmor adds, the umbrella-term
relation was evidently useful enough in this case to demand recognition and to enable
Mr Wallace to make a nancial claim on his distant kin.
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All this not only gave some exibility to the way people dened the interpersonal
networks within which they moved, as Tadmor suggests, but it seems to me that it may
also have been drawing on a notion of relation as a kind of abstracted or removed
comment on the value of connections as such. These terms seem to have worked as
generalized invocations, at once capable of precise effects (the power of recognition, or
the reverse) while not having to summon the embodiment of the relation in the specic
persons through whom it was traced. Was there a sense, too, in which its template, the
epistemic relation, already an abstraction, was also changing?
At one point, the phi-
losopher of science Stengers complains that the modern English termrelation (and she
is thinking of an epistemic relation) lacks what the French rapport retains from its
classical derivations, including the operation of comparison signied through reason
and proportion (:ooI: 8). Everything may be described as related, but not everything
entertains rapports (:ooI: 8-,).
It was precisely such a leached-out connotation of
relation in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English that seems to have been so
useful in the kinship context.
The second question is what was happening for those concerned with words. Cast
back for a moment to the popularization of the termsociety, and an emergent public
sphere (a mode of collectivism best described as voluntary and purposeful association
[Withington :oIo: I,, emphasis omitted]). An older view that pre-industrial English
society was based on the family is challenged by those who would emphasize the
associational ethos of the early modern period (Withington :oIo: Ioo). There was,
from this latter perspective, a widening spectrum of social interaction rooted in the
basic concept of association, a web of inter-dependent associations that constituted
what the writer of the rst printed text to deploy society on its title page, in I,,o, called
civil society. This particular writer imagines that web as bringing together different
kinds of associations, based on country, town, private corporation, friendship (in a
non-kinship sense) and kindred (Withington :oIo: Io,). And what was meant by
kindred? If we take society as pointing to a widening ethos of association, is there
another way of imagining a public sphere interposing itself between family and state?
Is the conceptualization of kinship ties being caught up in a similar change of direction?
Relations: need we look any further for the appropriateness of a highly generic term
for kinsfolk close to this very idiom, one which could summon an abstract concept of
relationship association as such?
Other assemblies
An assembly of several People in one Place, on purpose to assist each other in business
... a particular tie between some Persons, either for interest, out of friendship, or to live
a Regular life ... a Company of themjoined together in the study of some Art or Science
(Phillips Io,8; Io,o, cited in Withington :oIo: Io8). Such were the components for a
denition of society in a mid-seventeenth century work called The new world of words
(see above note I8). The study of science! For there was of course a whole other domain
of self-consciousness about language, stimulated by questions of identication, veri-
cation, and recognition, explicitly addressed to how things are made known. Shapin
puts it bluntly: [T]he seventeenth century witnessed some self-conscious and large-
scale attempts to change belief, and ways of securing belief, about the natural world
(I,,o: ,). Our sense of there being radical change afoot comes, he says, from people at
the time. Just what kind of public space was being created here? Part of it, as Haraway
(I,,,) tells the tale, was not only the creation of a disinterested objectivity but also
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establishing who counted as a credible witness; she at once excavates and builds on
Shapins work (e.g. Shapin I,,), to show how that question (who counted) moulded
ideas about gendered persons. The positioning of men and women in the new
knowledge-experiments of natural philosophy was to have an enduring effect. To this
I would add that maybe something else too came frompeople, all kinds of people, at the
time: the work to which they were putting the concept of relation.
In preferring rapport to relation, Stengers wishes to further an argument about
present-day scientic objectivity. Experimental sciences are not objective, she writes,
because they would rely on measurement alone. In their case, objectivity is not the
name for a method but for an achievement, for the creation of a rapport authorizing
the denition of an object (:oII: ,o). That is, there has to be an agreement that works,
and an agreement that veries the working. The labour of eighteenth-century chemists,
who composed exhaustive tables of afnities or rapports, is a case in point, and
Stengers notes their starting position in Newtons Opticks and its mode of reasoning:
[A] solution of iron in aqua fortis dissolves the cadmium which is put into it, and abandons the iron,
which means that the acid particles of the acqua fortis are more strongly attracted by cadmium rather
than by iron. Two chemical elements were thus compared in their rapport to a third one with which
both could be associated; the one with the stronger afnity for the third would displace the other from
such an association (Stengers :oII: ,I).
