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What human kinship is primarily about: toward a critique of the new kinship studies
The claims of the so-called ‘constructionist’ position in kinship studies are examined with reference to a recent article by Susan McKinnon. McKinnon’s analysis is shown to be deeply flawed, primarily because she pays no attention to the phenomenon of focality, now widely established in cognitive science. Instead, she is trapped in unsupportable collectivist models of human kinship. It is argued that these models are part of a misguided critique of the Western European Enlightenment. Key words kinship, deconstruction, evolutionary psychology
My title and subtitle are anything but accidental. In 1972 David Schneider published ‘What is kinship all about?’ (Schneider 1972), which was followed a dozen years later by A critique of the study of kinship (Schneider 1984). His conclusions in both publications have been widely taken to mean that models of procreation 1 provide only one criterion for kin-reckoning throughout the world and are in no sense primary, as they are in the West. 2 This stance has been called ‘culturalist’ or ‘constructionist’ (‘social constructionist’, ‘cultural constructionist’) (Shapiro 2005a). The constructionist position has morphed into a highly self-conscious ‘new kinship studies’ (Carsten 2000: 3), which presents itself as part of a larger ‘deconstructionist’ movement in social theory (Yanagisako and Delaney 1995). Yet this larger movement is not without its critics. Nor
1 I prefer expressions like ‘models of procreation’ or ‘procreation models’ (Yeatman 1983) to ‘genealogical’ (etc.) because the latter suggest the sort of extended genealogies found in the Bible and ‘the tracing of descent’ of introductory anthropology textbooks. In fact, as I note later, such genealogies are relatively restricted ethnographic phenomena, whereas models of procreation are probably universal. Actually, Schneider sometimes went further, insisting that the procreative model is a construct of kinship studies, and that (other) native English-speakers employ a model in which procreative relationships are neither sufficient nor necessary (Schneider 1968, 1972: 49–56, 1984: 92 et seq.). I argue in the body of this paper that the former assertion is false. On the latter, see Scheffler (1976).
Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale (2008) 16, 2 137–153. C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8676.2008.00038.x
and metaphorical members of classes. I hope to show elsewhere. that his position is likened to or modeled upon that of one’s real father.138 WA R R E N S H A P I R O are the claims of the new kinship studies in particular accepted by all (see e. D’Andrade 1995: 115–21. as Sahlins (1976) argued three decades ago in his critique of sociobiology. But no one so far as I know has attempted a sustained analysis of this scholarship. 3 I shall do so here. but I find it unnecessary to do this here. . Patterson 2005. or fatherish. In semantic research a distinction is often made among primary. I need also to note. and the ‘deconstruction’ enterprise figures heavily elsewhere in her scholarship (McKinnon 1995a. Prolegomena But first I need briefly to consider a series of phenomena sometimes dubbed ‘prototype effects’. Such structuring of semantic space has been shown to apply quite widely in human cognition. before proceeding. Kuper 1999: 122–58. for fathers to be far less likely physically and sexually to abuse their children than stepfathers their stepchildren (Daly and Wilson 1988: 86–91). and it has been suggested that it is in this matter that the mind constructs categories (e. 2000. Lakoff 1987. Here McKinnon argues that ‘the genetic calculus’ of evolutionary psychology disrespects the nuances of human kin-reckoning.g. secondary. and kinship in general. and nurturant. My concern here is mostly with her kinship piece. Franklin and McKinnon 2001). Shimizu 1991). Thus we call Roman Catholic priest ‘father’. Kronenfeld 1996: 147–65. that my presentation assumes no previous acquaintance on the reader’s part with kinship theory in anthropology. For a more recent effort on my part. We might say that he is ‘like a father’. authoritative. have managed to 3 4 A quarter century ago I tried to do so (Shapiro 1982).g. Shapiro 2005a). 4 We might also say that it is this latter who is the focal member of the ‘father’ class. Susan McKinnon on the nature of human kinship A recent article by Susan McKinnon (2005b) exemplifies the constructionist position in kinship studies with remarkable clarity and expressly engages it adversarially with notions of kinship in evolutionary psychology. in that he is male. but this was before the politicisation of kinship studies. and for kin to be far less likely to aggress lethally against each other than nonkin (1988: 17–35) – and all this is so quite apart from how particular kin relationships. This engagement appears to be only the first in McKinnon’s unfolding agenda. who do not pretend to be specialists in the cross-cultural study of kinship. One possible retort to this charge is that present-day Darwinian scholars are concerned not with kinship constructs but with kinship behaviour: thus there is a statistical tendency for maternal grandmothers to be the most investing of the four grandparents (Buss 2004: 237–40). see Shapiro (1995a: 201–88). are conceptualised. with reference to a particular article which. but we know intuitively that he is not as central a member of the ‘father’ class as one’s genitor is. is reasonably exemplary. and that membership in this class is extended to the priest. But a more interesting answer is that evolutionary psychologists. This is metaphorical usage. 2001. for she has more recently come out with a small book purporting to ‘deconstruct’ evolutionary psychology as a whole (McKinnon 2005a). C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
