Magical properties

I was fabulously flattered by the invitation to blog for Savage Minds, and uncharacteristically nervous when considering how popular it is. But here we go, and let’s hope you find this moderately interesting.

There are more than moderately interesting things happening in Britain today. We have a new government with radical and fairly exotic ideas, and much for anthropologists to get their teeth into. One area that’s been occupying me for some time is the more florid statements of certain people who are now Ministers on the value of social housing. Recent pronouncements have included suggestions from the Prime Minister that people should not be allowed to live in the same house all their lives, it ‘stunts ambition and means that people end up staying on estates for life’1. He’s referring here to council estates, not country estates where, presumably, living all your life at your country seat is not a sign of lack of ‘aspiration’.

Just a few lines of background first: in Britain, many low-cost homes were, for nearly a century, built, owned and managed by local government organisations that we call councils, hence ‘Council Housing’. A simple strategy to ensure that the poorest people had somewhere decent to live. Not free housing, but secure housing available at relatively low rents, with a carefully regulated landlord (the council) and clear rules and policies. It worked pretty well for at least half a century, yet the middle classes tended to look down on it and stigmatise council tenants as dangerous and reckless. Under Thatcher that reached a zenith (or nadir depending on your point of view), and she began to dismantle the free and fair system, a process continued under New Labour with the wholescale demolition of rundown estates of housing, and the transfer of publicly owned housing to autonomous institutions, such as Housing Associations and the wonderfully named ‘Arms Length Management Organisations’ (immediately known as ALMOs). So far, so factual.

What’s particularly fascinating, for me at least, is the kind of mystical agency that some ministers invest in housing. One particularly prominent minister, former leader of the Conservative Party and now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, one Iain Duncan Smith, seems to have wholly adopted Levi-Strauss’s suggestion that houses have personhood. The key feature that gives houses this agency is not the house itself, but its ownership: ‘People with assets are more positive, more constructive, more likely to do the right thing’2. Now, forgive me, but this strikes me as rather radical. It says that our relationship to material objects transforms us as persons, but only if we own them ourselves. There is more depth to this than any neo-liberal rant about small government or reducing red tape – those are merely processual details. This, on the contrary, is a fairly radical moral belief.

It was slightly more elaborated in a statement by Duncan Smith’s ‘think tank’:

The ownership of an asset encourages a series of behavioural changes. Those who own are more likely to protect their assets, to protect their position of ownership and to engage in constructive behaviours that enable their assets to be protected and enlarged: behaviours that benefit themselves, their families and the community at large3.

So this house, in a relationship of ownership, becomes the agent not only for the behaviour of its occupants while in the house, but for the wider social arena. It goes well beyond the former New Labour government’s unimaginative observation that people who rent have no property to pass on to their children. For the new Tories, the relationship of ownership is that which creates a fully socialised person, and the most fully socialised is the one who owns the most substantial property, a home. Sadly, the other side of this curious belief is the spectre of council tenants being told to move to private housing if they no longer need income support (ie welfare), and a renewed wave of stigmatisation and prejudice against council tenants. But I, for one, think that the beliefs on ownership are themselves worthy of some anthropological analysis4 in the hope that this might give more strength to those who campaign on behalf of people who do not own private houses.

Next blog post – on the financial crisis that didn’t happen…

1Widely reported, including in

2Ian Duncan smith interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 2/12/08

3Centre for Social Justice 2008 (press release)

4For more on this, my book ‘Culture and Planning’ should be out next year.


Simone is a discipline-crossing anthropologist, having worked in planning, geography and anthropology departments. She is currently Reader in Cultural Tourism at Leeds Met University, and Reader in Energy Studies at Durham University, Department of Anthropology, where she is Director of the MSc in Energy and Society.