There is an echo with Rabinows experimental description of assemblages: bringing
entities into relation releases capacities hitherto unknown. It was possible to demon-
strate attraction without yet knowing the properties of what was being attracted, or
show an afnity between entities without clear knowledge of what the entities (parti-
cles) were. The correlation would become their property, the object now capable of
description; any redescription (testing) of the correlation would then focus on reveal-
ing again the power of the attraction, and so forth.
Abandonment, attraction, comparison, association, afnity: to an English-speaker
these are all types of relations. Relation was always one among a nexus of terms.
Seventeenth-century philosophers were reecting not only on government and sover-
eignty but also on the character of knowledge and human understanding, bound up
with knowledge-experiments that conceived nature as requiring innite explanation,
and explanation innite verication. It is obviously beyond my compass, and certainly
beyond my boldness, to rehearse the multitude of techniques through which early
modern scientists/natural philosophers described their world. The brief allusion to a
fragment from Newton must do proxy for all the ways in which a signicant dimension
of their work, at once its means and end, was experimenting with relations. At the same
time, description becomes a new object.
Can we say that terms for concepts were
subject to trial, at least indirectly, in that what came to stick must have found an
agreement with circumstance or argument? The concept of afnity, which for Stengers
seems the closest vernacular equivalent to the French rapport, implies a kind of relation;
the word itself underwent change at this time too, although on an opposite path from
relation. It started out with reference to kinship, marriage, and companionship, to
become in the sixteenth century a term for the logic of causal connection and
structural resemblance.
We might call this experimentation with language. If
a leached-out, generic apprehension of relations allowed movement between an
abstract demonstration, which could be invested with proof through measurement and
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correlation, and a generalized notion that drew on non-specic ideas about interper-
sonal connections applicable to human affairs, then afnity shows that it was a move-
ment that could go in either direction.
There can be no single route to imagining the various worlds that the inhabitants of
seventeenth-century England might have recognized; such worlds could not in any case
be within my scope. It is a backward glance that is being construed here. It suggests that
one way in which natural philosophy created knowledge of an experimental kind,
namely nding out the effects of correlations (regardless of specifying the entities
involved), could have been part of whatever bedded down a conceptualization of the
relation that has held English-speakers in its embrace ever since. This might even make
anthropologists want to enlarge the phrase scientic revolution to include everything
needed to recognize an emergent sense of (civil) society, and recognize kinship as well.
For one might also suggest that the movement across semantic domains, the lodging in
the sphere of kinship of relation as an abstract or generic term, which leaves open what
it is that is being related, makes something akin between the new learning and the new
kinship alike. Terms for English kinship relations only go on looking traditional if one
ignores what was happening to generics. Indeed, one might wish to pose the realization
as a question to be asked, ethnographically, currently, of vernacular English usage: why
do we assume kinship to be about relations?
The question is of course almost unaskable, especially by social anthropologists, for
many would surely entwine it all over again with their apprehension of relations as a
basic category not just of thought but also of mutuality of being. The assumption that
these go together combines strands as complex as an assemblage, not least in reference
to narratives of kinship (for an experimental exception, see Crook :oo,). Yet if we
cannot approach the phenomenon directly, might we once more be able to detect a
difference in its effects, as in Newtons comparison of the relative afnities of chemical
particles or Galileos corrugated moon surface observed in the changing shadows it
cast? If the phenomenon is imagining (describing, narrating) kin ties as relations, are
there any effects of its explicitness to which we can point? Might we ask, for example,
about the relationship of ideas about kinship to other generics before relations came
Asalient termthat was still in the seventeenth century being used to refer to kinsfolk,
though by no means exclusively, was friend, and is the generic I take up here. Inclu-
siveness and opacity were also among [its] main characteristics (Tadmor :ooI: I:,). If
we are to believe the historian Brays (:oo,)
account, the newideas about civil society,
which eventually displaced a notion of society in the older sense of company, also
displaced references to the mutual corporeality on which friendship and kinship were
in previous centuries both based. Without going in detail into his argument, we may
note, for example, how friendship was celebrated as a conjugal bond, notably brother-
hood sworn between men before witnesses at the church gate, where betrothals
between men and women were also sworn, or friends laid to rest side by side like
spouses, or each imagined as giving their body to the other. The images made concrete
the kinship between those so sworn (they were wed thereby). Conversely, the good of
kinship lay in the friendship (the society [as in companionship]) that it could create
between individuals and groups [such as families], who might otherwise be at enmity
(Bray :oo,: :I); in this it had a signicant political role, of which an important element
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was public display of bodily intimacy.
