For some anthropological depth, if this course were offered in the 1950s, this chapter might have been the first chapter, or at least a huge part of the course. “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” (Eriksen 2017, 99).
For related material in an Intro-to-Anthropology 2021 course, see Kinship Circulation and Marriage is a social process using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?
Partial Transcript: Kinship Family Marriage
Kinship today! A little kinship family marriage stuff. Truly exciting material. I mentioned in the prompt, but no one took me up on it, that back in the day, say 70 years ago, for anthropology you would have come into a class like this and all we would be doing was kinship. That would be like half the class was doing kinship, and I’d make you do kinship charts, you’d have to memorize the six forms of kinship all around the world. You’d be doing these circles and triangles and stuff, to the extent that other people, outsiders, joked that anthropology had become “kinshipology.”
I want to talk with you about why anthropologists got so hung up on kinship. In some classes I’ve tried to reverse the order of the chapters, because in in some ways it’s anthropology’s emphasis on kinship and familial relationships and trying to trace those out that they ended up discovering all kinds of things about gender and sexuality, that later on with the feminists in the 1970s, in Feminist Anthropology we’re able to take some of those old kinship studies and be like, “oh wait a second there’s a whole bunch of crazy interesting material in here if you just took it the right way, if you just interpreted it in the right way.”
But the early anthropologists were probably not going to interpret it in the right way. There’s a famous book by Lewis Henry Morgan _Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family_. Systems of blood relatedness, and affinity or marriage, of the human family. Lewis Henry Morgan is a local hero; he did a lot of his own anthropological work in upstate New York. The department of anthropology at Rochester I think is named after him. He’s an alternative to the Franz Boas approach. He wasn’t really an academic, as you may remember from our earliest class, he was a proponent of a unilinear or unilineal evolutionary model. He believed that all societies were ranked from most primitive to most civilized. This is what Boas ended up fighting against. But he did do some interesting work. He has a great book on the American Beaver for example, which is just fascinating stuff. He shouldn’t be completely discarded, but a lot of his ideas were of his time.
The reason why anthropologists were so into kinship at the time is because it was assumed that kinship is just biology. Kinship is just men and women need to get together to reproduce. They’re going to reproduce in this way. That’s just a biological fact. When we think about kinship, we’re just translating biological facts into cultural terms. They went around the world, and they’d figure if somebody didn’t have the right words for father or mother or something, they somehow didn’t know the biological facts, or they were engaged in some primitive weird practices. It was this idea that in some ways biology was the root of kinship, and societies could be ranked from primitive to most civilized based on their kinship system.
it was also something that was easy to send people out who’d and get some rapid knowledge. You could send out soldiers and missionaries and give them give them a page and say, “well, just ask people even if you don’t speak the language. You can ask well what’s the name of this person to you what do you call this person. Let’s say I mean there’s a lot of a lot of kinship systems in the world where people would call your father. But the your. So, your father’s brothers would also be called like father as well. People would get really freaked out by that and said. They were engaged in some primitive promiscuity when in fact that wasn’t true at all. There are a lot of other language and in other ways other kinship terms can be very much more distinguishing than ours, for example, a lot of societies have different words for mother’s uncle I mean mother’s brother uncle on your mother’s side and uncle on your father’s side because that will those two people will be very different based on your descent relationships. People got really into this like I said it took a long time to reorient the study of kinship I want to mention because it also goes back to something we’re talking about the idea of structural functionalism. This was from the UK the anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown wrote a book called _Structure and Function in Primitive Society_ and what in some ways was super fascinating about this is the ways in which we talked about structure function structural functionalism, as the ways in which a society was thought to be a functioning unit. That every part of it would have a have a function every part of the structure would have its own function and kinship was like a key to unlocking people thought what they thought of as primitive societies that if you could somehow understand their kinship relationships if you could sort them into a category you could then take you could then find out something about their social life and Radcliffe-Brown had an interesting essay in this in which he talks about a society in which it was a very since we were just talking about sexuality in general in this society you would never talk about sex they were very buttoned down no jokes no just very puritan when it came to talking about sex except he noticed that when a one that whenever it was one young man and whenever one particular older woman would come over all of a sudden they’d start joking about sex there’d be all this sex talk jokes pulling goofing around. It was like completely mystifying it was not the man’s wife until they finally figured out wait a second this is the mother-in-law relationship it’s a very tense relationship in this society, especially at the beginning part of the marriage. This was the way that they handled the tension was to make all these sex jokes. Then, go back to their regular life. It was almost as if kinship could unlock it was a strange key to the workings of these kinds of societies.