For we learn that. emphasis added). among the Wari. to which Jesus’ Emergence from the Tomb and similarly enhanced spiritual state is expressly compared in Matthew 12:38–41. and (4) especially and conclude that it is disrespectful of native views to stress (1) in analysing Wari notions of kinship. emphasis in original). . like the Wari. the most direct bodily connections are those . Presumably the father/son relationship established between a killer and his victim is in the latter category. who does. In most of the rest of this article I shall document this surprising assertion. after which he becomes obedient to divine authority. in a manner comparable to my rendition of a Catholic priest as ‘father’. C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. . But this is not all. and the killing of enemies) establish relationships that Wari recognize as being similar to. and that these notions are very different from what we have in the West. children.’ (Conklin 2001a: 118). see also Vilaca 2000: 94–5). (2) through wet-nursing. 2001b. . These renditions suggest parallels between triumphing over an opponent and. Shapiro 1995b). though weaker than. A case in point is provided by the Wari Indians of southwestern Brazil. with other sorts of kin ties deemed to be. connected with violence is an element in the central creative act of both Judaism (Abraham’s quasisacrifice of Isaac) and Christianity (the Crucifixion). Moreover. though some are closer than others? Not at all. substantially less. . body fluids (through breast-feeding. and he is said to be in a state which is ‘like pregnancy’ but not one that ‘is pregnancy’ (Conklin 2001b: 161. Vilaca 2000: 95). when he takes a life a Wari man’s abdomen is supposed to swell. . Does this mean that everyone is considered kin. sexual intercourse. . both religions make use of birthing imagery in connection with hierarchical relationships between two males – specifically. Hence the parent/child relationship provides the quintessential kin-tie for the Wari. in which the killer and his victim are said to be in a father/son relationship (Conklin 2001a: 116–22. Similarly. Now I shall guess that Susan McKinnon would seize upon (2). real or metaphorical. the tie linking husband and wife. involving parents. (3) through sexual intercourse between husband and wife. And she would be wrong on both counts. they are likened to ‘true kin’.W H AT H U M A N K I N S H I P I S P R I M A R I LY A B O U T 139 grasp the truth more profoundly than McKinnon. and vice versa. and. (3). that of to cream and to whack in the other (Roscoe 1994. Vilaca 2002: 359) – i.e. Finally. using McKinnon’s own examples but also supplementing them for further and richer illustration. . or between paramours. less directly. and (4) through killing enemies outside one’s community. Jonas’ being regurgitated by the Great Fish. of all posited kin relationships. the consanguineal links that exist at birth’ (2001a: 118. literally. other less immediate consanguines. although ‘all consanguineal kin share some body substance . for the act of killing makes the two only ‘like real kin’ (Conklin 2001a: 121. ‘[e]xchanges of . The polysemy of such expressions as to bang and to pound points in one direction. But a father/son relationship. These likenings stemming from killing may at first blush seem strange to Western minds. . The Wari have what has been called a ‘universal system of kin categorization’ (Barnard 1978) – which is to say that an individual applies kin terms to everyone with whom he or she associates. but a little reflection should dispel this appearance. the Roman Catholic version of Christianity goes one better than both its Protestant form and Judaism by rendering Jesus as maternal in much medieval and early modern symbolism (Bynum 1982) – much like the Wari warrior. among parents and children . And. For we have a considerable lexicon which renders sex as akin to violence. In Wari theory bodily substances can be shared in four ways: (1) through procreation. . In fact the Wari distinguish lexically between ‘true kin’ and ‘those who are like kin but are not truly related’ (Conklin 2002: 215.
I refer to this other woman as my grandmother. I argue below. Naomi Quinn found that ‘[o]ne of the features of the American model of marriage . including metaphors of merging such as “We were one person now” . I have Roman Catholic friends. Her initial contention here is that. . Have ye not read. I referred to the woman who superintended this group as my denmother. (2) This woman referred to another woman as my mother. I referred to her as my mother-in-law. the (only superficially comparable) class has multiple membership. For this cause shall a man leave father and mother. We were a family”’ (email communication dated 25/4/06). one’s genetrix is the sole member of the mother class. i. Wari ideas about kinship. But most of McKinnon’s argument for such a dichotomy pertains not to notions of kinship in general but to kin classes. We too have notions of wet-nursing as establishing a secondary sort of kinship (Fildes 1988). . in the West. I offer the following bits of auto-ethnography: (1) I refer to the woman who (I am told) bore me and who (I know with certainty) nurtured me when I was young as my mother. is the general idea of sharedness. are grounded in native appreciations of procreation. is misleading. . C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. Many Protestant churches have wedding ceremonies in which bride and groom are said to be ‘one flesh’ – this derived from Matthew 19:4–6: And he answered and said unto them. to those categories designated by what the old kinship studies called ‘kinship terminologies’. (5) I regard English as my mother tongue and the United States of America as my mother country. in this instance at least. We too entertain the fiction – and we see it as such – that everyone is kin in expressions like ‘the brotherhood of man’ and ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’. And I know of some Roman Catholic women who are members of religious orders superintended by Mothers Superior. whereas. but one flesh. but the first is plainly and simply false. (4) Just before I reached puberty I was a member of a Cub Scout ‘pack’. The claim of a West/Rest dichotomy. (3) When I was married my wife referred to a woman as my mother. which is instantiated by different people in many different ways. Wherefore they are no more twain. .140 WA R R E N S H A P I R O More prosaic are the other similarities between Wari and Western kinship notions. is entirely without support. and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh. In a nutshell. and from this base they extend to other areas of experience. or “It wasn’t just the two of us anymore. among the Rest. but it should suffice to show that the ‘multiplicity of mothers’ McKinnon (2005b: 109) finds in non-Western settings can be found in the West as well. that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female? And said. each of whom has a godmother. like Western notions of kinship. which designation I also use to refer to the woman referred to as my mother by the man I refer to as my father. This list is hardly exhaustive. in her research on American marriage. Moreover.e. . (6) Although I am not a Roman Catholic. This last assertion.