Now contemporary English usage allows us to
deploy companionship to refer to the kinds of connotations society once held. While,
as Withington documents, company underwent changes of connotation (:oIo: II,), it
retained a sense of conviviality or sociability (Anglo-Saxon fellowship) that the more
abstract society was to sketch more faintly.
Haraways phrase, companion species, is
apt: what kind of kin, we may indeed ask, are these? For the question Bray poses of
pre-seventeenth-century friendship what kind of kin are companions? echoes with
how Haraway draws us to thinking across species of the kinship of companionship.
There was to be something of a revolution in expressions of affect; recall the new
conjugality by which women became dened principally as mothers and wives rather
than daughters and sisters. During the course of the seventeenth century, older prac-
tices of friendship became suspect, eventually to be capped (in the mid-eighteenth
century) by explicit legislation that forbade the formation of marriage by mutual
agreement before witnesses, as had long been sanctioned by the medieval church (Bray
:oo,: :I,). Apropos marriage, friendship was no longer to be created in relations that
overlapped with it and were akin to it (Bray :oo,: :I,). An emergent rational ethics
require[d] the moral basis of friendship to reside in an undifferentiated benevolence
(Bray :oo,: :I,). Another otherwise undifferentiated concept, and in the abstract with
positive, even benevolent, connotations, relation(s), had in the meantime become the
new generic for kinsfolk.
My anthropological concern has been in showing the way generics behave. Generics
are rather more than metaphorical extensions of ideas calling out for concrete expres-
sion, and I have resisted the other imputation that there is anything intrinsically vague
about them (as with any terminology, they can be used vaguely). In present-day English
usage, the noun relation(s) is simultaneously abstract in its lack of specication and
positive in the tenor it carries. Now all this is not to suggest that Schneider was closer
than he could have imagined to medieval preoccupations when he worried about
nding the solidarity of kinship in modern American notions of nationhood or reli-
gion. Nor is it to suggest that Sahlinss mutuality of being is able to encompass so
much of the world because it travels with both medieval and modern connotations of
kin ties although he does draw from a classical text well known in medieval times, in
quoting Aristotles words on the friendship of kinship. Anchored as it may be in
concepts of birth and descent, Aristotles discussion of kinship at once goes beyond and
encompasses relations of procreation in larger meanings of mutual belonging that
could just as well accommodate the various performative modes of relatedness
(Sahlins :oII: Io).
Rather, it is to ask about the power with which a concept can
capture so much of what an English-speaking anthropologist would want to say about
the world. Possibly this exercise might have made it a bit more interesting, at least when
it comes to kinship, to appreciate the membranes of relationality by which the heirs of
the scientic revolution assemble, and dis-assemble, their knowledge.
I thank the Rector of Exeter College, and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, for the
invitation to present the :oI, Marett Memorial Lecture at the University of Oxford. Part of the lecture comes
from a presentation to the Department of Anthropologys Emerging Worlds Workshop :oI,, at the Univer-
sity of California, Santa Cruz; Donna Haraway could not have been a more generous and stimulating
interlocutor. For diverse gifts, my thanks to Karen Barad, Alan Strathern, and Anna Tsing, and to Janet
Carsten, Alberto Corsn Jimnez, Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Adam Reed, and TomYarrow for their very pertinent
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I draw here on the phrasing of Collier and Ong apropos the global assemblages with which they are
concerned, sites for the formation and reformation of what we will call, following Paul Rabinow, anthro-
pological problems (:oo,: , original emphasis removed; also o). Anthropological (after anthropos, rather
than the discipline) problems concern the modern apprehension of the human condition.
