The state of the art in kinship and language, and…?

Buried in a comment thread in an entry that scrolled off the main page, John asks:

who are you reading now whom you would recommend as a model to emulate? Whose work looks promising—not just in terms of what the individual author might do—but in terms of defining a paradigm that others might want to develop?

I asked this question a while ago on my blog and got “some good answers”: which included “good British reads”: but since Savage Minds is more widely read, I thought I’d ask the question again here: who is on your list?

I find the answers so far fascinating. Orange, a Deutschophone, points to Ulf Hannerz. “Kerim”:/2005/11/05/whats-your-national-style/#comment-2000 reccomends the two recent volumes on language ideology. “Oneman”:/2005/11/05/whats-your-national-style/#comment-1998 puts together an eclectic list that starts with “Marcus and Fischer” and includes “Latour, Rofel, Graeber, both Rosaldos, Taussig, Brodkin, Abu-Lughod, Ginzburg, Gupta, Trigger, Vincent, Stocking, Appadurai.”

My own list differs from Oneman’s and has a lot in common with Kerim’s…


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 “The state of the art in kinship and language, and…?

  1. I don’t know about anyone else’s reasoning, but I excluded Sahlins on the basis that he belongs to the wave of symbolic (Geertz, Schneider) and materialist (Wolf, Mintz) anthropologies around the end of the ’60s/beginning of the ’70s, and I see his place as a “canonical” thinker as being pretty well-established.

    In any case, this is a pretty good summary of the developments of the last few decades. I hadn’t really put all the dates together like this, so I hadn’t before considered the impact of that late-80s period.

  2. Given there seems to be no one working on Africa contributing to the list, the following are the ethnographies that I have been consistently challenged by, both in content and method.

    Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft.
    James, The Listening Ebony: Moral Knowledge, Religion, and Power Among the Uduk of Sudan.
    Ferme, The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone.
    Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan.
    Kapferer, The Feast of the Sorcerer : Practices of Consciousness and Power (ok not an Africanist, but consistently challenging).

  3. [“I find the answers so far fascinating. Orange, a Deutschophone, points to Ulf Hannerz.”

    No, I do not. I did, but answered another question.
    In regards of breaking concepts I do point to connectivity-theory.]

  4. My heartfelt thanks to Rex for some serious education. As I’m off to the States tomorrow (my 87-year old Dad is doing poorly and my brother and sister-in-law need relief—Yes, kinship rules), I won’t be able to respond at length until after I get back.

    Two quick comments: One my take on Geertz has always been that he does a magnificent job of pointing to serious theoretical issues but evades the more critical challenge of how to address them. The Balinese Cockfight is, of course, a classic example. One of the reasons for my fondness for Turner is that, for better or worse, he provided a paradigm for me of how a “thick description” might actually be produced, noting that observations, native exegesis, and other information are all data—none sufficient to explain the others—and also noted that contradictions between observations and native exegesis are particularly important as pointers to the conflicts and contradictions inherent in all human activity (ideas he took from Marx and Freud).

    Second, I do find it interesting that Rex prefers the early Turner, since this is precisely the period in which Vic was following the example of his Manchester School mentors and developing the solid foundation in social organization on which his later analyses of ritual were grounded.

    P.S. The development and then displacement of African kinship models in Melanesia and elsewhere (China, my own original area, is a classic case in point), followed by the discovery that they don’t work quite as advertised in newer work in Africa strikes me, at least at first glance, as perfectly normal science: analogous to the displacement of Copernicus’ perfectly circular orbits with Kepler’s ovals, followed by the addition of Newton’s laws of motion. We still, however, await our Einstein, the genius who will come up with a new compelling synthesis that incorporates the new data. The flaws in old paradigms have been revealed; we are thrashing in search of successors.

    P.P.S. I am reminded of a wonderful moment in McCulloch’s Embodiments of Mind when the father of automata theory remarks that every time he has tried to build a machine to simulate human behavior the machines have fallen short of his goals. Then, he says, there are always those who say, “See, no machine can do what humans do.” He goes off and builds a better machine, a better approximation to his ultimate goals.

  5. Good luck John. I really would reccomend the Hanks and the Carsten if you are looking for remedial theory. Oh also I forgot to mention “Voices of Modernity” the poetic-pragmatic take on the history of social theory and language.

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