Return to Laughter - Laura Bohannan

Return to Laughter by Laura Bohannan: Fieldwork and Kinshipology

by Jason Antrosio

Laura Bohannan’s anthropological novel Return to Laughter (1954), originally written under the pen-name of Elenore Smith Bowen, is my favorite book to discuss the institutionalization of fieldwork as the core of US professional anthropology in the 1940s and 1950s. Bohannan’s novel reveals how fieldwork could and should have been the fulfillment of the Boasian concept of culture. Yet fieldwork, and especially the resulting ethnographic monograph as the ticket to a doctoral degree, becomes one of the most potent ways that culture becomes reified. Culture becomes homogeneous, static, and ahistorical, cut off from the global flows that made fieldwork possible in the first place.

Laura Bohannan’s account in Return to Laughter vividly lets us feel how anthropologists went from ideas about difference to truly experiencing and living that difference. Return to Laughter shows how even our most basic notions about time and space are not given in nature or geography, but are deeply patterned by human experience and learned behavior. On time:

Already time had taken on a more individualistic and yet more seasonable aspect than I had been used to. . . . The rains began when it began to rain; when it began to rain, people started to plant. One could say that a man had done his planting late, but not that the rains had come late. (1954:68-69)

On space and social distance:

There was no way, other than going myself, by which I could learn how many miles I was being asked to walk. One “not far” excursion put me to bed for a couple of days after a twenty-five mile round trip without food or water, whereafter I set out on a “far” journey equipped with lunch and water, only to find it less than four miles in all. At first I thought that their use of these words was incontrovertible evidence that they had no idea of distance. Then I figured out that “far” referred not only to space, but to time and social distance as well. (1954:52)

And, as might be expected from the author of Shakespeare in the Bush, very interesting insights on language and social meaning.

Return to Laughter, Social Organization, and Kinshipology

One of the things that has always interested me about Return to Laughter is how the discoveries of fieldwork, in all of its multifaceted messiness, seem to often get jammed back into the categories that anthropologists had already been developing. In particular, Bohannan’s character makes the extremely interesting discovery that she has acquired the kinship term mother:

“You feed Ihugh, therefore you are his mother.” Udama corrected me firmly but quite patiently now that she saw I meant no insult. “Listen, Redwoman, if a woman dies, do her children become motherless? Is not the woman who feeds them and cares for them their mother? Therefore these are not merely matters of birth. They are matters of deed as well.” . . . I wrestled with the implications of this dual aspect of kinship, by birth and by deed. (1954:126-127)

In other words, years before Pierre Bourdieu was writing about misinterpreting genealogical records as the “fallacies of the rule” in Outline of a Theory of Practice (see John Thiel’s comment on culture), Laura Bohannan was well positioned to question the basics of all those kinship charts anthropologists had been gathering.

Yet just a few pages after that discovery, Laura Bohannan’s character asserts the dominance of kinship and blood: “Here people looked for little in marriage. A man would turn to his sixteenth cousin twice removed before he turned to his wife. Here the important ties were between blood relatives” (1954:131).

In What Is Anthropology?, Thomas Hylland Eriksen talks about how “in the early 1950s, in the heyday of British structural-functionalism, kinship studies were in fact so dominant that outsiders spoke ironically of [anthropology] as kinshipology” (2004:102). Bohannan, an American but trained in British anthropology, reasserts kinshipology, even as the fieldwork facts seem to be saying something quite different–and surely the reckoning of a “sixteenth cousin twice removed” speaks to us more as British kin-classification!

This seems to be something anthropology must constantly visit and revisit: how the lessons from fieldwork can be so easily jammed back into the categories we had already been looking for; how counteracting one stereotype (“they live in anarchic disorder!”) so easily leads to another (“they live by kinship!”).


For teaching about kinship in an Introduction to Anthropology course, see Is Kinship Important?

For an update on teaching this material in a Cultural Anthropology course, see Kinshipology: Blood and Kinship in Anthropological Fieldwork.

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  • John McCreery

    While agreeing with the overall thrust of this piece, I wonder about our tendency to use ethnographic data to illustrate a polemical point. How different is this from jamming it into preconceived stereotypes.

