Apart from questions of prescription and description (or representation and practice) embedded in such questions as what counts as ‘cousin marriage’ here and there, and to what extent endogamous marriage strategies have property as the primary motivating interest, styles of reflexively-apprehended ‘kinship’ come to stand for whole sets of values and traditions, as noted below in Kerim’s post and responses.
As, for example, in places like the United States. The semiosphere (I really hate the term ‘blogosphere’) has lately been aflame with debates about gay parenting, prompted especially by Mary Cheney’s announcement that she and her partner are having a child. The symbolism is profound of course: here, at the very heart of one of the most consequentially anti-gay administrations in U.S. history (rivaled on anti-gay terms I think only by the Clinton administration), is a gay family. It’s rather uncanny how gays keep erupting on the putatively anti-gay Republican scene (Mark Foley, anyone?).
The properness of gay parenting was recently the subject of a controversial piece in Time magazine by James Dobson, who runs the conservative moralist group Focus on the Family (and who recently had his own uncanny encounter with the homo when his ‘friend’ Ted Haggard was forced out of the closet). The piece is controversial not only because it constitutes something of a personal attack on Mary Cheney and her decision to become a mother, but also because it misconstrues social research in order to argue that same-sex parental couples damage children. Carol Gilligan has released a letter calling on Dobson to cease citing her work in support of his argument that children can only properly be raised by their own biological father and mother. (To my mind, a rather odd gesture, since one of the hazards of publishing is that people are free to read and interpret your work as they like.) I actually think the best response to Dobson’s piece has been Saletan’s at Slate. (Saletan’s ‘Human Nature’ column is consistently fascinating.) Saletan points out that the real danger to children isn’t gay parents, it’s men.
Saletan’s piece has the benefit of revealing that the anti-gay aspect of arguments like Dobson’s often obscure the importance of gender even as they ostensibly trumpet the importance of traditional gender roles. When Dobson and others refer to the dangers of gay parenting (and gay marriage), they are often tarring all lesbians and gays with fears that are stictly speaking applicable mainly to gay men. Saletan does a great job of pointing out the hilarity of this dynamic.
How do anthropologists respond? Our research is largely absent from these debates even if traditionally, we ‘own’ kinship. Do we cite cultural diversity? (Not necessarily an inappropriate response: Dobson and others usually make arguments about the core civilizational role that a transhistorical and unchanging ‘family’ plays for all of humanity.) This has been the tack of the AAA. But I think this response is ultimately a weak one. The appeals to ‘history’ and to ‘social science’ by Dobson et al are simply efforts to coat an essentially moral (or normative) argument in the clothes of scientism. And that argument I think has precisely to do with the question of modernity as articulated by Kerim and others below at SM.
Dobson et al fear a society that is, fundamentally I think, too modern: too given to choice, too individualistic. Oddly enough, they seem to fear above all not same-sex parenting, not even non-traditional gender norms, but primarily the autologous subject: that being who is master of her own destiny. We can respond to these arguments by enumerating the vast, and vastly diverse, range of ways in which peoples around the world create kinship. But to my mind we have to address above all the liberal fantasies of self-determination that undergird the fear that the last vestiges of ‘nature’ will be be dissolved by human enterprise.