20 thoughts on “Magical properties

  1. Hello John,
    Thank you for the link. There are chapters in the book that Gisa Weszkalnys and I are editing that are on housing in South America, including Sarah Lund’s chapter which refers to de Soto. Your link to de Soto raises a slightly different question, on the incorporation of excluded people into The Economy. The British political debate has been more about using home-ownership to drive the construction industry as the core economic activity (of which more next post). Yet it has this social counterpart that moralizes the residential relationship itself. This is played out in various ways. It became acceptable in the 1980s to make political statements about the poor condition of public houses, after years of underinvestment in maintenance. Because public housing was associated with Modernist architecture, the latter became associated with poverty and poorly maintained buildings, so there have been profound architectural consequences there. More recently, Conservative politicians became explicit with their demonization of council tenants themselves. Their remedy is to transform them from owners into renters. But my point here is that there is more than class ignorance and economic strategy at play. It seems that politicians have some interesting beliefs about house magic too.

  2. Homeownership makes no economic sense for many working class folk. If you buy a home in Detroit, then lose your job at the same time that home prices plummet, you may not be able to sell the house and move to a locale where more jobs are to be found.

  3. Hi Simone, I’m so glad you’ve been invited to guest post.

    I’m reading Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory’ at the moment, and this idea of “they just need assets, and, lo, local regeneration will instantaneously occur” is quite prominent in there as well, I think.

    I’m not sure it’s the political zeitgeist as much as yet another example of what middle class people want being assumed to be what working class people want too, which is in political play at least from industrialism. Nevertheless, what does seem to be on the up is this explicit sort of ‘behaviourist’ approach (the rich man’s social science?) which IDS looks to be pushing, and also pops up with this whole ‘nudge theory’ carry on.

  4. […] Iain Duncan Smith, seems to have wholly adopted Levi-Strauss’s suggestion that houses have personhood.

    Lévi-Strauss never suggested that domestic structures have personhood, but I can see why you might say that. Over the past two decades LS’s maison has been stretched into the the house concept, which tends to mean whatever the writer needs it to. Lévi-Strauss sketched out the concept via two cases: the Northwest Coast (in chapter 13 of The way of the masks) and European royal houses (“Histoire et ethnologie,” Annales 38: 1217–31).

    I don’t mean to sharpshoot your post. The MP does seem to be pushing policies of the SDI variety—sure, it sounds great, but can we really expect it to work given what we already know about the empirical world? I just don’t think any of it is in line with what Lévi-Strauss said about the maison (though it might be in line with what people have said he said).

  5. A little historical and global perspective may be in order here. The notion that life, liberty and property are natural rights guaranteed by reason goes back at least to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government . Locke’s philosophical argument can, I seem to recall, be read as grounded in the image of the English yeoman, a freeholder whose right to his property distinguished him from the serf, who was bound to the land owned by the lord. The yeoman archer with his longbow played a critical role in Hundred Years War between Britain and France, most memorably perhaps in the Battle of Agincourt, where arrows from the archers’ longbows demolished the flower of French chivalry and marked the transition from the period of medieval warfare in which the armored knight on horseback dominated the battlefield.

    It is also important to remember how important home ownership was to both the economies and political ideologies of non-Communist states during the Cold War. In all of the OECD countries, the house in the suburbs was the dream and reward of the men who fought in WWII. The house, the car and the nuclear family with a place of its own was symbolically the antithesis of the collectivization that Communism represented. They were also the drivers of the rapid economic growth of the postwar years, when new families buying houses and cars and stocking them with durable goods provided the consumer demand that fed the growth of industry. The notion that a class smallholders who own their own property are essential for functioning democracies was also a primary driver in the only two peaceful and successful land reform programs in East Asia, in Taiwan and Japan.

    Criticism of the suburbs and all that they represent, from housewife boredom to middle-class flight from impoverished city centers to the unsustainable costs of a car, a.k.a., petroleum-based, economy have long been a staple of progressive critique. There is no denying, too, that middle-class property owners afraid of losing what they have have been the backbone of racist and reactionary political movements. No political battles are more ferocious or irrational when seen from a rational, progressive perspective than those which pit those who feel that what they and their forebears worked to achieve is threatened by newcomers, stereotyped as racially different.