not just the genetrix – may be indicated by touching one’s nipple – as if maternal succour provided the model for all such relationships. . is likely to be successful only if the estates in question adjoin. the estate and ritual objects associated with the ritual group of the genetrix. just as a Roman Catholic priest is ‘fatherish’: their membership in the ‘mother’ class stems from likening them to or modelling them on my real mother. there is for me a single central or – to use a term from the old kinship studies – focal member of this class. This might not be the case for people who are adopted. to hedging. to varying degrees. Indeed. If I were asked simply who my mother is. nurturing. as well as a woman the genetrix calls ‘sister’ whose own ritual group is not that of the genetrix but whose genetrix’s ritual group is that of the genetrix of the genetrix of the informant. and other estates and ritual objects mythically linked to that group. And I believe my Roman Catholic friends would structure the ‘mother’ category in much the same way. Also inhabiting this area are the genetrix’s ritual group ‘sisters’. Also. In my own field research among the Aboriginal Australian people of northeast Arnhem Land I also found ‘a multiplicity of mothers’. the one from whose womb I emerged’. as would people who have stepmothers. All other women in the ngama class are members of the ‘partial’ ngama subclass and are often described as ‘not really ngama’ or ‘ngama only by virtue of kin classification’. but such an assignment can be contested and. I would nominate only the woman described in (1). especially when very young. nearly all other women who she calls ‘sister’. as if it referred to a ‘grey area’ in people’s structuring of their social worlds. insofar as they are (or can be construed as) female. Another woman who the genetrix calls ‘sister’ may be said to be a ‘full’ member of the ngama class based on the consideration that her ritual group estate and its ritual objects are mythically linked to those of the genetrix. when so nominating them.W H AT H U M A N K I N S H I P I S P R I M A R I LY A B O U T 141 But of course I need to add that not all mothers are for me equally ‘motherly’. authoritative. which is the woman described in (1). most of the wives of men one’s father calls ‘brother’. I might describe them as motherish. Which is to say that the membership of the genetrix’s sisters in the ‘full’ ngama subclass is subject to qualification. asked simply ‘Who is your ngama?’ an individual invariably nominates his/her genetrix. This of course jibes with my auto-ethnographic data. -tirri being a verbalising suffix) C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. for the children of lesbian mothers. But northeast Arnhem Landers distinguish between ‘full’ (dangang) and ‘partial’ (marrkangga) members of the ngama class. though informants sometimes added. In fact. Consider too the following lexemes: ngamani = milk ngama’ngama’yun = to create (-yun being a verbalising suffix) nguy-ngamatirri = to love (nguy = heart. and for people brought into being via the new reproductive technologies. all of one’s father’s wives. There one’s genetrix is called ngarndi in some dialects. ngama in others – but so is her sister. various other women. in any case. So are her sisters. for whom the expression ‘real mother’ might have more ambiguous reference (see also Lakoff 1987: 74–84). and a woman called ngama – any such woman. something like ‘but she’s not the one who bore me. The remaining members are such only in a much ‘looser’ sense. and. The genetrix is without question a member of the ‘full’ ngama subclass. northeast Arnhem Landers employ bodypart symbolism to represent kin class relationships. Moreover.
