Kinship Research Paper

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Sociologists who study kinship patterns examine how different cultures and societies define and value kinship, whether through blood ties (procreation and marriage) or through bonds among groups who hold reciprocal interests in nurturing and sustaining themselves. Debates about what are misleadingly considered “tribal” forms of kinship spark modern discussions about the roles of mothers and father in modern society.

In the most basic sense the word kinship refers to the connections people have through family—by blood (procreation) and marriage. Thus defined, kinship is reducible to parent-child, sibling-sibling, and spouse-spouse relationships, and it extends to include other family members—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws. But people often claim or evoke kinship with others through a community of shared or common interests, especially regarding nurturing and sustenance. Sociologists who study kinship presume differing views on how kinship can be perceived and valued in a particular culture or society, while data from anthropologists contributes input to current discussions about modern-day family structure.


Constructionists—sometimes called “cultural constructionists” or “social constructionists”—posit or assume that people create their conceptual worlds with minimal influence from outside other than through power relations. They hold that the procreative basis of kinship is an ethnocentric illusion. They point out that kinship ties in various parts of the world are created by non-procreative means. Foremost among these means are co-residence, food sharing, and food giving, with nurturance through adoption being perhaps a special case of the first and third means. Thus, in many Inuit (Eskimo) communities adoptive parents are referred to as (the English equivalent of) step-parent of foster parent. In Papua New Guinea genealogies are frequently adjusted to transform nonkin into kin when they become co-residents. In parts of east Africa a man in his travels may befriend another man, with whom he may perform a ceremony wherein each drinks the blood of the other. By this act the two men are said to be “brothers.” Constructionists rightly emphasize the importance of sharing in such cases. Thus, in the Inuit example of adoption the adoptive mother’s breast milk will go to the child if he or she is still an infant, and the mother supplies other foods if the child is older. In the Papua New Guinea example the sharing of food is likely to be more evenly balanced. In the east African example food is also shared, most conspicuously in the form of blood.


Constructionists almost entirely ignore, by contrast, the issue of focality. Consider the Inuit example. The terms assigned to Inuit adoptive parents are, as noted, based on parent terms, much like the expressions foster parent and step-parent: all refer back to procreative parents, who provide the focal points for these latter expressions. We can say much the same for genealogy manipulation in Papua New Guinea: non-kin are thus regarded as procreative kin, such that these latter people serve as the bases or foci from which kin classes are extended. In east Africa two men who drink each other’s blood are imitating postnatally what is true— and is thought to be true—of real brothers natally— that is, sharing blood. In all these cases—and many others—non-procreative kinship notions are modeled on procreative ones.


Constructionists and non-constructionists alike will insist that the term procreative parents be understood to refer to parents according to a local culture’s appreciations of human reproduction or “ethnoembryologies.” They are likely to point out that, even in Western civilization, the modern scientific finding that both parents contribute equally to the fetus is only about a century old, before which time it was maintained—although not unequivocally—that the father’s sperm contained a miniature person, who was merely incubated in the mother. This notion, in fact, is a common ideology outside the West as well. Other variations exist. Probably the two most common of these are (1) that the mother supplies the soft parts of the body, the father the bones and (2) that the mother supplies the entire body, whereas the father either supplies the spirit or acts as an intermediary between the carnal world and the spiritual world. Thus in parts of Aboriginal Australia the father is said to “find” the spirit of his yet-to-be-born child in a dream and to direct it from there to the mother’s womb. From this example it might seem misleading to refer to this role with the term father; the reasons why it is not misleading in the next section. Here three points need to be made.

First, the carnal-spiritual dichotomy is often violated by the special treatment accorded the bones, which, although of the body, decay only gradually and thus are likely to evoke notions of durability and permanence, like the spirit. Thus, in Aboriginal Australia the corpse is buried soon after death and disinterred after a year or so, at which time the flesh that remains is removed and discarded. The bones, by contrast, are retained: they are placed in a hollowed-out log decorated with emblems signifying the deceased’s spiritual heritage, and the log-cumbones is carefully hidden on the same tract of land on which his or her father first encountered his child’s spirit. The attention given to the bones of relatives and saints in the great religions of the East and West provides more familiar examples of much the same kind of thinking.

