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Kinship Studies in Late Twentieth-Century Anthropology

Author(s): Michael G. Peletz

Source: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24 (1995), pp. 343-372
Published by: Annual Reviews
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Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1995. 24:343-72
Copyright C) 1995 Annual Reviews Inc. All rights reserved



Michael G. Peletz

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York


KEY WORDS: kinship, gender, marriage, family, social structure


This review examines the state of play of kinship studies in late twentieth-cen-
tury anthropology, paying close attention to theoretical advances and shifts in
methodology and intent that have occurred since the 1970s. It highlights
developments in Marxist, feminist, and historical approaches, the repatriation
of kinship studies, various aspects of lesbian/gay kinship, and issues bearing
on the new reproductive technologies. Contemporary kinship studies tend to
be historically grounded; tend to focus on everyday experiences, under-
standings, and representations of gender, power, and difference; and tend to
devote considerable analytic attention to themes of contradiction, paradox, and

The handful of us... are prepared to wade through the sort of kinship algebra... which has
gradually developed, memorize long lists of native terms, follow up complicated dia-
grams,...endure long deductive arguments,... [and] the piling of hypothesis upon hypothe-
sis. The average anthropologist, however, [is] somewhat mystified and perhaps a little
hostile....and has his doubts whether the effort needed to master the bastard algebra of
kinship is really worthwhile. He feels that, after all, kinship is a matter of flesh and blood,
the result of sexual passion and maternal affection, of... a host of personal intimate inter-
ests. Can all this really be reduced to formulae, symbols, perhaps equations?

B Malinowski (65:19)

0084-6570/95/1015-0343$05.00 343

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Compared with cooking and music and the peculiarities of naming systems, the study of
kinship.. is dull and pedestrian stuff, but for an anthropologist, kinship is the hard core.

E Leach (56:10)

Kinship patterns can be understood as objects of artistic appreciation, in the same way that
mathematical proofs or car engines are, for some people, such objects. Opening the hood
of a fancy sports car, some of us will see nothing but a confusing jumble of ugly machin-
ery. Others, who understand such things, will be perfused with bliss. It is the same with
kinship patterns.

M Trawick (127:117-18)


Anthropology's romantic yet highly ambivalent relationship to the study of

kinship has existed ever since the mid-to-late 1800s, when LH Morgan and his
interlocutors invented the study of kinship by, according to one biographer,
"drawing a border around certain aspects of human behavior, isolating them
for study and affirming that they do indeed constitute an object, that they
cohere" (126:4). Many features of the anthropological romance of kinship are
familiar in one way or another to most of us; others have been documented by
Kuper (53, 54) and thus need not detain us here.
But what of the ambivalence in this relationship? Following the wisdom of
Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen, we recognize that all meaningful and in-
tense attachments are infused with mixed emotions, and that anthropology's
intense involvement with kinship is no exception. We need also to bear in
mind four context-specific factors that fuel this ambivalence. The first is
Morgan's philologically driven insistence that many of the key questions in
contemporary intellectual, moral, and political debates-concerning the chro-
nology of humankind's origins and the basic lines of human progress and
differentiation-were best answered through the collection and analysis of
massive lists of kin terms, the precise significance of which has more often
than not eluded even the most patient and intelligent readers. A second factor
is the widely felt sense that despite over 100 years of painstaking work on
systems of kinship terminology-which quickly became the basic stuff of
kinship studies and ethnology as a whole-anthropologists have not made
much headway in developing systematic accounts of the institutional and other
determinants of similarities and differences in the terminologies in question
(44:102). Third, the field is still dominated by the extremely formalistic,
abstract approaches that led Malinowski and many others to feel that master-
ing "the bastard algebra of kinship" might be less than worthwhile, even if, as
Fox (23:10) put it, "kinship is to anthropology what.. .the nude is to art."
Finally, the fourth factor is the idea that so-called primitive societies, based as

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they are on "blood" and kinship, are in some sense a distorted or mirror image
of our own ("advanced") society, based on "soil" and the state (54), about
which anthropologists have long shared a celebrated ambivalence as social
critics. The argument here is that in casting the Other as a distortion or
inversion of ourselves, we inadvertantly inscribe or introduce an ambivalence
that the anthropological enterprise is in some sense designed to ameliorate.
Anthropology's love affair with kinship has cooled in recent decades, and
the ambivalence in question has become more pronounced, or, stated perhaps
more accurately, been revalorized. This trend has been construed by some
observers as a clear (if not relieving) sign that the study of kinship is dead or
moribund. Although such views remind one of Mark Twain's remark that
reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated, they do resonate with two
important changes in the status, scope, and constitution of kinship studies that
have occurred since the early 1970s. First, theories and debates about what
were once taken to be the basic building blocks of kinship (kinship terminolo-
gies, so-called rules of descent, marriage, and postmarital residence) no longer
occupy their long privileged position of centrality within the discourse of
anthropology. The dethronement is evidenced by recent reviews of anthropol-
ogy and social theory (e.g. 12, 19, 66, 84), which make scant reference to
issues that were the central focus of classic studies by American, British, or
French anthropologists. The change has occurred partly because of the critical
rethinking of basic assumptions in the traditional study of kinship by Leach,
Needham, Schneider, and others beginning in the 1960s. More broadly, the
shift reflects the waning of structural-functionalism as a guiding paradigm.
The feeling has arisen in its place that the study of kinship and other traditional
subfields (e.g. economic anthropology, political anthropology) cannot be pur-
sued in the isolated terms of what are ultimately functionally defined institu-
tional domains (14:1-3).
A second important change that has occurred in the study of kinship since
the 1970s is frequently overlooked by those who persist in viewing anthropol-
ogy in terms of the conventionally defined subfields. I refer to the fact that the
study of kinship has been reconstituted and partially subsumed under other
(admittedly problematic and contested) rubrics such as social history, legal
anthropology, and political anthropology, and, of course, the feminist anthro-
pology of Rubin (100), Weiner (133, 134), Ortner & Whitehead (87), Rapp
(95-97), Gailey (26), Martin (70), Strathern (121-123), Collier (13), Ginsburg
(28), and Weston (135). Feminist anthropologists have infused new enthusi-
asm into the field of kinship and have contributed to its reconstitution. This is
especially apparent in Collier & Yanagisako's 1987 volume Gender and Kin-
ship: Essays Toward a Unified Analysis, the primary objective of which is "to
revitalize the study of kinship and to situate the study of gender at the theoreti-
cal core of anthropology by calling into question the boundary between these

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two fields" (14:1; see also 29, 63). The editors advocate a program that focuses
on the cultural analysis of meaning and that deals with social systems as
systems of social inequality that, like patterns of symbols and meanings, are
most usefully understood in historical terms. They also argue that Schneider
(108) has convincingly "denaturalized" the study of kinship, and that it is no
longer defensible to take "the natural facts" of sex, procreation, and the rearing
of offspring as "the universal raw material" comprising systems of kinship.
The more general critique is that both "kinship" and "gender" studies typically
fall short because they begin by taking "difference" for granted, "treating it as
a presocial fact.... existing outside of and beyond culture" (141:29).
Contributions of the latter sort are discussed in greater detail below, for the
production of gender, power, and difference are key concerns in the reconsti-
tuted field of kinship. The more general objective of this chapter is to critically
review some of the more significant developments in the study of kinship in
late twentieth-century (socio-cultural) anthropology. The first section provides
historical context by examining studies of kinship as systems of symbols and
structures, focusing on selected themes emphasized by Schneider and Levi-
Strauss, and on the ways in which their approaches have been critiqued,
reformulated, and historicized since the 1970s. The second section of the
review addresses gender, power, and difference, while the third explores
themes of contradiction, paradox, and ambivalence. The final section exam-
ines the repatriation of kinship studies and the new reproductive technologies.