As it happens. Murdock (1959) showed nearly a half century ago that this sort of phonological regularity occurs with more often than chance frequency in parental kin terms. Thus she notes that in systems of kin classification Lowie (1928) dubbed ‘generational’ all women of the parental generation are members of the ‘mother’ class (McKinnon 2005b: 110). to the Wari data and my own venture into auto-ethnography – should be clear. but she fails utterly to appreciate their semantic structure. so far as it goes – but it does not go very far. Writing on the residents of the Polynesian island of Anuta. There is some flexibility as to the membership of these gross subclasses. 2005b: 51). Most of the foregoing analysis of the semantics of ngama has appeared elsewhere (see Shapiro 1981: 87–92. Moreover. we have a recent detailed account of a ‘generational’ system by Richard Feinberg (2004). though true. as is the genitor with the male kin of his. however. All this is remarkably comparable to my own sense that the United States of America is my ‘mother country’. This is fine. the mother’s patriline is singled out. asked to nominate members of various kin classes. kin class reckoning depends upon parental kin class assignment: thus for example anyone who one genetrix calls ‘sister’ is called ‘mother’ (2004: 74–5) – which is to say that the kin class position of such a ‘mother’ is logically dependent upon. finally. while the membership of others is ‘outside’. or ‘a lie’ (2004: 81). There is. such that the ‘mother’ and ‘mother’s brother’ terms are applied to patrilineal descendants of the mother’s brother: for example. is misleading. or derived from. that of the genetrix. the consideration that ngama. Scheffler and Lounsbury 1971: 60–1). 6 McKinnon cites several examples of such ‘a multiplicity of mothers’. these people make a gross distinction among the sphere of individuals to whom kin terms are applied: some are said to be ‘true’ members of their kin classes. in a language entirely unrelated to English.142 WA R R E N S H A P I R O Which is of course to say that notions of procreation and succour are conceptualised by northeast Arnhem Landers – as well as by Westerners – as quintessentially associated with the biological mother. ‘the basic model for assignment to kin classes is a genealogical one’ (2004: 80). 5 The application of the kin term ngama to the ritual group estate of the genetrix and its ritual objects is logically dependent upon the identification of her as the focal member of the ngama class and is therefore a derived or secondary member of that class (cf. siblings are always ‘true’ kin but first cousins may or may not be (2004: 81–4). people ‘usually answer as if the question were posed specifically about the genealogically closest relative in the designated category’ (2004: 82). but this flexibility occurs along definite procreative lines. In Feinberg’s own words. Further still. In Omaha-type systems. McKinnon also claims that systems of kin classification that the old kinship studies usually called ‘Omaha’ posit ‘a multiplicity of mothers’ (McKinnon 2005b: 110). 2005b: 51). And. of these conclusions. for example. both his daughter 5 6 7 There are comparable – and complementary – symbolic expressions of paternal creation and nurturance (see Shapiro 1981: 16–20. . and once again the statement. Feinberg notes that. but not abandonment. C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. finally. 7 The similarities to my own materials from northeast Arnhem Land – indeed. such that. sounds much like ‘mama’. although the genetrix is merged with other female kin of her generation at a superficial level of classification. The same point is made by reference to that estate as one’s ‘milk country’. In an earlier publication Feinberg (1981) provides examples which require modification. there is a special ‘parent’ term which is applied to both but which is not extended to others (2004: 68).
Consider the following: Personal names could sometimes complicate a genealogy . This is also true. who first named his father’s current wife. In all cases of which I am aware the mother’s brother is more fully rendered as ‘male mother’. and Feinberg seems to have done on Anuta. The only exceptions were a man whose mother had been killed early in his life. the position of other members of the ‘mother’ (and ‘mother’s brother) classes is derived from those of these two close procreative kin. Middleton 2000. and it is this latter derived term. of the English class designated by the label ‘nurse’. That this is so is underscored by the fact that the ‘mother’ term. Responses would 8 It might be argued that ‘little’ is simply the opposite of ‘big’ and does not signify nonfocal status. nearly all informants nominated their genetrices. . he could be referred to as . McKinnon (2005b: 111) points out that Inuit naming practices sometimes skew kin term relationships so that. for example. Vide English ‘How tall are you?’ and ‘How old are you?’ (Kronenfeld 1996: 95–7). put forward by McKinnon (2005b: 110) as further evidence for ‘a multiplicity of mothers’. Given the ‘mother’ term. Especially remarkable here is Karl Heider’s research on an Omaha-type system among the Grand Valley Dani of the Indonesian half of New Guinea. Thus Aboriginal Australian people in a part of the Cape York Peninsula.g. indeed. is in such systems usually if not always accompanied by a lexical or other indicator of nonfocality. . Heider (1978) asked his informants to name an individual to whom each Dani kin term is properly applied. Much as I did in northeast Arnhem Land. of human categorisation at large. the same relative is rendered as ‘branch mother’ – this in contrast to the genetrix. just outside Arnhem Land itself. 8 whereas further west. Obvious anomalies of this sort could usually be uncovered by a simple question about them. wherein focality is usually associated with indications of superior size or age. a female infant who receives the name of her mother’s mother is called ‘mother’ by her genetrix. . In this latter example the trunk–branch opposition presumably suggests the base–derivative one. ‘How young are you?’ is derived and an obvious sop to the elderly. But this is contrary to what we know of systems of kin classification in general (Scheffler 1987: 214–16) and. who nominated his mother’s mother. 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. Among the Fox Indians of Illinois the mother’s sister is called ‘little mother’. for example. for example.e. as well. . who raised him. is deemed politically incorrect these days. If a cousin was named after one’s own father. but similar practices seem to be widespread in the Inuit area. now supposedly unconstrained even by gender. I shall guess. which. But the genetrix is not said to be a ‘female mother’. of minimal age considerations. for this would be redundant – which is to say that the focal member of the class is female (see e. ‘father’ rather than by the term for the role he actually filled. and another man. just across the Gulf of Carpentaria from northeast Arnhem Land. But even this rendition of things focuses on the mother (and her brother) – i. thus presumably showing that ‘a multiplicity of mothers’ can exist not only independently of gender but. who is ‘trunk mother’ (2002: 171). Kuper 1976. C . not the ‘mother’ term simpliciter. much like ‘godmother’ or ‘stepmother’ in English. I have not been able to access the source she cites. then his mother (Heider 1978: 238).W H AT H U M A N K I N S H I P I S P R I M A R I LY A B O U T 143 and his son’s daughter are called ‘mother’. that is applied to the mother’s brother’s daughter and other women of the mother’s patriline (Tax 1955: 252. Shapiro 1981: 28). with the associated rubric ‘male nurse’. refer to the daughter of the mother’s brother as ‘little mother’ (McConvell and Alpher 2002: 163). when applied to other kin. Similar considerations apply in those cases in which the mother’s brother is called ‘mother’. see also Radcliffe-Brown 1941: 10).