Second and even more important, two or more ethnoembryologies may exist in the same community. Among Aboriginal Australian men with whom researchers have talked, some argued for variation (1) noted earlier, others for variation (2), still others for both on different occasions. Statements that imply that all persons in a community believe the same thing fail to appreciate the richness of human experience and variation.

In fact—and this is the third and most important point—we may question whether the term belief helps us to achieve this appreciation. Older Aboriginal men in the Western Desert of Australia stress the “finding” experience noted earlier, whereas women and younger men make it plain that sexual intercourse is necessary for conception. Moreover, the younger men are quieted on this subject by the older men, who control the most important religious knowledge and who refuse to discuss sexual matters, insisting on the importance of “finding.” An unwillingness to mix carnal and spiritual discourse, an overriding of tacit knowledge by dogma, seems to be involved here. However, tacit knowledge implies a presence, not an absence.

Ignorance of Physical Paternity

Failure to recognize this caused the first anthropologists who worked with Aboriginal Australians to conclude that these people are, as it was once phrased, “ignorant of physical paternity.” This mistake was not innocent. It fed Victorian typologies (classifications based on types or categories) about “primitive society” and, later, racist ideologies concerning the alleged intellectual inferiority of Aboriginal Australians. Its early twentieth-century equivalent was a comparable claim for the Trobriand Islanders, off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea. Subsequent research in the Trobriands has shown that this “ignorance” is, in fact, part of a dogma wherein groups of a certain kind create the illusion that they are self-perpetuating, that the spirits of the dead of these groups enter their women and are reincarnated through them in their children. In order to achieve this reincarnation, however, sexual intercourse with a nongroup member is nonetheless posited as necessary.

Matriliny and Patriliny

Victorian and early twentieth-century anthropologists who promulgated the “ignorance of physical paternity” idea linked it with the reckoning of kinship through women only—what has come to be called “matriliny” or “matrilineality.” After all, if paternity were unknown, the reckoning of kinship through men could not occur. Moreover, they associated matriliny with “matriarchy” or rule by women. Within anthropology these ideas were dispelled by 1930, largely by research in the “matrilineal” Trobriands by the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942). More recently, however, certain feminist thinkers have resurrected them. So it is useful to revisit some of what Malinowski and his cohorts discovered.

First, kinship everywhere is reckoned through both parents—that is, bilaterally—according to one or another theory noted in the discussion of ethnoembryologies. Where kinship reckoned solely through women applies, it does so for certain purposes only, and these purposes vary considerably from one such community to another. Where matrilineal groups exist, they may or may not have great importance in everyday life, but even if they do, the expression matrilineal society oversimplifies and misleads.

Second, it can be argued that matriarchies do not exist. Men tend to dominate women everywhere, although great variation exists in the extent to which— and the circumstances under which—they do so. The “goddess” imagery espoused by some feminists in not consistent with the status of flesh-and-blood women. If anything, age—not gender—is the more important criterion cross culturally for assuming authority: the world tends to be run by relatively healthy people older than forty.

Today, some feminists also have taken over the Victorian narrative of the “evolution” of patriliny—or patrilineality—from matriliny, and again “ignorance of physical paternity” is key. When men (so the narrative goes) somehow finally realized that they, too, have a role in conception, patrilineal kin reckoning became possible, and it replaced matriliny and matriarchy with patriliny and patriarchy. But the following factors must be considered.

First, in communities with patrilineal groups, as in all others, kinship is reckoned through women as well as men.

Second, although the position of women is generally higher in communities with matrilineal groups than it is among those with patrilineality, the latter are at least as varied as the former.