    In the cases at hand, we know that a local woman challenges Bohannon’s assumption that motherhood is a given form of blood relationship. The sentence that Bohannon writes to describe what she learned is, “Therefore these are >>not merely matters of birth<<. They are matters of deed as well" (emphasis added). Later we are told that a man will turn to a sixteenth cousin twice removed before he turns to his wife, but we are not told the nature of the assistance he needs. Given that the people in question, the Tiv as I recall, are strongly patrilineal with virilocal marriage and tending to live in lineage villages, these bits of evidence are not inherently contradictory. If the mothers are in-marrying strangers with no blood connection to the lineage — and that is the connection that counts as kinship in the local kinship system — the "mother" could be any one of a number of women who feed and care for the child. If the husband is engaged in an activity strongly defined as male in the usual sort of patrilineal society gendered division of labor, his turning to a distant cousin instead of his wife might not be mysterious at all.

    Do I know that these alternative interpretations are correct? No. But I've read enough West African ethnography and enough studies of patrilineal societies in other parts of the world that they are not, prima facie, implausible.

    To return to the point at hand, tearing ethnographic data out of context for the sake of critique is as much a methodological sin as jamming it into preconceived stereotypes without doing the homework to see how it fits into other aspects of local culture and circumstance. Is the latter a crime that we think Bohannon, a famously sensitive and careful ethnographer, actually committed?

    • Hi John, many thanks for this commentary and the careful read of West African ethnography. It is true that the statements I’ve singled out from a long novel would not have to be contradictory. In addition to the kinship explanations you provide, it could be as simple as what Bourdieu describes as one of the fallacies of the rule: that anthropologists tend to get one highly-formalized and rule-based explanation (mostly) from male informants, but can easily miss out on the more practical female-kin relationships which might undergird marriage unions.

      That said, you use some quite harsh appraisals here, asking if this is a “methodological sin” or “a crime.” I am making no such judgement! I have nothing but respect for Bohannan’s famously sensitive and careful ethnography. I would add here that Return to Laughter is of course a novel, not an ethnography, and in some ways Bohannan might be exactly calling our attention to all the stuff that didn’t fit into the monograph.

      I discuss this further in the follow-up on Fetishizing Fieldwork. The issue is not so much the individual crime or sin of misrepresentation, but trying to understand how the monograph worked within a larger institutional and social field.

      • John McCreery

        Jason, sorry if my concluding remarks came across as too harsh. Perhaps we both need reminding of the wit and wisdom of Republican pollster and messaging strategist Frank Luntz: “It isn’t what you say. It’s what they hear that counts.”

        • Hi John, no worries, I didn’t feel it was too harsh on me, but I do worry sometimes that I may sound too harsh on the pioneers of anthropology and ethnography. I just wanted to be clear that I was not trying to play a blame-sin-crime game, although I can understand if that’s how it can come off.

          Ah, for more “wit and wisdom” of the Frank Luntz variety! We seem to be sorely lacking wit-and-wisdom in this US moment.

  • Helga Vierich

    Jason, I have only just caught up with this essay of yours, and it is indeed food for thought. I recall reading Bohannan’s ethnographic essays on the Tiv whir leaving to do fieldwork in West Africa, and it certainly sharpened my appreciation of the role of kinship – even though I was going there to work for one of the Institutes of the “green revolution”. Thus is kind of poignant, from my point of view, that John McCreedy brings up the relationship of post-marital residence and lineage systems in the economic and political life of the Tiv. I found these to be a key in understanding both the economic and the political events in the various ethnic groups I spent time with in Burkina Faso as well.

    What always impressed me the most were the numerous mechanisms in place (including rules about only marrying women from some distances away) served to keep each local community connected through kinship with many, many others.

    There are no doubt cases of communities where endogamy obtains, and where brides tend to be close relatives. However, in my own fieldwork, both in West Africa and Southern Africa, I came across only a few cases where cross cousin marriage was the even the stated preference… and often it was not “real” – in the sense that the bride was ACTUALLY the daughter of the groom’s father’s sister or mother’s brother, but rather were often classified as cross cousins due to the way kinship terms tended to be inclusive (so that “father’s sister’s daughters” included all the father’s male parallel cousin’s sisters’ female children as well.