Kinship as Symbols

Since its publication in 1968, Schneider's monograph on American kinship

(105) has rightfully been regarded as an exemplar of an interpretive anthropol-
ogy, pioneered under the tutelage of Talcott Parsons and centered on symbols
and meanings. Like Parsons, Schneider finds useful a distinction between
cultural systems, on the one hand, and social and psychological or personality
systems on the other. He proposes that we treat American kinship as a system
of symbols and meanings rather than focus on kinship's statuses, roles, and
According to Schneider, his book "is not an account of what Americans say
when they talk about kinship,... [or of] what Americans think.. .about kinship.
It.. .is not a description of roles and relationships which Americans.. .under-
take.... [It] is about symbols, the symbols which are American kinship"
(105:18). Therein lies both the enduring legacy of Schneider's work and its
shortcomings. Schneider incisively analyzes data bearing on "the distinctive
features which define the person as a relative." He discusses with insight the

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symbols and meanings of relatedness through "blood" (in biogenetic terms,

shared substance) as opposed to "marriage" (relatedness in terms of law, code
for conduct), and the more encompassing conceptual domains of nature and
law or culture. Much may still be learned from his elucidation of symbols such
as "home," "family," "sexual intercourse," and "love" ("diffuse enduring soli-
darity"). But he presents his data and conclusions alike in a formalized, ab-
stract, and totalizing manner. We now question his insistence that "at some
level(s)" America boasts a single system of kinship whose symbols and mean-
ings are more or less the same for males and females, and for members of all
ethnic/racial groups, social classes, and geographic regions. [Schneider him-
self has more recently acknowledged the questionable nature of such asser-
tions (107; see also 116).] It should be emphasized, however, that Schneider's
work remains a significant source of insights into kinship in North America
(49, 93, 95, 135, 140) and Britain (122); and that it has informed important
cultural accounts of kinship among Navajos, Malays, Balinese, and various
groups in South Asia and the Pacific (e.g. 1, 8, 9, 27, 42, 68, 114, 138).
Interestingly, some of Schneider's dubious ethnographic conclusions have
been shown to be the product of seemingly "culturally" neutral interview
questions like "Who are the people you consider to be related to you?" Such
questions entail methodological problems, particularly in the case of second-
generation Japanese-Americans (nisei), for whom families and not persons are
the cultural units relevant for purposes of calculating kinship in connection
with funerary rituals and the giving of koden (quantities of money) on the
occasion of someone's death (139, 140).
Yanagisako points out that Schneider's analysis holds for nisei "only if we
isolate the definition of relatives and the rules for the inclusion of persons as
relatives from the corpus of other meaningful acts and statements" made by
nisei (139:24). More importantly, just as there is no analytic or other justifica-
tion for doing this, "there is no reason to give priority to the act of defining and
listing one's relatives, and/or assuming it occurs in a contextually neutral
vacuum" (139:24). We need to look much more closely at variation, both in
the "distinctive features that define the person as a relative" (Schneider's
focus), and in constructions of sexuality, marriage, childrearing, family and
household organization, divorce, etc (which Schneider largely ignores).
In hindsight, the larger problems have mainly to do with Schneider's heav-
ily Parsonian view of cultures as seamless wholes characterized by a high
degree of uniformity and internal coherence; the attendant "assumption that
symbols and meanings are less contextually variable than normative rules for
action"; and the idea that we can isolate so-called pure symbolic systems with
impenetrable boundaries (139:26-27). If, in a broader sense, our goal is to
show "how symbolic systems articulate with the actual state of people's lives,
then Schneider's approach is of limited value and becomes, potentially, a

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sterile exercise in misplaced concreteness, much like the genealogically based

methods of analysis that... [he] legitimately criticizes" (139:25).
In any case, what are we to make of Schneider's (106, 108) claim, echoed
in various quarters, that he has denaturalized the study of kinship and cut it
loose from Eurocentric assumptions and even from the very "facts" of sex,
reproduction, and the like? The contention is valid that Morgan biased many
generations of fieldworkers and analysts by his insistence that systems of
"kinship" are invariably built upon and are coterminous with genealogical
grids, as may be the assertion that the functionally defined institutional domain
of kinship as understood in the West exists nowhere else in the world. But
assertions of the latter sort strike many as hyperbolic and problematic-while
Schneider has decentered biology from the study of kinship, he has not really
denaturalized the study of kinship (see 103)-and, in any event, have negative
implications for the comparative study of social relatedness. Rather than insist
that no one else has kinship as we do, and that kinship as we understand it is a
nonsubject, we should perhaps first examine the systems of social relatedness
others do have.
Collier & Yanagisako (14) and Yanagisako & Delaney (142), among oth-
ers, stress that we should approach the study of kinship free of biases rooted in
assumptions about biology. But to my knowledge none of these scholars have
really begun to suggest what a kinship system cut free of any mooring in, or
relationship to, cultural constructions of biology would look like (21). Two
relevant bodies of data come to mind: first, the results of the brilliant "thought
experiment" by Cucchiari (18), which delineate the structure and organization
of a hypothetical (pre-Upper Paleolithic) hunting and gathering society with
neither kinship nor gender; and second, data on the families created by lesbi-
ans and gays in the United States that are based on choice and not "blood," but
that are nonetheless conceptualized by the natives in relation/opposition to
their "blood" or "straight" families; while such families are not grounded in
biology, they are clearly defined in relation to it (135).
Schneider's work (and other types of cultural analysis) also questions how
to effect closure on kinship if it is defined in strictly cultural terms, especially
since, as Schneider himself has pointed out in recent years (107), it interpene-
trates with other cultural domains like gender, religion, etc. One solution is to
define kinship as a domain of social relations, as Kelly has (48:521-22):

Kinship relations are social relations predicated upon cultural conceptions that
specify the processes by which an individual comes into being and develops
into a complete (i.e. mature) social person. These processes encompass the
acquisition and transformation of both spiritual and corporeal components of
being. Sexual reproduction and the formulation of paternal and maternal
contributions are an important component of, but are not coextensive with, the
relevant processes. This is due to the ethnographic fact that a full complement

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of spiritual components is never derived exclusively from the parents.... Foods

may also constitute essential ingredients in the spiritual or corporeal comple-
tion of personhood.... [And] maturation frequently entails.. replacing, adding,
and/or supplanting spiritual and corporeal components of personhood.