    If, however, the 20th century has something to teach us about the relation of property to democracy, it is not that property is bad. It is, rather, that political steps have to be taken to prevent the concentration of property in too few hands, leaving others propertyless. And the smallholder’s property is only worth holding on to when jobs and incomes are secure but not so secure as to cripple social mobility.

    Zora is right that buying a home in Detroit where the economy is in dire shape and debts can be crippling if the job that pays them is lost is foolish. There was a time, however, when my father could borrow from his wife’s father to purchase land in Virginia whose rise in value sent his son to college and will largely fund his retirement. What is truly magical thinking is to separate property from the economic and historical context in which it is acquired, held, passed on or sold.

    Why it was that in one particular time and place buying property was a good deal, while now and in other places it may not be and how these differences reflect larger structural changes in society is hugely important question. What the anthropologist should bring to the debate is a wider and deeper perspective than that of those more focused on current issues.

  6. Over the past two decades LS’s maison has been stretched into the the house concept, which tends to mean whatever the writer needs it to.

    I wouldn’t say that that’s quite true. The “house” (maison) is relatively well-defined by the standards of kinship terminology, and there are several volumes now devoted solely to the problem of fleshing out just what a “house” is in both Levi-Strauss’ sense and a wider sense evolved from his position. The idea that houses have personhood is not a general property, in any case, as you note. LS meant that they have a corporate personhood, in that they outlast their present and past occupents (not as a material entity, necessarily), may be named, and so on.

    It’s not about simply living in a house with your family. It’s the idea that living in the houses almost defines your family. Residence and the enacting of ties based on residence (ie, through performing work for and with the other inhabitants) – that’s the idea of the house. It is residence – and possibly ownership of rights based on residence – that marks out the idea of the “house”. Ownership itself, as in ownership of the building, is really quite different to Levi-Strauss’ original idea and its subsequent developments.

    So IDS may be advocating a moral position regarding ownership that really has little to do with the house itself – it’s just morally good to own stuff and work for it, and a house (a building to live in) is a good exemplar of the principle. Fairly standard Tory position, I’d say, and not necessarily connected to LS’ ideas at all.

  7. I think I should explain. I’m taking liberties with L-S without making it clear that there’s a step in between. I have taken L-S’s issue of house societies and adopted Carsten and Hugh-Jones’s argument that the house is more than the passive recipient of the kinship of those within it. I’ve also adopted Kay Milton’s argument that things for which we have a duty of care have the status of persons. My argument, in another context, is that a house that is a home is one to which we owe a duty of care, and hence it becomes an important person within our familiar relations. So it is my argument that houses have personhood – although I didn’t mean it in the sense that the politicians do. It was this thinking that suggested to me that these statements were more than the normal Tory position that it’s good to own stuff. I’ll present a more fleshed out argument elsewhere, but it was good to see some reactions for now. Thank you!

  8. I have taken L-S’s issue of house societies and adopted Carsten and Hugh-Jones’s argument that the house is more than the passive recipient of the kinship of those within it.

    …and I agree with this, with the proviso that it doesn’t work for all houses in all societies (obviously). Looking within a south-east Asian/Austronesian context, the house itself isn’t a passive element in the system – as can be seen from the fact that houses can eventually become temples (purely ritual centres emphasising and generating social ties, and thus agents, in a way) in many/most Austronesian societies upon the deaths of illustrious inhabitants and with the passage of time, and accumulation of ritual objects. But I’d struggle to apply that to a modern British context and retain any of the features that make the house (as LS applied it) useful for analysis, especially given that a British family might relocate and have several homes in a lifetime (I know my family has). A British family will move out of a home and then that home will cease to exist regardless of the continued existence of the house, whereas a Toraja family (for instance) will be defined by the house they either live in or lived in before death. I suppose this is what IDS objects to, moving house, shifting around. Home-owners are less likely to move house, more likely to encourage “traditional values”, etc – a kind of ideal house-ism.