One set of conditions that challenge anthropological narration is stem cell research, which
exemplies the way in which living systems appear to be open to remediation ... By removing the
inner cell mass cells from [the outer layer] and by placing these cells into different media,
researchers have been able to reconstruct the signaling pathways that function to direct the vitality
and differentiation of the cells. This reworking is such that the cells are given new forms and
subsequently new functions (Rabinow & Bennett :oo8: ,-,o).
Of assemblage, Rabinow was to write, I introduce a concept assemblage and then describe how it could
be taken from the work it had been designed to perform originally and remediated so as to address a different
set of problems in another time and place (:oII: I:I).
I am not implying it is necessarily there in Rabinows usage.
See, for example, James (:oo,: ,,-), following Allen (:ooo: ,I-,) and his exposition of the philosopher
Renouvier (Durkheims educator). In Renouviers list of basic categories of conceptual organization or
understanding, as they were devolved from Aristotle, relation penetrated all the others. I emphasize the
intervening notion of knowledge to draw attention to the way in which the termrelation(s) is deployed in
English, precisely in its categorical form, when the task is how to understand understanding.
Carsten makes it clear that the concept of relatedness was introduced in order to suspend certain
assumptions, and thereby bracket off a particular nexus of problems, which kinship otherwise trails
(:ooo: ,).
In Fortess case, the concept is abstract insofar as it may be isolated as a (moral as distinct from jural)
principle, a general and fundamental axiom which I call the axiom of prescriptive altruism or ... of amity
(I,o,: :,I).
These are all cited by Sahlins. Apropos Schneider (e.g. Schneider I,,:), I take diffuse enduring solidarity
and the like as the corollary subjectivity of mutual being (Sahlins :oII: I:).
Galileo put them into a class of wandering stars, though stars had never been seen orbiting other planets.
The point was that Galileo could construct a legitimate argument about the physical existence of the satellites
of Jupiter by tabulating their periodical motions (Biagioli :ooo: I8). The same evidence also conrmed that
what he saw was not simply an effect of imperfections in the instrument.
Biagioli translates the comments of a Jesuit mathematician at the time (IoIo-II) as follows: Here in Rome
we have seen them [the Medicean stars]. I will attach some diagrams at the end of this letter from which one
can see most clearly that they are not xed stars, but errant ones, as they change their position in relation to
Jupiter (:ooo: III-I:).
Rabinbows then project of remediation (see note :) was explicit as to the value to be placed on
knowledge, given that a goal was to design new practices that bring the biosciences and the human sciences
into a mutually collaborative and enriching relationship, a relationship designed to facilitate a remediation of
the currently existing relations between knowledge and care in terms of mutual ourishing (Rabinow &
Bennett :oo8: o; see further Rabinow & Bennett :oI:: ,, :).
Marett was writing in I,I:; by then evolutionary anthropology was, as a school of thought, much
embattled (see Stockings [I,,,: I,,] account of the BAAS meetings of I,II). This is not the place for a
considered view of Maretts rather bland Darwininism, or indeed of the forward-looking agenda that both
Stocking (I,,,: I,o) and Langham (I,8I: xix-xx) nd in his work. Genetic science is one reason today for
asserting that [a]ll living beings, from the most humble to the most complex, are related (Rabinow :oo,: Io,
citing a French Nobel Prize winner).
The words are those uttered by the keepers; the sanctuarys project was to re-socialize the primates,
turning entertainment animals back into chimpanzees, and keepers were caught between enactments of
empathy with their charges and training them not to depend on interaction with human beings. [K]eepers
just as often act as if they can grasp the perspective of a chimpanzee, as they act as if they cannot
(Alcayna-Stevens :oI:: ,:, original emphasis).
To argue that life is semiotic and semiosis is alive is to change how we think about relationality
arguably anthropologys fundamental concern and central analytic (Kohn :oI:: I,8). This is not the place to
dilate on Kohns model, or on the special inection he gives to representation.
In drawing examples from relations between kin, he possibly intended no more than to show the
relationship between ideas (the idea of being a brother may be evident even if you have little idea of the
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persons identity). However, in light of what follows, perhaps his kinship analogies become interesting. Locke
distinguishes a class of natural relations, includingfather and son, brothers, cousin-germans, etc, which have
their relations by one community of blood, wherein they partake in several degrees; he goes on to refer to the
self-consciousness by which language designates different kin, so that by distinct names [kin terms] these
relations should be observed and marked out in mankind (n.d. [Io,o]: :,8).