Another approach to the dilemma of locating kinship is to provide

polythetic and not monothetic definitions. Barnard & Good (2:188-89), for
example, argue that a relationship pertains to "kinship" if it displays charac-
teristics such as the following (some of which are mutually exclusive):

...[It] is ascribed by birth and persists throughout life; is initiated by 'mar-

riage'...; is explained or justified in terms of a biologial idiom...; assigns the
parties to an 'in' group or category, in opposition to persons not so assigned...;
entails the joint ownership,...use,...or serial inheritance of property and re-
sources; serves as a medium for assigning hereditary social positions...;
[and/or] involves the nurture and upbringing of small children....

These positions echo Leach's earlier approach to the definition of marriage

and will in all likelihood engage scholars in debate for some time to come.

Kinship as Structures

The study of structure in kinship brings to mind the far-reaching legacy of

Levi-Strauss, which is beyond the scope of my comments. It is clear, though,
that in recent decades few scholars have occupied themselves with the quintes-
sentially Levi-Straussian search for "deep structures" capable of revealing the
workings of The Mind. On the other hand, research on specific ethnographic
instances and regional patterns of dual social organization, dualistic modes of
thought, and binary classification of various kinds is alive and well, as evi-
denced by the recent publication of such titles as The Attraction of Opposites
(72) and Dialectical Societies (71) (both edited by Maybury-Lewis, the first
also by Almagor), and by Boon's work on Bali (8, 9). Structuralist concerns
are especially pronounced in Indonesia, New Guinea, the Andes, and the
Amazon. This is partly because of the prevalence in such areas of data emi-
nently suitable to structural analysis; but it is also due to the reproduction of
scholarly agendas through successive generations of area specialists. Indone-
sia, for example, attracted JPB de Josselin de Jong and his nephew PE de
Josselin de Jong, both of whom helped build up the Leiden School, which gave
rise to some classic ethnographies on the archipelago, and which also shaped
the scholarship of Needham and his followers (e.g. R Barnes, G Forth). The
Leiden school also produced RT Zuidema (146), who trained a generation of
Andeanists and other Latin Americanists (130). This, in combination with
Maybury-Lewis's and Turner's (128, 129) interests in structuralist analyses of
Brazilian data, helped lay the groundwork for a rich tradition of structuralist
research in the Amazon and Latin America as a whole.

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Levi-Strauss's shift from the content and functioning of kinship relations to

concern with the underlying relationships among their constituent elements
was clearly his most innovative move. Equally important for the study of
kinship was his insistence that we examine the structural significance of ties of
marriage and alliance, especially the ways in which they link descent units of
various kinds. This move from descent to alliance helped reorient the study of
kinship, and of marriage in particular, by forcing a critical reevaluation of the
long-standing preoccupation with the entailments of descent and varied di-
mensions of unilineally bounded groups. But the move was far less profound
when one considers that the focus was still on unilineally bounded groups and
their external relations and reproduction through time. In short, descent-based
social units still constituted the point of departure and ultimate loci of investi-
gation, and little analytic provision was made for other structural principles
such as siblingship, which may have highly variable implications for the
presence or absence of bounded groups per se, but may nonetheless serve to
inform a broad array of social relations and domains of cultural order.
The theme of siblingship as a principle of social order commensurate with
principles of descent, filiation, and affinity was first developed by Kelly in his
landmark study of structural contradiction among the Etoro (45). Kelly pointed
out the analytic problems inherent in then current, widely held notions of
"loose structure" and also resolved the "Nuer paradox" that had baffled Evans-
Pritchard and many since. In recent years Oceanic materials have encouraged
an analytic formulation of siblingship relatedness in terms of equivalent, paral-
lel, or essentially complementary rights, obligations, and experiences, with
respect to a specific territorial domain, political office, or other mediating
element (69). This formulation has significance both within Oceania (68, 114),
and beyond-in lowland South America (50) and Southeast Asia (52, 64, 73,
The suggestion that we take siblingship, as opposed to, say, parent-child
relations, as our point of departure is far more radical than it might initially
appear. The proposal is that first we concentrate our analytic gaze on relations
among the living (rather than links between the living and the dead and/or the
unborn); and that, second, we zero in on bonds among individuals of the same
relative generation-which, of course, constitute "key" ("core") social rela-
tions in all societies. Broadly speaking, by devoting greater attention to the
ways in which siblingship serves as a key symbol and central organizing
principle in intragenerational relations, we can reorient and revitalize the study
of kinship, which has always been characterized by a focus on intergenera-
tional links (47; see also 81:3, 103:373). This same general focus arising from
both siblingship and "the exchange of women" relocates kinship in practice
(see 11, 45).

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Feminists and others committed to developing gendered approaches to the

study of kinship and marriage have been particularly interested in intragenera-
tional relations, though it would be equally accurate to emphasize these schol-
ars' heightened concerns with temporality, power, and practice. In one of the
most significant pieces of feminist scholarship of the 1970s, G Rubin argued
(among other things) that Levi-Strauss was oblivious to the political implica-
tions of his insights on the "exchange of women" (100). Levi-Straussian
notions of exchange and reciprocity have been critiqued many times in recent
years (32, 94), perhaps most notably by Weiner (133, 134), who examines
exchange not merely as a means by which to mediate conceptual oppositions
between self and other, but also as a way to effect social control and deal with
the paradoxes central to social life in all societies.
It is now widely recognized that static, highly abstract formulations and
models of "official" rules and principles of social structure, such as those for
which Levi-Strauss is justly famous (see also 34; cf 4), don't take us far
toward understanding social actors or the myriad contexts in which they or-
ganize themselves, relate to one another, acquire and use resources, or create
order and meaning in their lives. This recognition resonates with Bourdieu's
view that to understand actors and contexts we need to devote greater attention
to behavioral strategies, especially everyday practical strategies geared toward
the attainment of locally defined value. These strategies, informed by official
rules and principles, are also conditioned by culturally induced but largely
implicit dispositions as well as material and symbolic interests, and are thus
not in any way "mere execution[s] of the model (in the.. .sense of norm... [or]
scientific construct)" (11:29). Whether or not Bourdieu's interpretations of
data bearing on parallel-cousin marriage in North Africa prove to be of endur-
ing interest (see 32, 40), the analytic framework he has developed (practice
theory) clearly is, as is his commitment to studying kinship through time (see
also 99, 129).