    I’ve not nearly thought about this enough, and I feel like I’m being overly critical (and riffing far too much) without full understanding. I’d therefore be very interested in reading your work, so thank you!

  9. A British family will move out of a home and then that home will cease to exist regardless of the continued existence of the house, whereas a Toraja family (for instance) will be defined by the house they either live in or lived in before death.

    The French term maison can be glossed as ‘house’ and/or ‘home’ so to me LS’s concept of maison suffered the moment it was glossed as the house concept. LS gave a quick-and-dirty definition as “La maison est d’abord une personne morale, détentrice ensuite d’un domaine composé de biens matériels et immatériels” (terrain #9.

    So LS said a maison is a corporate person holding a combination of material and immaterial goods. Nowhere did he say that one of those material goods must be a domestic structure. Given the constraints of the natural world and the tendencies of human social life it often will be, but humans don’t need a structure to have a home. Home can be a geographic feature or a territorial unit (the two not being mutually exclusive, of course).

    I would assert that a lot of the work that currently falls under the house-centric rubric is the result of scholars interested in advancing materiality as central to social life—often (but not invariably) deriding the culture concept in the process—seizing upon a buzzword to advance their theoretical agenda. What this sort of work calls a house often boils down to a household + a domestic structure. That combination is almost certainly not uninteresting, but it’s also almost certainly not what Lévi-Strauss meant by maison.

  10. The fact that British people move house more frequently than people in lots of other societies destroys the notion that Britain is a house society in any meaningful way. I’m not saying that the physical house is the all-important thing, but the rights and claims – the stuff that could come under the heading “home” or “maison” rather more easily – are also destroyed upon moving house. If you want your children to attend a certain school, for instance, and you once lived in a house that was inside the catchment area of the school but no longer do, you don’t still have the right to send your child to the school as a result of your association with your old house in the catchment area. Your rights and associations change as a result of moving house just as much as your physical abode changes. This isn’t true of societies where the house principle is a more useful analytical tool.

    In a “house society” as even LS defined it, it would be an extraordinary circumstance for a family, as defined by their house affiliation, to up sticks and move, leave behind their house rights, and move to a place where their house affiliation is unknown. That would, in fact, totally negate the entire principle of a house society. If that happened regularly, then the practicability of an analysis based on the house principle would disappear. Otherwise, what is the point of the house concept?

    To be honest, I think LS’ original set of principles are far from the be-all and end-all of understanding the house. The way he defines it – and yes, I’m aware that it’s the original definition – could apply to almost any type of family if divorced from the principle of residence in a domestic structure. But the places where the principle of the house society have been most successful – the north-west coast of north America, eastern Indonesia, &c – have had the idea of residence at their core.

    I’d say that the whole thing could go two ways. Either the idea of the “house” becomes generalised to the extreme so that it becomes a way of understanding the creation of kinship groups in any society, overriding principles of alliance and descent, OR it becomes a very specific thing focused almost entirely on a small number of societies with domestic residence and its associated rights being the core of kinship. In any case, I don’t think LS’ definition should have any privilege if it isn’t all that useful on its own.

  11. To be honest, I think LS’ original set of principles are far from the be-all and end-all of understanding the house. The way he defines it – and yes, I’m aware that it’s the original definition – could apply to almost any type of family if divorced from the principle of residence in a domestic structure.

    To me the importance of LS’s original formulation is that it does offer a delimited concept. If you begin with the concept as originally set out by Lévi-Strauss it is, I think, quite clear that it in fact does not encompass any family not co-residing in a domestic structure. A unit is not a maison under Lévi-Strauss’s formulation unless it holds the status of personne morale and not every family as/or household is a personne morale.* Now, even if you want to take for granted that any and every household is a personne morale few of them will hold the rights to biens matériels et immatériels of the sort referred to by LS in his discussion of Northwest Coast society and European royal houses, tangible goods of the sort Westerners might call regalia and intangible goods such as titles and myths.