A summary of historical and anthropological material through the eyes of an English literature special-
ist, as a prelude to her scrutiny of the preoccupations of novels of the time with womens disinheritance.
Eriksons work is based on probate documents and records of lawsuits over marriage settlements. By the
late seventeenth/early eighteenth century, women were feeling the effects of the abandonment or contraction
of earlier provisions that had been in their favour under the once prevalent diversity of legal jurisdictions.
(There had been ve distinct bodies of law affecting property disposal.) For example, the equal division of
land and goods between children and womens various property entitlements under ecclesiastical law were
being reduced; provisions in common law explicitly began limiting womens inheritance of land. The
contraction of opportunities for women of the business and labouring classes seems to have come rather
On the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary I,,I compact edition of the complete text. (This is not
something Tadmor herself comments upon.)
Not as vacuous an observation as it might seem. The early modern period is appropriately styled, in
Withingtons view, insofar as many modern connotations took shape then. He comments on the early
modern obsession with ancient, hard, and new words (often one and the same thing) (Withington :oIo:
Io8). (A gesture to this interest in words is the reference [below] to The new world of words, described as
plagiaristic and thus as one among many. The author Edward Phillips put his name to two editions: The new
world of English words: or, a general dictionary: containing the interpretations of such hard words as are derived
from other languages (Io,8); and The new world of words: or, A universal English dictionary. Containing the
proper signications and derivations of all words from other languages (Io,o) [Withington :oIo: :,].)
When, in Withingtons words, a term moves from a period of assimilation to its normative acceptance.
Those in which he has especial interest society, company, modern were appropriated by humanist
writers in the I,,os, but were to have discursive lift-off in the Io8os and Io,os (Withington :oIo: I,, :,). (The
dates here refer to their appearance on the title pages of books printed in the vernacular.) Society in the sense
of company or fellowship appeared in the early sixteenth century, though company itself was Norman-
French and fellowship Anglo-Saxon (Withington :oIo: Io,).
Albeit diffuse in usage. I do not elaborate on the way in which terms for specic kin (e.g. father)
apparently contrasted with terms applied to all manner of kin (uncle, cousin); specic terms were also used
diffusely (father for father-in-law). In present-day usage these are much contracted. Over time, the generic
term friend came to be applied to broader-based, personally selected relations, as English-speakers would
recognize it today, shorn of kinship connotations, while relation(s) used of persons remains rmly tied to
If someone might be called a relation without the speaker having to specify the persons through whom
the tie was traced, presumably it could be equivocal as to whether a logical or epistemic relation was being
acknowledged without any specication of terms, for instance between known kinspersons, or whether it was
the kin-based sense of relation that was not being specied, or was not known, beyond the interpersonal
The date is I,,o, by which time the term had become thoroughly embedded in colloquial usage. Alberto
Corsn Jimnez (pers. comm., n.d.) offers the dazzling comment that if one thinks of the house as a trap for
the relation, in having the interior space in which Mr Wallace could be found, it was also making room for
the appearance of (civil) society.
When Shapin quotes Donnes famous lines, from IoII, on the decentring effect of investigations such as
Galileos, And New Philosophy calls all in doubt / ... Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone; / All just supply, and
all Relation (I,,o: :8), we surmise that relation was conveying the cosmology of an ordered or justly
proportioned world.
Le rapport remained in French a term for logical relations, but never became used for kin; another term
for logical relations, la relation, may be used of acquaintances and associates but not kin. In English, rapport
(derived from the French) was in circulation in the seventeenth century, connoting correspondence or
There is a question as to whether or not Withington includes within family the whole arena of kinship
relations; we can also ask whether kinship beyond the family/household did not (already) have a public cast
to it.
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Like society and company, though in a different register, relation applied to kin carried overtones of
affect: the acknowledgement of obligation, the enjoyment of consociation, and so forth. However (Tadmors
point), it is not the kind of relation but the fact of it that is acknowledged.
Apropos the comments on vernacularization, this was written in English (I,o) before being translated
into Latin (I,oo).