Structure and History

Disillusionment with static, abstract models coincided with a historic turn in

kinship studies and in anthropology at large. This trend has been pronounced
in the important work of Goody, Thirsk, Thompson, and others on continuity
and change in kinship and inheritance in Western Europe from 1200 to 1800
(33), as well as subsequent research by Goody on the shaping of the family
and marriage in Europe as a whole from around 300 A.D. to the present (31). In
the past few decades Le Roy Ladurie and others have used legal records and
archival material for evidence of peasant testimony on marriage, the sexual
division of labor, and the constructions of bodies and libidos (58, 102, 109). In
these and other ways, they have discovered kinship in the course of doing

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social history and conveying the everyday lives of European peasants as they
are practiced, experienced, and represented.
Anthropologists' interest in social history, coupled with the increased avail-
ability of archival materials, helps to engender new perspectives on some old
problems concerning the social organization of tribal societies (broadly de-
fined). These include: the historical development of Nuer segmentary organi-
zation and the expansion of Nuer territory and population over time (at the
expense of Dinka) (46; see also 41); the reproduction and transformation of
conical clans, pyrimidal ramages, or status lineages in Tonga (26); and the
evolution of Andean ayllus (territorially based extended families or social
units made up of ranked descent groups) under the Inca and the Spanish (112,
146). Much of this scholarship is characterized by an emphasis on the role of
ambiguity and structural contradiction in historical change, and by a concern
with both the structure of history and the history of structure in Sahlins's
With regard to the latter, my own work (89, 91) has focused on kinship,
gender, and social structure among the matrilineally oriented Malays of Negeri
Sembilan (Malaysia) in the context of changes associated with British coloni-
alism, heightened integration into the global economy, and Islamic national-
ism and reform. In precolonial times the ideological significance of siblingship
was at least as relevant in myriad domains of society and culture as norms and
values tied to descent and/or alliance. This finding calls into question the
received wisdom that the limited scope and forCe of descent-based values and
norms in present-day Negeri Sembilan are a function primarily of the com-
bined effects of colonialism, modern market forces, and twentieth-century
Islam. My historical analysis of the shifting entailments of various categories
of siblingship and other forms of social relatedness reveals that twentieth-cen-
tury changes in property and inheritance are qualitatively different and far
more limited than previously assumed. The system of inheritance, for exam-
ple, has not broken down in the direction of bilaterality or patriliny, as sug-
gested by earlier observers; and females continue to inherit most houses and
land. The nature of proprietorship and devolution has changed profoundly, due
in large part to the demise of the traditional institution of divided rights or title,
Accordingly, collateral kin in the matriline can no longer automatically lodge
residual claims against a proprietor's house, land, or other properties. The
horizontal thrust of this development, however, must be distinguished from the
fact that the (now concentrated) rights at issue ultimately pass between women
and their daughters-women who, by definition, are of the same matriline.
Hence the changes that have occurred amount to a historical erosion of rights
grounded in the bonds among collateral kin in the matriline-especially natu-
ral and classificatory sisters-rather than an ongoing or incipient shift from

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one variant of lineality to another (e.g. from matriliny to patriliny). Th

and most basic issue, of course, is the salience of kinship in social history.


Various aspects of gender, power, and difference were of central concern

during the heady days that witnessed the invention of kinship by Morgan and
the proliferation of debates over the temporal relationship between "matriar-
chy" and "patriarchy." This was especially so after Engels entered the fray
with his views concerning the status of Iroquois women in relation to their
European sisters, the overthrow of "matriarchy" ("the world historical defeat
of the female sex"), and the declining status of women in the context of the
dissolution of kin-based societies and the rise of societies with social classes
and state institutions. Debate over these topics receded in the early twentieth
century, even though both Malinowski and Mead sought to debunk certain
aspects of Freudian dogma concerning the Oedipus complex and the biophysi-
ological concomitants of maturation and used heavily gendered data to do so.
For the most part, it was not until anthropologists rediscovered the value of
Marxist perspectives in the 1960s that these issues regained primacy.

The Lineage Mode of Production and Beyond

In the 1960s, Meillassoux's work among the Guro of the Ivory Coast sparked a
new wave of interest in these topics. Meillassoux's influence has been espe-
cially strong in France and England, where the "lineage mode of production"
has often been debated (see 43, 74, 124). Despite some disagreement over key
issues, the general consensus appears to be that in societies characterized as
"segmentary" (which, for some, refers to societies with segmentary lineages a
la Nuer; for others means "tribal" in Sahlins's and Service's evolutionary
formulation; and for still others simply means "primitive"), lineage and kin-
ship generally operate both as infrastructure and superstructure insofar as
kinship relations serve as relations of production but also constitute the basis
for ideologies and normative systems (6, 26, 43, 48, 113).
Of special interest to this side of the Atlantic and to feminists worldwide is
Meillassoux's twofold contention (74; cf 13:vii) that in societies without
classes, or "castes," or "estates," kinship organizes rights and obligations, and
that marriage as the basis of kinship thus organizes the inequalities that exist in
terms of age and gender (a theme to which we return below). Issues of
continuing concern are whether such inequalities are appropriately seen as
entailing exploitation of the same general sort found in state contexts, and
whether one can appropriately speak of the existence of distinct social classes
in such societies. Also at issue is the validity (with respect to the study of
kinship in precapitalist economic formations) of Althusser's distinction be-

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tween "domination" and "determination," which is invoked by Meillassoux,

Godelier, and others who argue that while kinship dominates the mode of
production in segmentary societies, that mode is determined, in the last in-
stance, by the economy (see 6, 43). I would only add that many scholars find
Meillassoux's approach rather mechanistic and reductionistic, especially inas-
much as it gives short shrift to ideological phenomena.
Bloch, Comaroff (16, 17), and others working within Marxist traditions
have made good on these deficiencies. In his work on the Merina, for example,
Bloch (7) emphasizes that kinship is a system of signs that not only organizes
"production and reproduction... [as well as] the transfer of surplus from one
category of person to another," but is also "used for... mystification" (and, he
might add, clarification), and "so in different situations.. .is called on to per-
form different tasks" (7:137, 144). Like Bourdieu, with whom he shares cer-
tain affinities, Bloch's analytic framework makes ample provision for systems
of ideas existing somewhat independently of political economy, "evolving
with... [their] own mystical rationality and creating further disconnections
with the base" (7:88). This framework is elaborated in explicit opposition to
the "Kantian emphasis on the coherence and unity of cognitive systems" and
the attendant, largely implicit, idea that cultures are best understood as "organ-
ized, undivided wholes." Bloch thus deals extensively with contradictory rep-
resentations of kinship and gender, showing how these are both contextually
specific and contextually segmented, and how the acquisition of knowledge is
best viewed as "the combination of different processes of different nature" (see