    I’m not trying to say that Lévi-Strauss said it so it must be so. I just think that if you take the concept as originally defined by him you have a good point of departure—where and when are there institutions that meet the criteria of his definition? That’s going to net you enough edge cases and sort-ofs to help make a good case for the validity of LS’s original concept and what might be done to improve it. I think the bigger part of what you and I are disagreeing about, CtP, is to what extent that has already been done. My assertion is that while many scholars have used LS’s maison as a point of departure for household studies with a twist far fewer have actually refined the maison concept. ymmv, understandably. ☺

    My apologies to simone and any readers annoyed by the off-topic. You just don’t often find people interested in seriously discussing this sort of thing.

    *“La notion de ‘personne morale’ était d’ailleurs devenue tellement claire que, dès les premiers jours de notre ère, et avant à Rome, dans tout l’Empire elle s’imposait à toutes les personnalités fictives, que nous appelons encore de ce nom: personnes morales: corporations, fondations pieuses, etc., devenues des ‘personnes.’” (M. Mauss. “Une categorie de l’esprit humain.” jraigri 38: 278)

  12. My assertion is that while many scholars have used LS’s maison as a point of departure for household studies with a twist far fewer have actually refined the maison concept.

    And it’s a fair assertion, and I seem to remember this being my objection to most of the Carsten and Hugh-Jones volume. Joyce and Gillespie’s Beyond Kinship, though, seemed to grapple with it in a constructive way. Honestly, I haven’t read much on the topic for a goodly while, but it’s something I find extremely interesting.

    You just don’t often find people interested in seriously discussing this sort of thing.

    Too true. But talking about it has inspired me to go back to la Voie des Masques. The house concept seems to me like a very important development in kinship studies, and I don’t know why it’s so obscure a topic.

    And of course, apologies to everyone for going off-topic.

  13. I find it curious, though not exactly unexpected, that this discussion has gone this far without a single mention of the two most studied “house” concepts in the world, the Japanese ie and Chinese jia. Admittedly, the literatures in question have little, if any, connection with Levi-Strauss. Even so, omitting something between a quarter and a third of humanity from the ethnographic examples says a lot about the current state of anthropological education.

    Those inclined to look East could begin with Chie Nakane’s Japanese Society in which the ie is the prototype for the localized ‘frame’ that is said to be more important in Japan than the global ‘attribute’ emphasized in Western kinship theory. Then, for comparative purposes, a look at Maurice Freedman’s Lineage Organization in Southeastern China and the literature derived from it wouldn’t come amiss.

  14. Even so, omitting something between a quarter and a third of humanity from the ethnographic examples says a lot about the current state of anthropological education.

    I think the correlation is probably with the topic rather than the area—grant money for research in East Asia seems to flow as freely as it does for work anywhere that isn’t the Middle East. The number of U.S.-based anthropologists under the age of 50 who were required to take a dedicated kinship course must be vanishingly small, as too the number under age 30 who even had the opportunity. You could be a real intellectual rock star by being a kinship whiz when Freedman wrote his monograph; I bought my copy for .75¢ last summer in an Ithaca bookstore’s used pile.

  15. Perhaps a short tutorial is in order. The Chinese and Japanese cases are both broadly consistent with the proposition that the house and the property associated with it are both core concepts and material facts in traditional states with agriculturally based economies. When the incomes of both peasants and elites are largely dependent on crops produced on real estate owned by particular houses, the house is a central concern and who has rightful claims to the house, the land, and the crops produced on the land is a critical factor shaping social organization.