rendered by McKinnon (1991: 117) as ‘true elder-younger same-sex siblings’. taking the perspective of a child of one of these men: ‘Because these father’s brothers are also one’s father’ – i. ‘The primary meaning’. McKinnon tells us. But Waltner’s contribution has to do with legal and ritual notions surrounding the idea of ‘motherhood’. and Ching-I Tu. and the application of terms for close kin to others is logically dependent upon one’s close kin relationships. Thus she cites a maxim that ‘a concubine has no children and a concubine’s children have no mother’ (Waltner 1996: 72). Predictably. already noted. see also McKinnon 1991: 100). But this is not at all McKinnon’s analysis.144 WA R R E N S H A P I R O take the form. who both McKinnon and Waltner treat as just another member of the mu class. emphases added) In other words. Professor of Asian Languages at the same institution.’ but I call him [father] because he is named after my father. And she goes on to say (McKinnon 2005b: 111). That such a model is not foreign to the Tanimbarese is indicated by another expression. etc. She insists instead that ‘[t]he fact of “treating one another well” says it all: the relationship is created and maintained by acts of nurturance and solicitude that constitute the very definition of kinship’ (McKinnon 2005b: 111). as ‘prototypical mother’. without. role behaviour is based upon kin classification outside of naming. Rhetorical considerations aside. . are terminologically equated with one’s mother. he’s my . ‘Each nuclear term’. . Which is to say that the wider application signals a grey area in semantic space – one presumably like the designation of the mother’s sister as ‘mother’ in northeast Arnhem Land. ‘is assumed when the term is used independently’ (1948: 8) – which. it seems to me. Feng goes on to say. mother country. are terminologically equated with one’s father – ‘the wives of these men are therefore one’s mothers’ – i. cousin . that when I speak of ‘my mother’ I mean my genetrix and not my denmother. ‘the fact of treating one another well’ not 9 I have confirmed this analysis with two of my own Chinese-speaking informants – Louisa Schein. but. This expression sometimes has a wider application. . A far more detailed analysis of Chinese kinship by Feng (1948) shows that there is a handful of ‘nuclear terms’ subject to various modifiers. who. 9 McKinnon’s final example of ‘a multiplicity of mothers’ is from her own fieldwork in the Tanimbar Islands of eastern Indonesia. which McKinnon quotes approvingly. Professor Schein has carried out ethnographic fieldwork in parts of southwest China. . Here men of differently ranked groups sometimes have a relationship designated by an expression which McKinnon renders as ‘elder-younger brothers who treat each other well’ (2005b: 111. ‘He’s not my [father] all right. is entirely comparable to my own self-report. . he gives the primary meaning of mu as ‘mother’ (1948: 9). C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. Feng 1948: 8) notes. McKinnon (2005b: 111) invokes an article by Waltner (1996) dealing with Chinese materials as further evidence for ‘a multiplicity of mothers’. not with its semantic structure in the first place. But this very statement shows that the status of these other ‘mothers’ (and ‘fathers’) is logically dependent upon their relationship to one’s father.e. Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. I shall guess. occupies his focal position through the application of a procreative model.e. apparently. realising that the proposition presupposes a ‘mother’ (and a ‘child’) category independent of and logically prior to itself . ‘possesses a primary meaning and one or more secondary meanings’. He translates sheng mu. ‘it can also be interpreted more narrowly to include only those who have been born of the same mother and father’ (1991: 117). Professor Tu is a native Mandarin speaker. (Burch 1975: 68–9. the birth mother.