Kinship, Class, and the State

French and British fieldworkers in Africa and elsewhere have focused on tribal
societies and chiefdoms and have frequently emphasized how structures of
kinship and domestic domains have been affected by state policies, trade, and
colonialism. Recently researchers have turned to peasantries and urbanites in
state societies, particularly in Europe, the Andes, and China. Noteworthy here
is Reiter's (98) pioneering work on public and private domains in rural France,
which shows how the marked segregation of the sexes (characteristic of most
of the Mediterranean) is fostered by state societies, whose ideologies assign to
women the jobs of serving and reproducing kinship networks. States, espe-
cially those built upon industrial capitalism, need taxes and labor power, hence
people are reproduced and sustained in the context of (domestic) kinship;
because only women can literally guarantee the reproduction of people, states
tend to intervene in women's lives in major ways and to effect relatively
extreme distinctions between public and private domains (but see 141, cf 26,

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Such processes are also evident in the Andes. During pre-Inca times, ayllus
operated in conjunction with parallel descent and inheritance, and a gendered
division of labor conceptualized in terms of complementarity (112:9-10). But
Silverblatt's research reveals that processes of class formation in the context of
the consolidation of Inca state rule over the Andes "left gender hierarchy in its
wake" (112:19), and did so partly by undercutting the scope and force of
representations emphasizing kinship as parallel chains of men and women.
The Inca encouraged patrilineal inheritance of ayllu membership, thus under-
mining ties that had previously linked women, and otherwise used structures
of kinship and gender parallelism to bind ayllus to their purposes. Their
revision of genealogical history, moreover, both legitimized and masked class
relations, partly by "camouflag[ing] the politicization of kin relations and the
coercion of tribute, which class formation is all about" (112:46-47).
China, too, is renowned for the institutionalization of various forms of
inequality but also for the existence of egalitarian ideologies grounded in
kinship. Because China was long closed to foreign sinologists who had to
content themselves with doing research in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and because
the political environment in China has not been conducive to indigenous
social-science research, we have the bizarre situation of knowing "more about
a single lineage in the New Territories than we do about the whole of village
life in China since 1950" (125:280). This has begun to change with the relaxa-
tion of the research climate in China (92, 131, 132). Watson (131) has demon-
strated that the development of powerful, localized patrilineages (tsu) was by
no means an inevitable outcome of the patrilineal order, but occurred amid "a
high degree of political centralization and economic inequality where a small
landlord-merchant class dominated a much larger smallholder tenant class"
(125:284). This was not a lineage mode of production, but the social relations
of production were expressed in a kinship idiom that stressed unity and equal-
ity among brothers, which thus helped reproduce class (and gender) inequali-

Chinese kinship is of further interest in light of the success of contemporary

Chinese family firms, often called "family fortresses." Anthropologists have
not yet directed much attention to them (61 is a partial exception), but the
extended families that Weber, among others, saw as a major drag on economic
effort have been reinterpreted in recent times as a tremendous resource whose
successful utilization, however much fraught with ambivalence, is key to
entrepreneurial advance. We clearly need to know more about how and why
Chinese are often able to overcome familial ambivalence in the context of
economic cooperation when many other groups (e.g. Malays, Javanese, and
Thais) are not.

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Rethinking Difference

Similarities and differences between Eastern and Western kinship systems are
among the major foci of the most ambitious study of kinship in late twentieth-
century anthropology. I refer in detail to Goody's (32) The Oriental, the
Ancient, and the Primitive, which is both the definitive treatise on systems of
kinship and marriage in the preindustrial societies of Eurasia as well as an
exemplary model of transdisciplinary research informed by a global sense of
variation in space and time reminiscent of social theorists like Marx and
Goody has reassessed conventional wisdom pertaining to commonalities
and contrasts in systems of kinship in: (a) "the Orient" (primarily China and
India, but also Tibet, Sri Lanka, and parts of the Middle East), and (b) "primi-
tive" societies (e.g. Australian aborigines, Tallensi), and the West, including
both classical Greece and Rome and modern European societies. Goody's
central thesis is that the tendency among nineteenth- and twentieth-century
scholars to extend primitive models of kinship and social organization to the
major civilizations of Asia has "primitivized" the Orient and reinforced Euro-
centric views of contrasts between the West and the "rest."
Goody reevaluates the extent to which marriage in the major agrarian
societies of Asia involves the transfers, sales, and incorporations of women
that are often said both to define marriage in "economically simple" tribal
societies, and to distinguish Asian marriage from marriage in the "economi-
cally advanced" societies (ancient and modern) of the preindustrial West. He
traces the history of exchange and alliance, especially Levi-Strauss's ideas
concerning the exchange of women. Goody argues that this concept in particu-
lar seriously impedes our understanding of the practice of kinship and mar-
riage because it carries the implication of women's complete incorporation
into the kinship groups of their husbands, and their thorough dissimilation
from their natal kin. In a tour de force, he then surveys the literature on
bridewealth, dowry, and diverging devolution [the transmission of parental
property to women and men alike (32:2)], which is associated with advanced
agriculture, socioeconomic stratification, the elaboration of status concerns,
and attendant phenomena that are broadly distributed in Eurasia but relatively
uncommon in African and other tribal societies. Goody illustrates that even in
the "extremely patrilineal" societies of China, India, and the Islamic world,
married women have long retained important moral and material rights and
obligations with respect to their natal kin. They are, more generally, "carriers
of property as well as of sentiments, ties, and relationships" (32:480), which
may compromise unilineal hegemonies and social arrangements in the direc-
tion of bilaterality, but which are nonetheless central to "strategies of heirship"
and domestic reproduction. Total assimilation of women into their husbands'

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kin groups (like the notion of their complete severance from natal kin
Western fiction informed by market metaphors and economistic thi
Goody concludes that while gender inequality is pervasive in the Asia
ties under investigation, "women [in these societies] are never simply the
pawns of others but are themselves players in the game, especially as heir-
esses" (32:68); that the "domestic slavery" and the purported absence of con-
jugal love and parental affection that Westerners have long associated with the
Orient is a chimera (32:317, 425); and, more broadly, that ancient and modern
Orientals are not so different from ancient and modern Westerners after all.
Much of the study is thus offered as a critique of Levi-Strauss and other
comparativists (e.g. Murdock) who apply concepts and models developed in
the study of relatively homogenous, unstratified "simple" societies to ex-
tremely heterogenous, stratified "complex" societies in a facile fashion that
makes no provision for inter- or intrasystemic variation or factors such as
mode of production. This decontextualization of data precludes analysis of
strategies of inheritance and devolution and otherwise obscures links between
domestic domains and the more encompassing domains (political, religious,
and legal) to which they are keyed.
Throughout the book, Goody demonstrates the value of focusing on "the
modes of production, the system of communication, the practice of religion,
the influence of the state and the control of the judicial apparatus" (32:157),
and on combinations of dynamic variables rather than static principles of the
sort associated with the "basic building blocks" view of kinship (32:70, 366).
Goody's modified Marxist perspective enables him to link similarities in the
kinship systems of Asian and Western societies with similarities in these
societies' productive bases [e.g. their "advanced economic systems" charac-
terized by intensive irrigated cultivation of cereal crops and "strong artisanal,
commercial, trading and even mercantile sectors" (32:484)]. He can thus show
how and why they differ from the kinship systems of African and other
societies whose economies are based on extensive slash-and-burn cultivation
(and/or foraging), which typically works against surplus accumulation, stratifi-
cation, and the elaboration of status concerns of the sort realized in Asian and
Western patterns of hypergamy, dowry, and diverging devolution. Goody's
approach is also ideally suited to account for variation in kinship systems in
terms of class, caste, and religious affiliation; and to shed valuable light on
topics such as polyandry, polygyny, filiacentric unions, brother-sister mar-
riage, adoption, and infanticide. The book is also broadly appealing in its
explicitly historical discussions of the ways state policies, formal law codes,
and systems of writing affect kinship practices and local knowledge.
Anthropologists are indebted to Goody for reinvigorating the study of
kinship and social organization, and for reaffirming the value of anthropol-
ogy's long-standing commitment to comparative research and generalization