    The Chinese and Japanese cases are particularly interesting because both jia and ie are written with the same Chinese character and the character in question appears as a component in the modern word for nation (guojia in Chinese, kokka in Japanese, ka being an alternative pronunciation for the character that represents ie. In both cases the nation is conceived as the household writ large.

    The key difference between the two is that while, in the Chinese case, all of a father’s sons have claims to equal shares of the household that the father heads, in Japan there was only one heir, one successor to the headship, and, while succession is normally by primogeniture (a statement that adopts the position of the Meiji Constitution), the father may, if he deems his son unworthy, adopt an outsider as heir and successor in his place.

    In China, the ideal was a household inhabited by a family with three or more generations, living evidence that the family line and the worship of the ancestors was continuing as it should. It was recognized, however, that absent some special reason to stay together, brothers would divide the estate following the deaths of their parents and set up their own households. Wealthy families might set aside a bit of the property to fund an ancestral shrines that would be owned jointly by the separated households. Shrines of this type were nodes in lineage hierarchies. The ancestral shrines of great families might house ancestral tablets and genealogies for named ancestors going back thirty or more generations. Growing up Chinese, your most intimate kin were members of the same household, people who ate together, sharing food cooked at the same stove. Your closest kin outside the household were members of the lineage with whom you shared the closest ancestor worshipped by multiple households. Beyond the largest lineage to which you belonged were those who shared the same surname and thus some claim to kinship, without a clear genealogy and the claims to lineage property that inclusion in the genealogy entailed. Finally, there was the broad sense in which all Chinese see themselves as kin in contrast to people with other ethnicities.

    The two key points to remember here are (1) the expectation of division and (2) the continuing claims to property established by even distant genealogical connections. Neither applies to Japan.

    In Japan, where there is only one heir and successor, who may not, in fact, be a blood relative, the household endures, the lineage does not. The Japanese equivalent of the lineage, the dozoku is formed when the heir to a wealthy household voluntarily sets up a junior household for a sibling. The junior household gets whatever it gets (typically only a small part) of the original household’s property as a gift, which leaves it forever indebted to the original household.

    At the level of the state, the expectation of division found in China is reflected in dynastic cycles, the rise and fall of imperial families that lose the mandate of Heaven when internal divisions cause them to fall apart. In Japan, the Imperial Family is held to have ruled since time immemorial. The divisions of Japan’s warring states period pit different junior households, all subordinate in theory if not always in practice, to the Imperial Household, whose preeminence is never challenged.

    There is much more to look at here, and –reader be warned–this is only a rough sketch of systems that, in both China and Japan developed numerous wrinkles to deal with demographic accidents, e.g., the absence of a male heir, and relative and changing positions in terms of social class.

    One must note, too, how economic pressures change when industry and trade replace agriculture as the primary source of wealth. In Japan, the ie system was legally abolished in the new Constitution put in place under U.S. occupation after WWII. But if ieis no longer of central concern to most Japanese, except, for example, to those involved with traditional arts and crafts, this is because most people’s primary source of income, a job, is not inheritable real estate. Modern Japanese can educate their children and hope for the best; they cannot, in most cases, leave them land on which their lives and livelihoods will depend.

  16. John,

    The way you describe the Chinese case does not reflect what is meant by a “house society” in discussions following Levi-Strauss, because of the existence of the lineage, a very different kinship structure. The development of the house concept could usefully include some Chinese material, I’m sure, but it doesn’t really come back to much of the core of the concept. While the house building itself is important, as MTBradley notes, it’s not the actual core of the “house”/maison. For instance, if two people in Tanimbar were to trace their ancestry to a common ancestor, it would be the ancestral head of a house, and not the ancestral head of a lineage. They’d phrase it in terms of relationships between houses, and not simple descent. Chinese kinship appears to be very different.

    Lineage is important in China (and Greater China, as I suppose we can see in the importance of lineage associations in cross-straits relations). In more traditional areas of Maluku, in Indonesia, however, lineage is not important at all, and what matters is your house affiliation. You might have married into the house, you might have been born into it, but your house is the primary legitimate social thread, and working together with your house members is the way to legitimise the relationship, if that is necessary.

