I have been working through some ‘ancient’ anthropological topics with students, in particular, variations in kinship terminologies cross-culturally, an area of research founded principally by L. H. Morgan in his Systems of consanguinity and affinity in the human family (1871), and molded into an evolutionary ‘grand theory’ in his Ancient Society (1877). Starting out a course on kinship with Victorian anthropology is, I realize, a risky gambit. In a response paper, one student suggested that the view from the windows of 19th-century anthropology was ‘rather grey.’ What could be more arcane than revisiting Iroquois or Crow-Omaha kinship terminologies? Whether or not they are a boring topic, varieties of kinship terminologies are also not easy to wrap one’s head around. To the extent that they divide up a seemingly commonsensical world in an apparently non-commensensical way (for those of us reared in so-called ‘descriptive’ systems, the ‘classificatory’ can be jarring), they challenge our assumptions quite directly. Of course, recognition of this difference is what ignited anthropological interest in the subject and has sustained it through the years. But how to give these topics a contemporary twist?
We have also visited, among other things, Trautmann’s work, especially his recent article on “The Whole History of Kinship Terminology…” There, Trautmann criticizes contemporary models of transformations in kinship terminology, and in doing so suggests that comparative kinship studies might be one avenue into studying the very longue duree of human history. A broadly regional and deeply historical comparative framework may yield advances in ethnological history: “…the deep history that lies between, say, the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the Victorian era, is not thickly populated by anthropologists, especially cultural anthropologists… For all the contemporary commitment of cultural anthropology to history, the deeper past is greatly neglected.” Trautmann suggests that attention to this sort of history would help correct biases built into certain functionalist or synchronic accounts.
So that is one call to give kinship studies a contemporary cast: give kinship a deeper history.
Even so, there are other languages or rhetorics that might make kinship terminologies a hot topic. (I leave aside, for the time being, the sexy and important topics of ‘biotech’ and ‘body’ in contemporary kinship studies.) If, for example, anthropologists of contemporary governments wished to sample of forms of interpellation that precede and exceed the normative force of state power (recalling here the policeman yelling at you on the street), they could do little better than to track the distributions of kin designations in everday practice and in legal discourse. This is precisely what the earlier SM discussion on adoption and ICWA points us toward: divided sovereignties (competing regulations of forms of life) along several axes — the indigenous and liberal, the minority and the majority, ‘kindred’ versus ‘citizens,’ to say nothing of men and women. Beyond the discourse of experts that is a focus of the current analytics of governmentality (whether neo/liberal, totalitarian, or whatever), anthropologists have rich and varied models for how populations are regulated in extra-state circumstances: precisely through the interpellation of subjects in self-perpetuating systems of signification we call kinship terminologies.
It is true that citizens of Melanesian states, for example, are ‘produced’ to some extent by the legacy of foreign rule in the form of the postcolonial state (such as it is in some places). Far more consequential, however, for how people conduct themselves in everyday life and for how they sustain themselves materially are the identities iterated and reiterated in daily, habitual, commonplace encounters with each other. In places like Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) eastern highlands, title to land, for example, is secured only in and through one’s affiliation with a clan that holds in a coprorate fashion the land. ‘Membership’ in a clan is manifest, is elicited, is ‘performed’ through the eventful (ceremonial exchange, committments in battle), but also, and more thoroughly, through the everday modes of address through which people interact (the relatively uneventful). Though I lived in a village, built a house there, ate food there, for my adoptive family, the most important thing I did was to call my kin by their proper terms (e.g., mama, papa, etc. or “ieno” and “ahono” in the local language). Doing so locked me into a structure of social relations that was both utterly constraining, inaugurating all kinds of obligations and protocols pertaining to moral conduct, and enabling. I could engage in action of a consequential sort only by being called into being by ‘reciprocal’ (I mean this in a nontechnical way) address. Kinship terminologies provide examples for two varied interpretations of the productive power of discourses: either the ‘subjection’ favored by Judith Butler and others or the ‘subjectivation’ favored by James Faubion and others. (See their brilliant work in Antigone’s Claim or The Ethics of Kinship.)
Perhaps its a stretch to tie these observations to a previous discussion, but I do wonder sometimes when anthropologists struggle to find languages for thinking about social regulation in the contemporary period (as for example ‘governmentality’) why ‘the market’ springs to mind quite readily while that old workhorse of anthropology — kinship — doesn’t (so often). There are, I imagine, either intricate and important reasons why not, or perhaps simpler ones.