Ethnicity, kinship, and… progress?

Over the summer I started (but have not yet finished) James Leach’s slim but dense ethnography “Creative Land: Place and Procreation on The Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea”: I can see why this book is being so widely read by Melanesianists, since what I’ve read so far is very good, and will probably just get better. Very briefly, Leach argues that anthropologists focus on ‘kinship’ fail to understand the way that socializing people on the Rai coast (Yali land, for those who are keeping tack) works is not primarily through figuring out who they are related to by blood and then shunting them into a particular group. Rather he points out that an essential part of socialization involves the way that people become associated with particular places through living there, gardening there, engage in exchanges there, and so forth. His point — which sounds mundane when repeated at this level of generalization — is to reinforce trends in the rebirth of the kinship literature that’s been underway for a decade now. Following people like Marilyn Strathern, Janet Carsten, and (sort of) David Schneider, Leach says that if you are looking for a ‘kinship system’ or ‘groups’ on the Rai coast you could find them, but only by being very procrustean with the data. Putting place rather than biogenetic substance in the center of ‘relatedness’ in this area, he argues, makes more sense.

I find this argument — or what I’ve read of it so far — compelling, although there are certain idiosyncrasies to the British national style of anthropology these days that make my eyes tired. What I find most impressive about the book is how it demonstrates how something like ‘progress’ in anthropological theory happens. One question that I wondered about, though, was why you would want to say the book was about ‘kinship’ at all?

Then just a few days ago, I was putting the finishing touches on an article (i.e. desperately revising). In the course of doing so I leafed through a recently-acquired copy of “Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific”:, and particularly James Watson’s paper on ethnicity in Kainantu. The point of this volume is basically to take issue with a primordialist view of ethnicity and emphasize the way in which nurturance, sharing, eating together and so forth are central to identity formation in Pacific societies. The contributors thus contrast “Lamarkian” Pacific models with biogenetically obsessed “Darwinian” models of the west. In his paper, Watson talks about the creation of numerous ethnic identities in Kainantu, and how the key to understanding identity in the highlands is people’s relationship to place. I liked the argument, but I thought why call this ‘ethnicity’ at all…?

The idea of ‘The Pacific’ (which is often just code for ‘Polynesia’) versus ‘the west’ is one I just have to live with. But as far as I’m concerned if something is true for places as different as Aboriginal Australia, Pohnpei, New Zealand, and highlands Papua New Guinea then we might start wondering whether it isn’t true everywhere. In Porgera, where I work, I don’t think there’s such an emphasis on ‘place’ and ‘landscape’ as there is in Kainantu — people liked to move around a lot, there is a long history of multilocal residence, long-distance trade, and so forth. But man are they into consociation as the building block of identity, pace the fact that they express it in terms of consanguinity…

But that’s a different topic. My point is just that the contributors of the second volume — now 15 years old — were moving beyond ethnicity to a more general understanding of how people are related to one another, just as Leach is moving away from the concept of ‘kinship’ towards an account of ‘relatedness’. Letting go of kinship is hard for me, since I have a certain fondness for the topic. Letting go of ethnicity is easier since, as Weber pointed out long ago, it’s not a very useful analytic concept (unless it’s a folk concept for your research subjects, and maybe not even then). These accidentally juxtaposed readings pointed out to me — through serendipity — the way in which anthropologists really are moving away from theories derived from ‘their culture’ (or, in the case of ethnicity and kinship, from a certain appropriation of Greek and Latin categories) and towards a more robust, generalizable, and synthetic model of sociality — literally producing the ‘science of the lifeworld’ whose basic structure Alfred Schutz outlined lo these many years ago. Is this progress or just a shift in fashion? I’m hesitant to embrace the first term for fear of being deemed ‘scientistic’ and a deeply ingrained cynicism. Nonetheless, if I met a consilience-head in a bar who started telling me about how biochemistry renders the concept of culture obsolete, this is one of the areas where, as Silverstein put it in his recent essay in the volume Unwrapping The Sacred Bundle, “the century of development of theorizing in the specifically social and cultural” has “change[d] the terms of discourse for anyone who has been paying attention.”


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “Ethnicity, kinship, and… progress?

  1. In Taiwan, the role of “place” in shaping identity has been intimately linked to the processes of state formation (in the late nineteenth century), and the rise of identity politics (in the late twentieth century). The initial rise of the state led to people abandoning their place-of-origin based ethnic identities as they became subjects and (later) citizens. More recently, place has become important again, as a new form of place-based multiculturalism was imported from Japan in order to counter the previous era’s Chinese nationalism.

  2. Schutz! Are you just being enigmatically well-read with the Schutz shout out or do persons actually read him these days? I am currently reading Berger and Luckmann’s _The Social Construction of Reality, Man_ AKA Schutz Lite(TM) AKA the best book in the whole world ever if you’re me right now, so I am currently very much a Schutzian, for sure.

  3. I’ve been using Schutz over at to explore the nature of semiotic technologies.

    Given my interests I often have to specify Alfred rather than Heinrich. A lot of people read Schutz, although the history of his reception in English is kind of weird. One piece of Schutziana not everyone gets to but which is very worthwhile is his essay “Making Music Together”, which is one of the best descriptions of making music I’ve ever read (Schutz played at a near-professional level, apparently). I’ve not read it, but it looks like Michael Barber’s “The Participating Citizen”, the recently released biography of Schutz, is better than Wagner’s earlier one. In fact, all of Barber’s stuff looks very interesting.

    The big problem with Schutz is that his writing style is so stultifying — the ponderous German mandarin style is simply impossible to get through, even if you find what he’s saying so interesting.

  4. From a man who recommends gritting it out until you acquire a taste for Max “Chuckles” Weber’s dainty aphorismes, hem hem, that’s a caveat and a half, for sure. I’ll think I’ll have to stick with B&L until I have a rainy decade, since I am currently more than quite somewhat busy with Other Stuff.

    Digital Genres, though, I rejoice to probably be able to fit in somehow.

  5. There’s a Schutzian lit in Austrian Economics, and he turns up in a lot of places — I don’t know what his standing is in anthro but he seems consistent with a lot of recent cultural anthro. This book:

    Smith, Dorothy. 1987. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

    contains come interesting critical comments. It’s still not clear to me how helpful Schutz is for the kind of stuff the Bourdieu calls habitus. But I’ve also found him a wee bit hard to get through, and I keep getting the sense that the real insights are in whichever Schutz book I’m not reading.

Comments are closed.