    Male members of the house to carry out ritual and maintain authority are important, but male heirs are not. The male members could have married into the house and maintained residence in it while tending its crops along with the other members, and he would be a legitimate member capable of leading the house in ritual activity and horticulture and other facets of chiefdom regardless of his birth in another house, for instance.

    Basically, the house is, as LS says, a personne morale. It doesn’t depend on the existence of an actual house, but in most areas where the house-as-personne-morale is important, an actual physical house does appear as a very important thing as well, for fairly obvious reasons (thanks to MTBradley for prompting me to make this observation). On the north-west coast of north America, houses would routinely be built on the same spot as older houses – indeed, archaeologists have shown that the beams of the house will ideally be placed in exactly the same spot as those of the prior house building. In an area where house affiliation is important, and where the affiliations are manifest in the physical existence and importance of actual houses, often with names, the way to associate with a House is to live in the same house as the House, and then work the House fields/rivers/etc. If you see what I’m saying! This is true in Madagascar and in Tana Toraja, on (pre-modern) Vancouver island and almost certainly in aboriginal Taiwan. It doesn’t appear to be the case in China.

    I studied Chinese and lived in Taiwan for a short while, so I’m not ignoring the Sinitic world out of simple ignorance. Actually, I didn’t know much about the Chinese house, so it’s nice of you to enlighten us! But it never comes up in the “house” literature, seemingly because it isn’t an exemplar of the principles of the house. Far more important, seemingly, are other kinship principles. On Vancouver island, living in a new house – through marriage, say – would cause you to be given a new name, reflective of your new social status and house affiliation. In China, your name might enable you to live in a house, but it is the name and the lineage that is actually important.

    The Japanese case, however, is somewhat different, and LS himself actually used Japanese examples in his explanation of what he thought a house society would be.

    Anyway, thank you for that description. It’s very useful stuff. Do you know of any sources that are particularly good for further discussion of the jia?

  17. Oops, pointless query. I’ll go and check out Freedman’s monograph and look for bibliographies. 謝謝您!

  18. Conan, I agree absolutely that China is not a classic class of a “house” society. Japan is much closer to that model. The important thing about the comparison is that the same basic idea, written with the same Chinese character, turns out to be more “house”-like in Japan, less so in China, with the difference between them closely tied to norms governing inheritance and succession to household headship. Both cultures include both “lineage” and “house” as ways of thinking about kinship, family and household; but the relative weight flips as we move from one to the other. This could be a local phenomenon (you’d know more about that than I do) or it could be global, reflecting the fact that the range of possibilities for structuring inheritance seems inherently limited (one or multiple heirs; men, women or both).

    Re sources on the jia, Freedman is now ancient history. A better place to begin would be the references cited in Kinship organization in late imperial China, 1000-1940 著者: Patricia Buckley Ebrey,James L. Watson (1986).

    Google searches for “China family” and “China lineage” turn up a lot of stuff. You might take note, too, of the fact that the jia and relationships within it are a major theme in Chinese literature, from classic novels like The Dream of the Red Chamber to a host of modern novels and memoirs.

  19. Going back to look at China is a real blast from the past. Anyway, I’m starting to think that Chinese material on houses and kinship could be very enlightening stuff – I’ll check out the book you mention and head on over to JSTOR. “Relative weight” is probably the important thing when it comes to kinship organisation. Just as a language like English is described as isolating when in reality it also contains some mildly agglutinating characteristics (“wouldn’t’ve”) and some mildly inflecting ones (“him”, “has”), so, I suppose, societies in China could be described as lineage-based while also containing mild notes of house organisation.

    As for your last point, as soon as you mentioned the Chinese jia, the first thing that came to my mind was Ba Jin’s novel of that name.

Comments are closed.