What Kinship Is—And Is Not
By Marshall Sahlins
Recently I asked an anthropologist friend for some recommendations on anthropology readings about kinship. Among other books, he recommended this one, which I promptly bought and read. And I'm glad I did. Sahlins elegantly argues for an understanding of kinship based not on bloodlines, but on culture.
In the Preface, he summarizes the argument: "The specific quality of kinship, I argue, is 'mutuality of being': kinfolk are persons who participate intrinsically in each others' existence; they are members of one another." And "kinship categories are not representations or metaphorical extensions of birth relations; if anything, birth is a metaphor of kinship relations."
This might be a surprising conclusion for people who have read older anthropological works on kinship. (Newer works have largely turned to other concerns, or so my anthropologist friend tells me.) In the early 20th century, the first thing an anthropologist would do was to conduct a census to understand kinship relations; ethnographies in the 1930s focused on kinship, bloodlines, endogamy and exogamy, tribes and moieties. But Sahlins argues that "kinship is not given at birth as such, since human birth is not a pre-discursive fact. A whole series of persons may be bodily instantiated in the newborn child, including lineage and clan ancestors, while even the woman who gave birth is excluded." And "it is not even inevitable that the kinship of procreation is essentially different from relationships created postnatally. Kinship fashioned sociologically may be the same in substance as kinship figured genealogically, made of the same stuff transmitted in procreation"—and here follows a set of examples from various cultures, including "commensality, sharing food, reincarnation, co-residence, shared memories, working together, blood brotherhood, adoption, friendship, shared suffering, and so on." Such "performative modes of kinship" are "predicated on particular cultural logics of relatedness."
Sahlins draws on a wide range of examples from various studies to illustrate, demonstrating that performative forms of kinship (ex: fictive kinship) are just as much kinship as biological kinship. He believes that "kinship could very well be an inherent human possibility," given our "generic symbolic capacity." "Kinship may be a universal possibility in nature, but by the same symbolic token as codified in language and custom, it is always a cultural particularity."
This book cleared up a lot of question marks about kinship for me. Sahlins elegantly and parsimoniously argues for a definition of kinship that encompasses blood relations, fictive kinship, and other sorts of relations. Most importantly from my perspective, Sahlins' definition encompasses the kinship definitions of the studied cultures themselves: it doesn't draw separations between things that the cultures treat as whole phenomena. To put it bluntly, if Culture A allows someone to be spliced into a family as a full member, why should an anthropologist impose a framework of "fictive kinship"?
Great book. And short. Give it a read if you're interested in the phenomenon of kinship.