Third, probably the most radical of these variations is that between groups with lengthy patrilineal genealogies and those with minimal genealogical reckoning, such that being the child of one’s father is sufficient to attain membership, and the unity of the group is expressed nongenealogically, or through genealogical metaphor. Researchers in a part of Aboriginal Australia, for example, found that some Aboriginal people were said to be reincarnations of parts of a Primeval Rock Python, others of parts of a Primeval Crayfish, still others of parts of a Primeval Duck. The father— but not the mother—of each such individual was also said to be Rock Python, Crayfish, or Duck, as the case may be, but the genealogical relationship among (for example) Rock Python people was largely unknown and for most purposes irrelevant. Such groups have matrilineal analogues in other parts of the world.

Fourth, at the other extreme are notions of patriliny that assume the entire ethnic unit—indeed, in some cases the entire world—is composed of the descendants of a single primeval creator or a set of brothers. The Bible, for example, stipulates that everyone on Earth is descended from one or another of Noah’s three sons, and ideologies of this sort are common in the Muslim Middle East of today and in adjoining parts of sub-Saharan Africa. With large populations, of course, no attempt to relate everyone by detailed patrilineal links is possible. No matrilineal analogues exist.

Fifth, in communities with patrilineal groups, as in those with matrilineal groups and in those, like most in the West, with no such groups, social life is most penetratingly seen as involving human beings acting in various recognized capacities. Thus a title, such as “professor of anthropology,” is relevant when one is in academic settings but not when one rides the New York City subway. “Tribal” communities do not have subways, gyms, and stamp dealers, but they have more than just patrilineal or matrilineal groups. In fact, the term groups is probably more than a little misleading: it suggests a boundedness and a permanence that are, literally, out of this world. Nowadays most anthropologists have abandoned the heavy reliance of their predecessors on what one critic has dubbed “groupology,” but it survives in feminism and other influences on modern life.

Kinship and Modern Life

Forms of kinship, like everything else, have histories. Of particular importance to present-day kinship studies—and modern life more generally—are the new reproductive technologies that, among other things, allow women to bear children without male parental behavior other than insemination. Such technologies may suit some women, but what is their impact on the raising of children? Considerable research suggests it is not entirely positive. People in the Western world have a long record of looking to anthropological data from the “tribal” world to suggest alternative modes of living, the range of human possibility. But advocates of fatherlessness (in the noninseminatory sense) will find little if any relief in such data. In approximately 85 percent of “tribal” communities both parents co-reside with their dependent children, and in virtually all of the remaining 15 percent, in which fathers are not present, close male kin of the mothers are. The media slogan “Families come in all shapes and sizes” is not much supported by these data.

Moreover, in many biparental communities, a pattern exists that has been termed “aloof fatherhood.” In these communities there are elaborate ideologies about the alleged destructive and/or polluting powers of women; these ideologies lead men to distance themselves from their wives spatially (usually in designated “men’s houses”) and emotionally. Some people have suggested that this aloofness of the husbands encourages women to turn to their young sons for emotional warmth, but this quest is not an entirely welcome one. Growing boys are likely to experience it as an attempt to annihilate their emerging male selves, to retain an unconscious sense of female gender identity, and to reproduce their fathers’ fantasies and behavior concerning women. Indeed, “men’s house” rituals nearly always involve the imitation by men and boys of some aspect of female reproductive behavior, most commonly a sort of “pseudo-menstruation” effected by letting blood. Unsurprising, too, is a recurrent myth-pattern, wherein a primeval age is posited in which current gender roles are largely reversed. This myth-pattern, incidentally, has fueled modern “matriarchy” theory, but we probably more accurately can see it as a projection onto local notions of “history” of the power relations that boys experience with their mothers under “aloof fatherhood.” Finally, a part of this complex is an exaggerated belligerence that some scholars have called “protest masculinity.”

This last characteristic most importantly connects “aloof fatherhood” in the “tribal” world to the growing incidence of fatherlessness in modern households— what some scholars have called our most urgent social problem. Adolescent boys raised without fathers are far more likely to commit violent crimes than are other boys, even if one controls for other factors (e.g., race, household income). Among these crimes are the physical and sexual abuse of women and children. Moreover, such boys are also much less likely later on to commit themselves to relatively permanent reproductive relationships with women. Many thoughtful people—of both genders and all positions on the political spectrum—are concerned about such modernday trends.


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