In her discussion of the concept of paradigm (or rapport) as an intervention, Stengers writes:
It is not enough ... to nd situations that resemble a model or conrm a theory. It is necessary for
the appetite to be sharpened by the challenge ... by an undulating landscape, rich with subtle
differences that must be invented, where the term recognize does not refer to the observation of a
resemblance but to the challenge of actualizing it (:ooo [I,,,]: 8, original emphasis).
Compare Rabinow, following Deleuze: [T]he pedagogic work of the concept ... consists in conceptualization
as an act of creation (:oII: I:).
According to one historian of sciences view, [S]ome seventeenth-century subcultures, perhaps espe-
cially in Protestant countries, began to give priority tonatural history to description rather than meanings
... [T]hat displacement ... did not produce only a new nature; it also, necessarily, produced new kinds of
literature (Pickstone :ooo: ,-),
There were also terms making their appearance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as
attraction and sympathy, which from their rst usages seems to have applied to relations between natural
phenomena and persons alike.
Kin could be used of blood ties, family, common stock, groups of persons so connected, and also of a
class or natural group or division of entities. Like conceive, it contained the possibilities of epistemic as well
as interpersonal application. The move I point to in the seventeenth century was in this sense a reinvention.
(Kin and kindred were common long before; kinship is a nineteenth-century neologism.)
My appreciation to Carla Freccero, University of California at Santa Cruz, for pointing me to this work.
Such kinship
took a multiplicity of forms, created by promise as well as by blood, and by ritual and oath as well
as by nature. It might spring from the love of parents and children, a brother or sister, or an uncle
or aunt, nephew or niece the love (in that once generic term) of a cousin. But kinship might also
be created directly, by human agency. Marriage was the most complete instrument of that agency
... but marriage was not the only form in which kinship could be created by ritual or promise ...
[S]worn brothers ... were another such, and they themselves are not a distinct and unique
phenomenon. Their kinship overlapped both symbolically and actually with that created by a
betrothal and with the spiritual kinship created by baptism (Bray :oo,: :I).
The spectrum of meanings that society invoked included sociability at one end, while at the other end
it denoted idealized notions and theories of association not found in company (Withington :oIo: II).
Earlier Sahlins had written:
[I]t was Aristotle in the Nichomachean ethics who penned what still seems the best determination
of what kinship is. Reading Aristotle on the friendship of kinsmen, one could be reading Marilyn
Strathern ... or Janet Carsten ... analyzing kinship as relationships to others intrinsic to a persons
subjective being and objective identity (:oo8: ,).
Sahlins then pithily quotes Aristotle on parents and children: They are, then, the same entity in a way, though
in different subjects. We are reminded of the pertinence of Fortess phrase, axiom of amity. Mentioning in
passing a passage from Aquinass exposition of the Nichomachean ethics on friendship, he comments: The
notion of amicitia, here translated as friendship, corresponds closely to what I mean by amity in the
kinship context (Fortes I,o,: :,, n).
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Pour une lecture rebours des parents
Il serait dangereux pour un anthropologue de lire rebours, partir du prsent, des admonitions datant
presque dun sicle selon lesquelles le monde entier serait une grande famille ou toutes les formes de vie
seraient apparentes. Il serait encore plus dangereux de lire les ides dil y a trois sicles la lumire du
prsent. Et pourtant, une question contemporaine en anthropologie sociale mrite que lon prenne ce
risque. Il sagit du rle des termes gnriques dans llaboration des connaissances, et plus prcisment de
ce que nous savons des liens de parent. En rchissant sur ladoption dun mot gnrique, relation ,
pour reconnatre les apparents en Angleterre au moment de la rvolution scientique, cet article montre
de quelle manire prcise ce mot gnrique aurait t utile aussi bien aux crateurs de parent quaux
crateurs de connaissances. Dcrire la parent sans avoir prciser les entits en cause a t utile aux uns
autant quaux autres. Cet exercice de spculation pourrait tre intressant dans le contexte actuel, avec ses
appels au relationnel et la relationnalit.
Marilyn Strathern is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She has
returned to some issues in European kinship aired most recently in Kinship, law and the unexpected (Cam-
bridge University Press, :oo,).
Girton College, Cambridge CB: ,EQ, UK.
Reading relations backwards 19
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) , ,-:,
Royal Anthropological Institute :oI