People got really into it one of the most famous books about descent. So, dissent is one way to that we think of kinship that the idea of being related to people back in time your elders or your ancestors. One of the most famous books about this was a book by Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer in the Sudan. Again, it was the idea that how do people organize themselves in the absence of a state or a government or a police force or laws. This is particularly an issue for the Nuer because the British were trying to exercise colonial rule in this area. They were facing enormous resistance and fighting from the newer. They couldn’t figure out how are these people organizing themselves like they don’t have a centralized government, but they seem to be resisting and fighting back. What’s going on another special answer to this was. They were organizing themselves in these patrilineal descent lines. So, descent lines that were not necessarily literally biologically associated with a founding a number of founding fathers, but they would organize themselves in these fatherly lineages. So, Evans-Pritchard and others made a big deal about these kinship patterns and like I said in early anthropology this would have been a huge part of this there were six different patterns and you could explain all sorts of things about social life through them in later work we re-examined some of these ideas. One of the things that we found out is that it wasn’t necessarily the anthropologists who were the most obsessed I mean it wasn’t necessarily the people themselves who were most obsessed with dissent it turned out that a lot of times it was people like the person with the name E.E. Evans-Pritchard who was very interested in descent and lineage and family trees and all these things. In fact, in some ways. One of you observed this is still the case in our own society although we don’t necessarily say that we organize ourselves by lineages we sometimes are more obsessed with kinship oftentimes more than the people we were studying at the time
the other thing that on re-examination a lot of things that people figured out is that if you just go in and talk to people about who should marry whom or how you should behave or what is your social organization you’ll come up with people will tell you what should be done or the rules or the ideals and those are often very different from the once you’re doing actual anthropological fieldwork the lived experience that you would have in these places. There’s often a divergence between what are the rules or guidelines in the lived experience there. The other thing that people realized is that the idea of patrilineality the idea of patrilineal organization was often times a reconstruction of something that may have been much more fluid than people were necessarily it goes back to it’s related to point two is that when you’re just talking to someone about social organization people can be like, “oh yes we’re we honor our fathers all in our patrol lineage and all these things, but that is sometimes a reconstruction of something that is much more complicated in practice and like I said in re-examinations of this they’ve said well it’s not. So, so clear that the Nuer are simply a patrilineal society that is taking all their descent cues from the father’s line and finally my favorite is that what Gough and she’s the one who’s who’s quoted here, as the re-examiner of Evans-Pritchard work is they were in a resistance effort. They were trying to resist the brits. It’s it’s at a time when lineage and kinship might become super important I mean. If you think about when you’re going to war with somebody all of a sudden the people that you most want by your side are the people who you might consider closest to you. It could have been or it’s probably the case that these ideas about who belonged to whom were extremely important in the resistance effort. In fact, some of the things that the that Evans-Pritchard talked about the importance of kinship to the new air may not have been as huge or may have been very much a historical relationship there. So, dissent is one huge way in which we do kinship. We can really get into those kinship charts people get into genealogies all the time these days. Often taken from anthropology the other you. The there’s the descent or what is called, “the bloodline stuff. Then, there’s affinal ties or affinity or the ties of marriage and marriage of course is we know it as a relationship of companionship and sanctioned sexual relationships between two people, but it also has a lot to do with how we legalize our inheritance patterns who gets to inherit what who is able to get stuff, which has a lot to do with how we organize our economy how we organize our resources and in many cases in many societies it also can have to do with political alliance where you’re trying to form ties with a neighboring group or you’re trying to form ties with a powerful family. So, marriage is one of the ways that we do that. In all or I mean in many societies there’s at least some form of arranged marriage because. These things are hugely important inheritance your economic and political station you don’t want to leave that to chance. The whims of children I mean come on we got some serious stuff to consider here.