    This means that men went far field for suitable brides, and that there was considerable scope for individual choice, and even, mutual attraction, before a marriage could take place.

    Then there were the economic implications of being communities of variable sizes in a landscape where land suitable for cultivation and raising livestock was growing increasingly scarce. In several of the villages (and four different ethnic groups) we had in the ICRISAT sample, this resulted in a pattern where patrilineal inheritance of political position and ceremonial duties was coupled with opportunistic matrilocal post marital residence when the bride’s village had more land available for a young couple to cultivate than did the village of the groom.

    In fact the right to clear plots of land in the village of the bride is often included int he arrangements. Even when the young couple code to reside with the groom’s family in his birth village, they might actually retain and cultivate a plot or two in the village of the bride’s parents. I found that sometimes a couple wound up taking up residence in the village with more land at its disposal. If this was the village that the bride came from, her sons grew up as members of patri-lineages which dominated the villages of their father’s FATHER, while they and their fathers might usually be deprived of much political power or position due to the fact that their own village (of residence) was one where it was the wife’s family – her father and brothers – who had important roles in the local patrilineal affairs.

    This is one of the reasons why there were multi-village annual or biannual feasts, as well as political alliances that spanned larger groups of villages.

    In other words, a single patrilineage might have members in twenty different surrounding villages. Each single village would have a number of lineages present, but they would not all hold equal power in village affairs.

    If a man was resident in his wife’s village (for reasons of access to farmland there) he might have to travel back to his village of birth to participate in the political affairs of that lineage – as when leadership changed, or disputes arose among lineages.

    And of course, this means that warfare, when it did break out, as it had in the past, it tended to embroil not villages against other villages, but lineages against other lineages, so whole villages could wind up divided into factions that could come to blows. but, as you might imagine, it also tended to limit – quite severely, the degree to which such fighting would be allowed to escalate. Dispute settlement was an extremely important part of most annual ceremonies.

    Kinship, in humans, is not just about gene flow. It is also about economics and politics. We do not, I think, have a very clear idea how much the “colonization process” (- or should i say the exploitation process?) interfered with and possibly even destroyed these internal mechanisms for resolving war and keeping peace among tribal peoples in Africa.

    • Hi Helga, great comment, thank you!

      If I read this correctly, it seems like kinship is of course very important–but it is hardly the *only* mode of interaction, and it also creates multiple possibilities of action.

      In some ways, I try through teaching Return to Laughter to get at some of the points Susan McKinnon was making about Evans-Pritchard in Domestic Exceptions. It’s a quite exceptional read!

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  • Juliet H. Foroughi

    The difficulty in a case like this lies in a concept we are so familiar with yet often do not notice because of said familiarity. There are some things you would discuss with your mother, some things with your friends, some with your significant other, and so on. But equally so, there are some things that you would make it a point not to talk about with those specific relations. I fear that I may be generalizing or laying a blanket Western perspective over all other cultures, but it at least seems to apply in the case of the novel and the Tiv. After all, there are many matters that Bowen was initially made distant from by Kako because she was a woman, and an inexperienced one at that. That division of conversation is most definitely there, even amongst the most important people in one’s life.

    • Hi Jay, thank you for this post–it does definitely seem like our own notions of privacy are so deeply assumed, it is one of the first things that get challenged during fieldwork.

  • Noelani Browne

    Page 151 shows the significance of children and legacy in their culture. Umada’s long quote starting at the first full paragraph of page 151 describes a woman who speaks of children as the continuance of one’s existence on Earth. However, at the bottom of the same page, Bowen describes a Western thought that one can die and still be remembered even if they died without children. This shows blood relation ideology differences between both cultures.

    • Hi Lani, those are definitely interesting passages. Bowen seems to be praising the Western idea that someone could do something like write a book and therefore be remembered, whereas in this kinship-based society that is impossible. However, given what she also says about deed and blood, I’m not entirely sure the contrast holds so well.