. far from providing ‘the very definition of kinship’ in this locale. Damas 1972: 43. just as. or allocated fewer familial resources than natural children. Even allowing for such a distinction. 1970: 43). are logically consequent upon a definition of kinship and kin classes derived from other bases. (Silk 1987b: 46) Towards the end of the ‘multiplicity of mothers’ section of her article. . Fourth. McKinnon’s contention that adoption defies procreative models (2005b: 112–13). it does not tell us in the first place what native criteria are used in the Tanimbar Islands to determine who gets treated how – ‘well’ or otherwise. and often express regret at the necessity of doing so. . Burch 1975: 46. . moreover. Behaviourally. but. they typically prefer adults who can offer their children better economic prospects than they can themselves. natural parents are often very selective in their choice of . . so far as I am aware. Howard et al. . Here is her summary of the situation: The patterns of . and allocation of resources follow from specific cultural classifications of kin relations and cultural understandings of appropriate kin behavior that are never simply reflections of genetic relations . say. made up of the focal ‘child’ and ‘parent’ terms accompanied by a suffix or other linguistic marker (see e. as Joan Silk has shown in several important contributions (Silk 1980. that these bases are procreative among the Tanimbarese – as indeed they are probably everywhere else. has comparable ethnographic and analytical flaws. arrangements have been completed. Similarly. Second. . there is some evidence of asymmetries in the care of natural and adoptive children. for example. although who counts as real kin in any particular culture is not always – or even often – defined genetically. . may be disciplined more forcefully. It is relatively clear from McKinnon’s data.g. natural parents are uniformly reluctant to give up their children to others permanently. it C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. Third. Even after children have left their households. adoptive parents. (2005b: 113) My argument so far has been that. however. in each of these societies. anyone called ‘mother’ in a particular community is supposed to be treated in much the same way as one’s genetrix – is the stuff of introductory anthropology textbooks and communitarian fantasy. natural parents may maintain contact with them. also indebted to Sahlins (1976). . Finally.W H AT H U M A N K I N S H I P I S P R I M A R I LY A B O U T 145 only does not say it all. procreative kinship is especially salient in both areas. children may be required to work harder. and retain their rights to retrieve their offspring if they are mistreated. First. ‘acts of nurturance and solicitude’. parental investment is not necessarily terminated when adoption . But in both areas they are special ‘adopted child’ and/or ‘adopting parent’ terms. McKinnon’s further assertion of a correspondence between kin class and behavioural class – so that. it is clear that the patterns of nurturance. though obscured by her analysis. These latter terms are thus derivates of the former. Guemple 1972: 68. . as adopted . 1987a. McKinnon remarks that many people do make the distinction between ‘real’ and other forms of kinship. altruism. natural parents who give up primary responsibility for raising their children typically delegate care of their offspring to close consanguineal kin. She cites the Inuit area and Polynesia as regions in which adoption is especially common. 1987b). Hooper 1970: 56. . ‘real’ kin/others distinctions are usually if not always defined by local notions of genetic connection. adoption in Oceania and the Arctic are strikingly similar. godmother is derivative of mother. on the contrary. continue to contribute some resources to their care.
moral. such a delineation of groups will always entail that some genetic kin will be in other groups while some more distant genetic kin will be in one’s own group’ (2005b: 113–14). Her debt. by contrast. Even when localised. in ways that are largely compatible with genetic notions. whatever descent or descent-like constructs exist in a community. somewhat comparable to Western astrological classes and other conceptual schemes (1979: 72–4). it also suggests. Segmentation in other kinds of ‘descent groups’ has been much less studied.146 WA R R E N S H A P I R O has never been demonstrated even for a single case.’ (2005b: 122). Keesing (1969) makes the crucial point that the behavioural norms informants present to anthropologists pertain to focal members of kin classes – which is to say that ‘patterns of . in the first instance. they are never the sole basis for social action (see esp. again wrongly. that effective kin reckoning in ‘unilineal’ populations is at odds with these notions. quite wrongly. Keesing 1971. detailed genealogical reckoning is absent and ‘the tracing of descent’ is replaced by a This World/Other World distinction in which the right hand member of the opposition is assigned ontological. and.g. . in which descent is traced either through the male line to constitute patrilineal groups. Kuper 1982). in reality confined largely to what have been called ‘segmentary lineage systems’ in the Muslim Middle East and parts of Africa. and temporal priority (Shapiro 1979: 13–14). they have in mind close procreative kin. but her presentation needs badly to be repaired. Although the matter badly needs attention for other areas. . Fourth. . Third. In subsequent argument McKinnon deals with ‘the systems of kinship known as unilineal. Shapiro 2005b). Whatever the intentions. altruism’ follow less ‘from specific cultural classifications of kin relations’ and more from ‘genetic relation’ – the exact antithesis of McKinnon’s assertion (see also Peterson 1997. that in such populations these groupings are especially salient. Kronenfeld 1975. but. they can be said to be ‘groups’ only conceptually. or through the female line to constitute matrilineal groups. Shapiro 1997: 204– 7). And this in turn is still more evidence that. marriage is governed. this latter pattern is probably more common than the former. C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. McKinnon’s wording suggests. as I have suggested. for northeast Arnhem Land at least. what we know about segmentation in segmentary lineage systems – that it follows genealogical lines – is entirely consistent with genetic logic. This last point needs to be pursued in view of McKinnon’s assertion that ‘[i]n most societies around the world. when informants talk about kin categories. In Aboriginal Australia. though concealed by a genealogically minimising ideology (Keen 1995). to Sahlins (1976) is duly recorded. of the four and eight ‘section’ systems of Aboriginal Australia. yet again. . Goodenough 1951: 111–19. Second. They are categories in terms of which marital and ritual obligations are sometimes expressed (Shapiro 1979: 70–2). kinship is nearly everywhere reckoned bilaterally. there is strong indication that the same logic is at work. to wit: First. When they are nonlocalised. by systematic relationships between groups . as they often are. As evidence for this assertion she offers a sketchy presentation. Either way. Much the same holds for the so-called ‘descent groups’ of Aboriginal North America (Tooker 1971) and present-day or recent Amazonia (Murphy 1979). whereas in fact their importance in everyday life varies very considerably ethnographically. But the ‘sections’ are in no sociological sense ‘groups’. . all this about ‘tracing of descent’ is mostly another example of textbook ‘wisdom’. But there are several counterdemonstrations (e. from a secondary source.