Now, of course whenever we think about arranged marriage we can go find the most extreme examples of arranged marriage as we know we can find children being married off from too young in age. Of course, nobody wants to I mean probably somebody wants to do that, but I mean that’s something that is surely unjustified, but I would say that that’s a pretty extreme example I would say that most societies have some degree of arrangement or some degree in which the grown-ups so to speak are trying to steer the marriage choices or in some ways more determine what they are of course this Guest asks well come on what about love because as we know love is what we’re supposed to be basing our marriages on it’s become very huge very hugely important to us and what I and others would say about that is that most societies almost all societies recognize the importance of romantic love it’s not that people the people fall in love all over the place and for hundreds of years, but most societies would consider or have considered in the past most societies would consider that okay there’s romantic love, but you don’t want to base your marriage you don’t want to base your marriage on that you don’t want it’s too fragile it’s too it’s too too fleeting. The idea that we should base marriages on romantic love is relatively recent it comes to us from those wonderful Jane Austen novels 150 years ago. It’s not that romantic love is missing from other societies it’s just that you wouldn’t want to gamble on it that much. If you think about it well. They would also say well love isn’t something you don’t start off being in love you grow into love over time you’ll grow to love this person. Then, I would say. If you think about it. If you think about how many times I’m not sure if this happens in your lives, but oftentimes when somebody says I just fell in love with somebody it’s like it’s as often used to get out of a relationship as it is to get into one. It’s like some of the evolutionary biologists tell us that love is there to spread things around to make you make you crazy and do things that you might not have done. A lot of people would just it to be too fragile that said I would say that like I said love has been always romantic love has always been acknowledged in many different societies and for many years and is pretty much as Guest indicates here has been on the rise in many different societies. It’s not just it’s not just Western societies if you look at television shows in almost any country today it’s a lot of a lot of romantic love has become the ideal in many societies, as the basis for marriage I put was on the rise there because . This was true as of about 10 years ago, but I feel like there’s been a little bit a tiny bit maybe of I don’t want to say backlash, but like there are some young people in other societies maybe even on our own who are wanting their parents and others to help them out with their marriages they feel like it’s a little too chancy out there in the romantic love business. I’m not sure about that it’s a little bit of a counter trend to the idea that everywhere people are basing themselves on romantic love. We’ll talk more about love stuff in a second I want to go on to the because Guest puts it in here a fascinating topic in anthropologists is the idea of the incest taboo. The incest taboo is in some ways a universal. That is to say, that in every society you’re not supposed to marry people that are too close to you. So, certainly not siblings don’t want to get that close. If there are some examples of people who would marry their siblings, but you’d have to be divine he’d you’d have to be of a king of the children of kings or something. So, no one else was available to be married, but that would be that would be because you’re making a claim to be supernatural right in the natural world in the human realm most societies have some form of an incest taboo. It’s really been a ongoing anthropological issue why this would be on the one h. People have been like well of course it’s just you don’t want to be mixing those genes up to close who would want that, but it’s not. So, obvious at least biologically genetically some of the most more recent studies even of first cousin marriage have called into question that this would be necessarily a biological or genetic issue
that’s true thanks a lot of people don’t believe marriage is much for what you’re saying on the decline of love that’s probably something that gets in there too hmm I have to think about that one. Let’s put that on our thinking hat
okay more about the incest taboo. Then, we will get back to this idea of love and who can marry whom in one second I promise. A lot of people don’t of course the siblings are too close cousins become interesting. So, most of us probably would consider first cousins too close although there are a lot of examples of pretty prominent first cousin marriages in our own society. But in other societies you what are called cross cousins might be seen as an ideal marriage partner. I just as I said in some societies if you are in a patrilineal or a matrilineal society you will consider yourself related to the people on your father’s side or the or the people on your mother’s side, but not really related to the other side if you okay. Let’s see let me see if I can do this let’s say we’re in a matrilineal society. There