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both within and across cultures. However, one can identify several issues to
which Goody might have devoted more systematic attention. The frequently
unqualified treatment of the "position [or status] of women" makes little
provision for distinctions among variables of power, authority, autonomy, and
prestige, a surprising lapse given Goody's commitment to the development of
an analytic apparatus that can be used to help debunk various myths in the
literature on kinship and gender. It would have been useful as well had Goody
devoted additional attention to siblingship, the more so in light of his argu-
ments, advanced mainly in relation to South Asia, that ties linking married
women (and their children) with their brothers may compromise the concep-
tual logic and social entailments of lineage and clan. There are, moreover,
tantalizing references to the concept of contradiction throughout the book,
some of which point to the important role of structural contradiction in histori-
cal change, yet Goody makes no effort to present a unified theory of contradic-
tion, or to theorize social transformation in terms of process, though he clearly
historicizes kinship. There is, finally, an occasional tendency to derive mean-
ing from function, though for the most part Goody maintains the distinction
between interpretations offered by social actors, and those constructed by the

Modeling Inequality

Works by Goody and others cited above provide key insights into the produc-
tion of difference and inequality in the context of relationships between kin-
ship and other institutions in state societies. The most systematic models of
kinship and inequality, however, are those devised for classless societies.
Collier (13), for example, synthesizes certain Marxist and feminist perspec-
tives in the course of presenting three ideal-typic models for analyzing the loci
and entailments of gender and generational inequality among nineteenth-cen-
tury Great Plains groups and other societies that lack stratification (bands,
tribes, and ranked societies, but not chiefdoms): the "brideservice" model,
developed in relation to Comanche data; the "equal bridewealth" model, con-
structed largely on the basis of Cheyenne data; and the "unequal bridewealth"
model, heavily informed by Kiowa data. In each model Collier systematically
relates inequality to a particular form of validating marriage (performing
brideservice, paying equal or unequal bridewealth), and systematically links
the latter with numerous other variables: production and circulation (the mean-
ing of work, the content of statuses, the meaning of gifts), political processes
(the causes of conflict, the nature of leadership, folk models of social structure
and human agency, practical action), and cultural representations (gender con-
ceptions, rituals, etc). While Collier reformulates Meillassoux's Marxism in
light of contemporary feminist concerns, she is also committed to the more
actor-oriented, practice-theory approach of Bourdieu; consequently, she not

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only contributes to the reconfiguration of gender and kinship realized in Col-

lier & Yanagisako (15) but also provides highly insightful analyses of themes
bearing on coercion, hegemony, and "misrecognition."
The latter volume should be read alongside Kelly's Constructing Inequality
(48), the most sophisticated treatment of inequality in classless societies to
date and a seminal text in the reconstituted field of kinship and gender. With
scrupulous attention to ethnographic detail and analytic logic, Kelly demon-
strates that the viability of Collier's model is undercut by misplaced causality
in its focus on marriage as the principal locus or generator of inequality in
classless, especially brideservice, societies (see also 25, 91). Kelly's objective
is not merely to show how data from Etoro society and other Strickland-
Bosavi tribes are out of keeping with the brideservice model proposed by
Collier (who cites Etoro and related groups as candidates for inclusion in the
model) but also to develop an alternative model that can account for the
phenomena at issue.
Defining social inequality as "social differentiation accompanied by differ-
ential moral evaluation," Kelly emphasizes that stigma is the negative recipro-
cal of prestige, that analytic discussions of so-called prestige systems (e.g. 86)
would benefit from greater terminological and conceptual precision (see also
141:26-28), and that such systems are more accurately characterized as sys-
tems of prestige/stigma. Kelly's goal is to describe and analyze all social
inequalities that exist among the Etoro and related groups, including, in par-
ticular, inequalities that are not "organized by marriage or derived from the
means and relations of production" (48:4). In realizing this objective, Kelly
highlights how a shamanic elite and other ritual experts-along with initiation
ceremonies, witchcraft beliefs, and associated cosmologies-are implicated in
the production of inequality. He also illustrates that social inequalities are
entailed in marriage, and in the division of labor, but that in the latter case "the
differential moral evaluation that engenders this is derived from the cosmo-
logical system rather than from economic processes per se" (48:9). This is to
say that both "the means and relations of the production and allocation of
prestige and moral superiority are... linked to the perpetuation of life across
generations" (48:11); and, more broadly, that "the [gender] asymmetry that
Collier points to...turns on the differential age of marriage for males and
females and the fact that marriage corresponds to the age of transition to an
adult level of production for women but not for men.... The orienting proposi-
tion that marriage organizes inequalities collapses analytically pertinent dis-
tinctions and lumps together a number of independently variable causal factors
as a single variable assessed in terms of presence or absence (i.e. married or
unmarried)" (48:437).
Despite their divergent emphases, Kelly and Collier both call for a radical
recontextualization of kinship and gender. And they both demonstrate that

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systems of kinship and gender are "about" difference and inequality, and, as
such, are most usefully analyzed as components of more encompassing sys-
tems of distinction and hierarchy that are variably grounded in cosmology and
political economy (see also 90, 91, 121). These studies reinforce the theme that
feminist and Marxist concerns alike lead back to kinship (or social relations).
Indeed, Kelly and Collier share with Goody and numerous feminists and
Marxists the focus on kinship as an array of key social relations that engage
production and reproduction and that remain squarely embedded in practice.