This in itself suggests their unimportance in the politics of marriage. For this reason I refer to these units as well as ‘patrilineal’. they are rarely if ever so. . upon a distinction between one’s own group and others’ (2005b: 123) is invalid even without recourse to the actual politics of marriage (see e. But even as ethnographic analysis. are significant only in the distribution of ritual rights. Shapiro 1981). But these forms of skewing exist in populations which otherwise act and classify in ways that accord remarkably well 10 For the sake of simplicity. they were (Shapiro 1973). but.e. within such groups there is only a very limited ‘tracing of descent’. C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. First. Yalman 1962). Moreover. supplemented by other principles. Kensinger 1995. even where unilineal groups exist. In these areas what is called ‘cross-cousin marriage’ is practised – i. Such groups. I refer to Aboriginal Australian ritual groups as ‘patrilineal’. A man has marital rights to the daughter of his mother’s brother – not. apparently. as I have argued elsewhere (Shapiro 1998.W H AT H U M A N K I N S H I P I S P R I M A R I LY A B O U T 147 During the 1950s and early 1960s a very considerable literature grew out of LeviStrauss’ attempt to see presumed marital relationships between patrilineal groups in Aboriginal Australia 10 as constituting ‘elementary structures’ of sociality (Levi-Strauss 1969 : 146–220). But in most of these two regions no such groups exist. Tanimbarese patrilineal groups are localised and there are both enduring and ephemeral marital relationships among them. this link is probably everywhere on the continent. Moreover. absent any real evidence. group unity being based on other principles (see above). McKinnon’s own field materials point in a not entirely distinct direction. any ‘group’ rendition of Third and Fourth World marriage is even more plainly untenable in the absence of anything resembling ‘unilineal’ reckoning.g. But Hiatt’s work in north-central Arnhem Land (Hiatt 1965: 38–44) went further and showed that primary rights to bestow an Aboriginal girl are vested in individuals – not groups – and that these individuals are usually not even members of the girl’s patrilineal group. Kaplan 1975. Gregor 1977. as Scheffler (1973: 784–6) has argued. This is also true of Tanimbarese ‘houses’ (see below) – though for men the father/child link is the most favoured principle of recruitment (McKinnon 1991: 84–106. because she is a member of a particular group but by virtue of his kinship position per se (McKinnon 1991: 134–62. My own subsequent research further east in Arnhem Land supported Hiatt’s argument in every particular (see esp. because the father/child link is probably the single most important principle of recruitment to these groups. primary obligations to give and receive bridewealth fall on particular kin and not groups. . see also Conkey 1991). 199–258. So. indeed. The most that can be said is that the genealogical skewing of unilineal descent and Omaha-type kin classification is not predictable from Darwinian principles. we now know that it is hopelessly flawed. as RadcliffeBrown (1931: 4) had assumed. marriage between a man and either his mother’s brother’s daughter or his father’s sister’s daughter. as in much of Amazonia and South Asia. Now in populations with either patrilineal or matrilineal groups both women are members of units other than a man’s own. Second. individual marriages are arranged by close kin of the bride and groom. 1995b). 1995b). Hence not a single one of McKinnon’s objections to the handling of kinship in evolutionary psychology is supported by the evidence. most extraordinarily in the Western Desert (see esp. An important consideration is that these groups are not localised. The ‘origins myth’ character of Levi-Strauss’ scheme makes it suspect as an empirical exercise. they are not necessarily the effective units in arranging marriages. Gardner 1972. Myers 1986: 129–30). But the expression misleads – this for two reasons. as in Aboriginal Australia. . Hence McKinnon’s claim that cross-cousin marriage ‘depends . he argued.