I am ego that’s me. If I’m in a matrilineal society I consider my main relatives or even maybe my only true relatives to be those on my mother’s side. These would be my main cousins over here. These would not be eligible marriage partners. But the people on my father’s side I’m not really related to them because they’re in a different lineage. So, especially my father’s sister’s children would be not really considered my relatives. I know them. In fact, there might be some advantage to having to forming some marriage alliance with them because it would bring your group closer, but it wouldn’t be too close. Even the idea of who is related to whom as far as first cousins can be cross-culturally variable whether you live in what we call, “a bilateral kinship society in which you think of yourselves as equally related to your mother and father’s relatives or whether you live in a unilineal descent in which you’re more related or only related to people on your father or your mother’s side. Like I said, it has been nobody’s really figured out what the basis of the incest taboo is I don’t think there’s been an actual definitive statement in part because it varies some truly radical well perhaps not. So, radical feminist anthropologists have said well we probably shouldn’t talk so much about the incest taboo since it’s so regularly broken in American society it’s one of those things that people shudder about, but it gets broken way too much. Maybe we should think about the ways in which it is violated all right. That brings us or is related to the topic of exogamy and endogamy, which is basically marrying out your rules for how far away you should marry and marrying in your rules for how far in the group you should be. So, exogamy is related to the incest taboo because you don’t want to be too close. So, no in no society. Of course, closeness is defined cross-culturally differently, but you don’t want to be too close. You need to be somewhat exogamous Guest mentions kinship exogamists or kindred exogamous, which is what we do we don’t want to be with our own kindred.
However, almost all groups have some idea about who you should you’re the group in which you should marry or that there should be some in-group idea. So, returning to the idea of love there’s an interesting thing here is that we believe in our country we truly believe that our marriages are based on love and our very marriages are based on our own personal choices and our own
our own ideas and who we fall in love with a little bit of destiny there too. But the funny thing is that even though we in the United States believe so much in love we are almost entirely like way way way up there socially social class and dogmas it is very rare to see a marriage between two different social classes for the most part the wealthy are marrying each other working class or marrying each other the upper middle class or marrying each other I mean not strictly every so often. there’s examples of crossings. You can probably. You can shoot me down and say, “well, I know my uncle did this and that, but it’s quite statistically rare that you would ever go outside the social class bounds even though our marriages are all based on love. A question is how do we keep believing in love and keep saying, “well, marry whomever you want darling while still this class endogamy and to a degree race and dogma persists. I mean guests also mentioned religious endogamy I’m not sure that’s as true anymore, but certainly class endogamy is hugely true and for the most part because class and race are often very interconnected this ha it happens that people really maintain endogamy. That is despite the fact that of course Fortunately, laws about so-called miscegenation right law it used to be there were legal reasons why people could not be married if they were from different so-called races, but now hopefully there aren’t legal reasons. But, for the most part, we still have a pretty secure social class endogamy. How does that happen one simple way is that although. You can marry anyone you like they need to be somewhere. You need to be able to get to know them. Sometimes you are simply limited to the people who are in your zip code and our as we talked about with in our unit on race and racism even though there aren’t laws about where people can live they are often sorted pretty much by wealth. The people in your zip code are going to be the people that you basically meet you go to school with you interact with. In this country we are fairly well segregated fairly segregated by wealth not entirely, but pretty close. That’s why. That’s why our schools. In fact, maintain this for the most part pretty segregated state. But there’s another trick that. We need to help the help us out in this. That is college, which is to say that when we bring people we can bring people from different parts of the country from different zip codes. We can put them together in a place and used to be then they could get together and be close to each other and have fun and develop romantic partnerships can’t do that anymore, but someday we will be able to do this again and our marriage patterns will work out. So, my zip code was rural Montana and my current my wife’s zip code is new jersey. We got together. Basically in college. It’s great because college is a wonderful sorter of social class. People from