Many recent analyses of kinship (and gender) address themes of contradiction,

paradox, and ambivalence. These are animated by efforts to understand con-
crete, variably positioned social actors, the contexts in which they organize
themselves and their resources, and the ways they create meaning and order in
their lives. This emphasis on the quotidian rounds of variably situated social
actors and the emotional tenor of daily experiences (of intimacy, inequality,
and the like) has been informed by Marxist perspectives (including practice
theory as developed by Bourdieu and Ortner) and by feminist and postmod-
ernist approaches that attend closely to hegemonies, counter-hegemonies, dia-
logue, polyvocality, and matters bearing on ambiguity, irony, and the ludic.
Myers's work is relevant here (79, 80), as is Weiner's scholarship on the
paradoxes of "keeping while giving" (134). So, too, is Trawick's Notes on
Love in a Tamil Family (127), one of the most innovative and fascinating
studies in all of late twentieth-century anthropology. Trawick derives much of
the material in this erudite and delightfully humorous volume from her appren-
ticeship to Themozhiyar, a poet and articulate reader of texts who helped the
anthropologist appreciate that ambiguity "permeates Hindu concepts of the
sacred and pervades everything from speech to sexuality, dreaming to blood"
(127:41), and that "love" (anpu) is, without question, the most ambigu-
ous-and ambivalent-of all. Trawick warns readers that "'meaning' cannot
be pinned down, is always sought but never apprehended,...is always inher-
ently elusive and always inherently ambiguous" (127:xix), and she argues
impressively that kinship is less "a stable architectural framework through
which all generations pass" than "a form of poetics,...a web of deep-seated
longings" characterized by "protean variability in form" (127:7). In this view,
kinship "creates longings that can never be fulfilled" and is most appropriately
understood "as a web maintained by unrelieved tensions, an architecture of
conflicting desires, its symmetry a symmetry of imbalance, its cyclicity that of
a hunter following its own tracks" (127:152).
A different approach to these topics that can also be seen as a sophisticated
example of a certain type of practice theory (subsumed under the rubric of the

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"anthropology of experience") is presented in Wikan's Managing Turbulent

Hearts (137). Wikan's main objective is to "de-exoticize" and "de-essential-
ize" Bali by fleshing out the contours of Balinese interpersonal relations and
social experience that have been given short shrift by Western observers. She
provides a most nuanced and compelling treatment of ambivalence and aliena-
tion, though, strictly speaking, neither ambivalence nor alienation are among
her primary concerns. Wikan also avoids the artificial separation of kinship
from friendship (and other types of social ties), and situates the long-neglected
topic of friendship squarely within the anthropological gaze.
Wikan concentrates on the commonplace, the "concepts with which [Bali-
nese] feel and think about, and handle, the tasks and tribulations of their
individual existences" (137:xvi). In contrast to earlier writers on Balinese,
Wikan devotes considerable attention to Balinese "feeling-thoughts" about the
seamier side(s) of human nature and social relations. She believes that while
Balinese commitments to graceful performances are partly about "beauty for
beauty's sake," they also reflect an anxiety to avoid giving offense and pro-
voking the ire of intimate others in a society where roughly half of all deaths
are attributed to black magic or poisoning (137:43).
According to Wikan, Balinese are forever anxious about "liv[ing] always
exposed and vulnerable" (137:81) to the threats of others. Balinese believe
they live in a panopticon in which all kinship and social relations are hierarchi-
cal and power laden and all social activities are scrutinized and evaluated by
intimate and not so intimate others. This is not the panopticon of Foucault's
(22) writings, in which Big Brother or his agents, with their unrelenting gazes
and disciplinary mechanisms, penetrate the most intimate recesses of personal
and social space and consciousness. Indeed, Balinese feelings of vulnerability
are only minimally (if at all) related to their positions in class or other rela-
tively fixed status hierarchies and are only minimally (if at all) keyed to the
presence of Big Brother or his agents. These feelings stem instead from the
hundreds if not thousands of big and little brothers and sisters peopling their
kinship and social universe(s), good numbers of whom are assumed to be
deploying the social and cultural resources at their disposal in order to enhance
(or at least maintain) their own status and prestige while simultaneously under-
cutting the status and prestige claims of others.
Feelings such as these serve as powerful moral constraints and deserve
thorough analysis, especially in conjunction with themes of domination and
resistance. I make the point partly because moral variables tend to be given
short shrift in studies of domination and resistance unless they "muddy the
waters" of class or otherwise impinge on relations of power and domination
between major status groups (landlords and tenants, rich and poor, etc). The
underlying issue is that while scholars of resistance (M Taussig, J Scott)
frequently distance themselves from Marxist theories of exploitation and class,

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they often preserve one of Marxism's own hidden premises: that class is
somehow the most essential, natural, or unfetishized of all social groupings,
and that class interests are thus the most important or rational of all social
interests. Data from Bali, Malaysia (91), and elsewhere indicate that in order to
understand kinship or social relations of any variety, we must seriously con-
sider culturally specific (as well as generalized) forms of personal submission,
humiliation, and degradation that are not tied to class-based (or feudal) hierar-
chies, or to systems of caste, apartheid, slavery, and the like.



Anthropologists have increasingly turned to their own societies to gather data

and build comparative and theoretical arguments relevant both to the reconsti-
tuted field of kinship and to the study of society and culture at large. This
repatriation, along with the cultural critique commonly entailed, has given rise
to some of the more significant developments within the reconfigured field.
There is now an impressive corpus of ethnographic material on contempo-
rary European kinship (e.g. 10, 20, 63, 102, 104, 109, 122, 123), much of
which is informed by the perspectives of social history and is explicitly at-
tuned to issues of gender, power, and difference, and to themes of contradic-
tion, paradox, and ambivalence. The ethnographic literature on contemporary
American kinship is likewise growing in quality and scope and has become
one of the primary sources through which to theorize both kinship and gender,
and culture as a whole. This latter body of literature includes studies of African
Americans (3, 49, 88, 119, 145), Afro-Trinidadian Americans (39), Italian
Americans (57), Japanese Americans (139, 140), Vietnamese Americans (51),
Chicanos (55, 143), Appalachians living between town and country (35),
working-class whites of European descent (101, 118), the fabulously rich and
famous (67), lesbians and gays of various ethnic/racial and class backgrounds
(38, 59, 110, 135, 136), as well as those involved in adoption (76), surrogate
motherhood (93), and other aspects of the new reproductive technologies (see
Studies of the myriad ethnic and racial groups comprising the American
mosaic do not simply fill in the gaps in our understanding of "theme and
variation" in American systems of kinship and marriage (e.g. by "adding
'ethnics' and stirring"). They also underscore the importance, when studying
kinship and marriage in any context, of factoring into our analyses the inter-
secting variables of race/ethnicity, class, and gender, as well as the ways state
policies, nationalist discourses, and other understandings of imagined commu-
nities shape local experiences and representations of kinship, family, and
household. They also demonstrate that modernization theory and world-sys-