The distinction between ‘a genetic . Third. This latter is a scholarly shortcoming of a very high order – not only because of its long history in kinship studies in particular (see e. In any case. as well. . calculus’ and ‘a system of social classification’ (McKinnon 1995b: 123). First. This stems partly from an astonishing ignorance of focality theory. that is a reflection of Western upper-class concerns’ (2005b: 117). Whatever biographic or social considerations underlie the work of evolutionary psychologists. .148 WA R R E N S H A P I R O with these principles. which is the belittling of the West. have been demonstrated in other areas of classification. These are of course familiar targets for feminists and Marxists (see e. She asserts that ‘[e]volutionary psychologists presuppose a restrictive understanding of kinship . especially Western science and what is sometimes called ‘the traditional family’. they have produced a series of testable propositions 11 I borrow the useful expression ‘causal imagery’ from Stinchcombe (1968). Conclusions From all this I think a number of conclusions can be drawn about the constructionist approach in kinship. as I noted earlier. Especially pertinent here is McKinnon’s recurrent use of the language and tactics of ‘deconstruction’ – not to illuminate the social conditions which encourage particular forms of ideology or scholarship but to denigrate these forms. especially as children. because the bonding that we undergo. Second. Malinowski 1929. is socially selective (Flanagan 1999: 40–2). Attempts to collectivise it – whether in Fourth World universal systems of kin categorisation (Shapiro 2005b) or Western communes (Brumann 2003) – have at best a very limited success. but. . Gross and Levitt 1994: 107–48.g. . which McKinnon thinks is crucial to her argument. is in fact entirely meaningless. of the pervasiveness of kinship in human relations. She refers to their causal imageries 11 as ‘stories’ (McKinnon 2005a: 7) and ‘myths’ (2005a: 2) and concludes that ‘their science is ultimately a complete fiction’ (2005a: 4). and of the salience of descent groups – though this last probably owes less to Marxism than to other Victorian theories (Kuper 1988). Hence McKinnon’s concoction of group motherhood. This works in concert with their ignorance of focality theory to produce a grossly distorted view of Third and Fourth World sociality. this approach – despite its claim to analyse non-Western notions of kinship ‘in indigenous terms’ (Carsten 1997: 292) – is in fact remarkably disrespectful of the principles by which people around the world classify their kinship universes. especially the hopelessly antiquated fantasies of Engels (1972) on the origin and development of the family. at least as advocated by Susan McKinnon. Scheffler and Lounsbury 1971). although the new kinship scholars present themselves as comparativists.g. of collective childcare through this and adoption. who uses it without explicit definition. . C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. the fact is that kinship in our species is nothing if not individual. Thus she writes contemptuously of ‘the middle class ideal’ of motherhood (McKinnon 2005b: 112). Tobias 1997: 214–20). But this is far too grave a conclusion. the other main factor that distances many of the new kinship scholars from their own ethnographic materials is a commitment to Marxist theory. because similar results. the time-honoured project of earnest cultural comparison is at best tangential to their main project.
Campion 1994: 425–53). the suggestion is that these kin participate in special relationships that are very nearly universal and not. and they show no awareness of contingency sensitivity in biological systems (e. There is more than a passing resemblance between this piece of prescient brilliance and the arguments presented here. apparently. as a branch of 12 This is not to argue that Marxism has no insights into particular historical or ethnographic situations. that is projected onto ethnographic materials to which. C 2008 European Association of Social Anthropologists. it is fallacious to present ‘deconstructionism’ as a freedom-promoting alternative to ‘biological determinism’. The result of this projective process is a Manichean anthropology based on the concoction of an Individualist West versus a Collectivist Rest. more. so as to generate a fairly large but finite number of systems of kin classification. Some of these propositions may need to be modified or even discarded (see esp. the dispensable product of a particular socioeconomic regime. What this latter group of scholars seems to share is a concern with establishing the limits of this flexibility – more particularly. One could cite Chomsky here.L. This being so. but apparently the lesson needs to be relearned. This in turn invites us to reconsider the supposed antagonism between structure and freedom. For if. ‘Classificatory systems of relationship’ (Kroeber 1909). there is a salient link between the ignorance of focality theory and the remarkable hostility to the traditional family in the new kinship studies. it is entirely foreign. Fifth. and. that these systems are mostly independent of institutional influence. and others nearly a century ago. .W H AT H U M A N K I N S H I P I S P R I M A R I LY A B O U T 149 about human behaviour. In recent decades we have been invited to choose between a vision of anthropology as a science and one of it as an art form – or. the new kinship scholars view human affairs as part of an extrasomatic process which has little if anything to do with Homo sapiens as a biological species. as well as a very considerable corpus of literature in both cognitive science and Darwinian anthropology (Shapiro 2008). as I believe I have demonstrated. with its doctrinaire Marxism and feminism. Nor do I have any quarrel with the idea that women should have equal access with men to highly-placed jobs and other life opportunities. Buller 2005). but this is true of any scientific enterprise. with how certain elements may or may not be combined in the generation of cultural forms. They thus draw upon a long tradition of ‘biophobia’ in social theory (Daly and Wilson 1988). such as gender and collaterality. whereby only one outcome is predetermined. Lowie (1920: 147–85). and related to all three of my previous conclusions. as I have argued. that all its propositions rely on probability calculi. but. the apical ancestor is A. close procreative kin are probably everywhere distinguished. A far more cogent case can be made that it is McKinnon’s social environment as an academic. Hence McKinnon (2005b: 127) claims that evolutionary psychology insists upon ‘universal forms of behavior’ – quite unaware. Oyama 1985. at least in professional anthropology. pace Marxism. This is of course just a restatement of conclusions reached by Malinowski (1913). or Levi-Strauss.g. Pinker 2002. And she declares that ‘the mind is a flexible and creative tool capable of creating diverse cultural forms’ (2005b: 127) – a proposition she advances to counter evolutionary psychology but which is in fact assumed by all Darwinian students of human affairs with whose work I am familiar. I wish only to highlight here its apocalyptic quality. 12 Fourth. My quarrel here is with the blatant anti-family stance of much feminist writing. But their view of biology is antediluvian: they equate biological causation with the reflex arc. Kroeber’s remarkable 1909 article. Shapiro 2008). something widely appreciated in certain scholarly circles (see esp. What Kroeber argued here is that the human mind is capable of isolating and combining certain elements. more specifically.
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