supposedly different backgrounds end up at very similar colleges and in part because all of our standardized tests again sort very well according to social class according to wealth. Then, people meet each other of basically the same social class and get interested in each other. I was I was struck by what Guest said here it’s not it’s a form of just making sure you’re going to get married to the right people these the people who have wealth send kids to elite private schools to meet future partners and encourage in-group marriage. I mean those of you who’ve who grew up in public school that they’re mostly people like you, but boy there’s just a slight chance that you might meet somebody from the wrong side of the tracks, but boy If you can get into those elite private schools then you don’t have to worry at all about that because hey make sure that everybody’s in the same social class. This is an interesting an interesting little seg things that we can say things that we can learn anthropologically about our own assumptions about who should marry whom about out exogamy out marriage and endogamy in group marriage all right marriage continued a little bit on uh
nobody found this part it was very brief in Guest. We’ll do it briefly too monogamy you all know about one person married to one person to be contrasted with polygeny or forms of marriage in which one person can be married to more than one person now monogamy is probably a is a majority form of marriage across the world even in societies that permit polygynous or polygamous marriages monogamous marriages are in general what people are doing in most societies where politis marriages are permitted we get that confused with what is called, “polygamy.” So, polygamy is being married to more than one person polygyny is specifically one man being married to more than one woman we often as I just did conflate polygamy and polygamy because polygamy polygyny is more familiar to us or we have it’s something that is permitted in probably the majority of the world societies it’s usually the one poly- form of marriage that more of us have heard about, but technically one man being married to more than one woman is called, “polygamy it’s one particular type of polygamy it’s not the only one
in societies in which polygamy is permitted it is usually something that is done by a minority of the men and usually it is done by the wealthiest. That is because in most of these societies in order to have this marriage. You need to be able to provide for more than one you for provide for more than one woman. This is usually. Interestingly, associated with social class and seen as an ideal because it’s something. You can do from the from if you have enough money to do it Guest mentions that sometimes every so often. people will have these debates. The people who engage in polygamous marriages will say well you. The West are. So, high and mighty on your monogamy thing, but you’re you don’t really do monogamy you do serial monogamy, which is basically the idea that you’re married to one person while. Then, you get married to somebody else as we go along also something we often learn to do in college the other form of polygamy is called, “polyandry, which is when one woman gets married to more than one man polyandry is a very rare as a marriage form it is extremely rare there are a couple areas of the world
just mentions highland Tibet in which polyandry is or has been sanctioned it’s almost always what is called, “fraternal polyandry, which is a set of brothers who would get married to one woman. It is seen as a way to keep resources and land in the family instead of splitting it up among a set of brothers again it’s usually done by the at least moderately well off in order to preserve resources. So, polyandry is a rare form of marriage there has been this was re-examined recently I sometimes assign this article it’s some anthropologists are now saying that polyandry may be more common maybe not as a sanctioned form of marriage, but as a survival strategy and a way and a cultural idea in different in different places. There are places, for example, where when they when a woman gets pregnant it might be seen as beneficial to take a second or a third father for the child. This might not be a marriage relationship, but is a polyandrous relationship in order to in order to have a multiple providers. It’s an interesting it’s this is a fairly readable and popular article if you want to check it out all right a couple other things from this chapter one is about something that we are talk to talking about before, which is the idea of where how does how do ideas about kinship and family fit into the idea of the nation’s state and not too long ago we felt that kinship and marriage and family was something that was going to fade out as an organizing principle of a country or a nation. The idea was that oh yes in in other societies where they don’t have centralized governments that’s where kinship becomes important it does not seem to have faded out. In fact, in some ways the whole notion of a nation as we talked about in an imagined community is the notion that you are in some ways interrelated related to the other people that belong to this territory. We use all sorts of kinship metaphors in order to describe our country in order to figure out who should be included and who should be excluded is all about kinship. I think that anyone who’s looking at the political scene of the United States over the last 20 years and realizes how many how many interconnected families have been running for office realize that kinship is hardly over as a way of maintaining or perpetuating or understanding political power. There’s some interesting stuff about Israel. Also going back to something that going back to the descent issues there are some stuff there about a Guest’s own study of these Chinese patterns of dissent, but how they’re changing with immigration and migrating patterns. Of course, that both sometimes overlaps with or in some ways counteracts the boundaries of the nation state. That’s a really both of these are really fascinating sections about this tension between what we might consider the traditional notions of who’s related to whom. The boundaries of citizenship and where people should be located in a country
also some interesting stuff in here about the nuclear families the nuclear family has been assumed to be an ideal the mother father two kids and a dog as is assumed the reason we call it, “the nuclear family was it was assumed to be at the nucleus of all kinship relations and in our own society was seen as this an enormous ideal and Guest draws here on the work of Stephanie Coontz interesting historian she wrote a book called the way we never were American families in the nostalgia trap, which is all about how in fact this idea this ideal of the nuclear family really was not ever as realized as it was as it was imagined when it was put forth as an ideal and certainly in the last in the last 30 years it’s probably been true that more people have decided to do different kinds of families or there’s been a lot of stress you might stay on what we might consider the traditional nuclear family, but as Coontz writes we’re not it’s not clear entirely that this was more than a nostalgic ideal and not something that was realized across the US landscape
A couple of you pulled out some interesting things that I just wanted to point out I did not know this, but I looked it up. I think it’s true. So, you’ve heard the idea of blood is thicker than water, which I that’s all I had ever heard. That’s the idea that well the people you’re related to by blood is more important than the people that you’re related to by friendship, which is like water. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this you may have heard this way and I always used to say well, but it turns out that sometimes friendship can be more important than. But the full quote according to one of you and I checked it out. I think it’s true from the Bible itself the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. What this is saying is that the covenant the choices and agreements and alliances we make is thicker more important than whatever happens to us descent-wise as our commenter says it’s the exact opposite of what people usually think of when they say blood is thicker than water. It’s interesting I have to like I said this is a revelation to me I need to look more into this, but it speaks to what I think many of us experience is that people talk about the families you choose. It’s not to ignore your biological family, but a lot of times we choose to be close to people and even if you are biologically related to somebody that kinship tie has to be continually reinforced and made it isn’t just a given then one of you pointed out something that comes up a little later is the in the chapters these did what is are called new reproductive technologies this came out a little bit in the section about you know who counts as Jewish I mean If you can have one person who is the sperm donor one person who is an egg donor one person another person who is carrying that child as a surrogate mother then who is who is related to whom. These things about who is related to whom and what counts as kinship and what counts as family have become even more complex now this is as Guest says this is not a new thing not an entirely new thing, but it certainly does bring new wrinkles to the picture when you have when you have reproductive technologies that seem to be able to separate almost we might say the genetic egg sperm thing from the biological development thing. Then, and then in some cases transfer that biologically developed child over to the genetic parents it’s just it’s complicated some people also have noted that there’s there are new forms of kinship being made around in some cases organ donation. People will form kinship-like ties after an organ donation has taken place. These things are I mean there’s not there’s not easy answers to them because they mess with our traditional ideas of kinship. Guest in the middle of this chapter on page 253 asks one of his Guest questions our biology and marriage the only basis for kinship
this is one of those questions that I’m like Guest, come on man, you don’t need to ask us this question anymore, we all know the answer by now. What do you say?
no dude, thank you, a big no. Why even ask us anymore? thank you whoever unmuted to say that the big no right I mean it’s like no they’re not. Even if you are related to somebody biologically speaking or marriage speaking you always need to be doing things to maintain that relationship. You can form kinship-like relationships all over the place.