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tems approaches (e.g. 115) alike tend to be insufficiently attuned to the ways
the politics of cultural identity and ideological factors inform not only the
pooling, "patchworking" (51), and deployment of resources among household
members, but also intrahousehold competition over resources, relations be-
tween the sexes and generations, and the multitude of pathways in terms of
which households are reproduced and transformed over time.
Kibria's ethnography of Vietnamese American families in Philadelphia
(51), for example, reveals the complex and often contradictory reworking of
Vietnamese traditions bearing on kinship and gender. Taking issue with ac-
counts that depict Vietnamese in the United States as yet another example of a
"model minority" or Asian immigrant "success story," Kibria shows how
Vietnamese in Philadelphia cope with life in the States, how "modernization"
is a highly uneven, ambivalence-laden process, and, more generally, how "the
relationship between families and industrialization is far less inevitable, linear,
and rigid than previously conceived" (51:17). Kibria explains that while Viet-
namese American women experience "multiple jeopardy" and "triple oppres-
sion," their households and kinship roles are not simply arenas of subjugation;
they are also "sites of resistance" and "vehicles ... [through which these women
and their families] struggle to survive" (51:20). Equally important, the ideol-
ogy of family unity frequently masks discordant interests, conflict, and resis-
tance among household members, whose cultural identities, forged in contexts
of marginality and liminality, are both shifting and emergent.
The prevalence of gender-based struggles to control familial and other
resources and institutions, struggles that help to define the way moral families
should be, is highlighted as well in Stacey's ethnography of "brave new
families" in the Silicon Valley (118). Stacey investigates the frontiers of
contemporary morality through a focus on recombinant families. Underscoring
that "traditions" are not given or fixed but continuously renegotiated in ways
that are both ironic and unintended, Stacey (like Kibria, a sociologist by
training) emphasizes themes of contradiction, paradox, and ambivalence, and
also provides historical (and postmodern) perspectives on gender, power, and
Vastly different ethnographic terrain is traversed in Marcus & Hall's Lives
in Trust: The Fortunes of Dynastic Families in Late Twentieth-Century Amer-
ica (67). This postmodern account fills in our knowledge of the families and
marriage practices of the rich and famous. It also undermines the myths that
surround such dynastic families as the Hunts and the Gettys-especially those
myths bearing on heroic individuals-by illustrating how fiduciaries, teams of
lawyers, therapists, and family biographers have helped to reproduce (and
transform) such families over time. Building on some of the insights devel-
oped in the literature on descent theory and Big Men, Marcus clarifies how
dynastic sensibilities and legacies are structured, organized, disseminated, and

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experienced, particularly in relation to European High Culture. Hall's master-

fully argued concluding section delineates the crucial role of archives, biogra-
phies, and trusts in both the authentication and debunking of dynastic identity.
Other developments in American kinship related to the rise of lesbian and
gay families and the new reproductive technologies are also forcing specialists
and nonspecialists alike to confront their largely implicit understandings and
representations of "what kinship is all about." They also attest to the point that
"what is socially peripheral is often symbolically central" (120:20).
Weston's research on lesbian and gay kinship (135) provides what is per-
haps the most compelling example of the theoretical insights and challenges
engendered by the repatriation of kinship studies, and of anthropology as a
whole (see also 38, 59, 110, 136). Weston builds on the work of Rapp (95-97)
and others who have underscored the extent to which discourses about kinship
and family have become overtly politicized in the United States and elsewhere.
And she makes quite clear that while the family-like marriage, love, and
sex-is a central institution in American society, it is equally, and in some
ways more importantly, a thoroughly contested concept.
The subjects of Weston's study refer to the domestic partnerships and
families they have created as "families we choose," and they conceptualize
these families in relation (opposition) to the "straight" or "biological" families
in which they grew up. Weston thus stresses the significance of analyzing her
informants' early familial experiences. Especially engaging and poignant is
her treatment of "coming out" stories, particularly those shared with parents
and siblings. This evocative material adds to our understanding of what kin-
ship is for lesbians/gays in America, for kinship is not simply what is created
within the lesbian/gay community; it also includes preexisting blood ties, the
real test of which is how parents and other blood kin react to the news of their
lesbian and gay relatives' sexualities, and whether they continue to acknow-
ledge and honor their blood ties with them. Here, as in many other segments of
American society (49, 93, 119), the performative aspects of kin ties are central
to kinship as "lived experience" and "culturally constituted order" (cf
Weston's material challenges the American idea that procreation is invari-
ably the "base, ground, or centerpiece" of kinship (135:34). She thus poses
questions that are key to emergent public discourses: Does "procreation alone
constitute kinship"? Does "shared biogenetic substance in itself confer kin-
ship"? Do nonbiological ties have to be patterned after extant biological mod-
els (135:34, 211)? Emphasizing that the emergent discourses index a culturally
ambiguous move from biology to choice (see also 76), she also reformulates
Schneider's (108) claims that "kinship would cease to have meaning as a
cultural domain" in the absence of "a notion of genealogy" (135:210). She
does so by demonstrating that this would be the case only if kinship were

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"robbed of its relation to biology" (emphasis in original), and that such a

relation need not be coterminous with a "grounding in biology" (135:210-11).
The sophistication of present-day kinship studies is also apparent in the
literature on the new reproductive technologies associated with amniocentesis,
in vitro fertilization, and myriad issues surrounding abortion, the birthing
process, etc (20, 24, 28, 30, 70, 96, 97, 106, 110, 111). Strathern's work (122,
123) is in many respects the most theoretically incisive, but unfortunately her
dense writing style renders some of her arguments inaccessible.
Ragone's 1994 study (93) dispels numerous popular misconceptions about
surrogate motherhood: that it signals "the dissolution of the American family,"
"is a threat to the sanctity of motherhood," "reduces or assigns women to a
new breeder class," and constitutes "a form of commercial baby selling"
(93:1). Since surrogate mothers are typically sought out by infertile couples
seeking a child to whom at least one of them (i.e. the husband) is biogeneti-
cally related, surrogacy may be viewed as a contemporary, high-tech solution
to the traditional American goal of creating a family defined (at least partly) in
terms of shared biogenetic substance. Because surrogacy clearly entails some
unconventional arrangements, those involved in the arrangements play down
biological relatedness during the insemination process and the ensuing preg-
nancy, even though concerns with biogenetic relatedness motivate many to
pursue this option, as opposed to adoption. On the other hand, they play up
themes of love, choice, and the adoptive mother's desire to have a child in a
highly selective account of "traditional" American kinship.
One of the most radical implications of all this is the fragmentation of
motherhood, such that, as Martin (70:20) puts it, "the organic unity of fetus
and mother can no longer be assumed." The dispersal of different aspects of
maternal procreation is most pronounced with gestational surrogacy, where the
surrogate provides a uterus but not an ovum. In these cases, the gestational
mother is related to the child neither through biogenetic substance (though
there has been a sharing of fluid) nor through "code for conduct" in
Schneider's sense. Gestation is thus "culturally ambiguous" (123:27), encour-
aging the distinction between "mere" biological relatedness and specifically
biogenetic relatedness (93:112).
Surrogate motherhood is an important example of how motherhood and
kinship as a whole are created through intention, choice, and love. The more
general point, however, is that the new reproductive technologies call into
question the supposedly "inviolable chain of events" linking marriage, sex,
conception, pregnancy, gestation, parenthood, and childrearing (93:87), as
well as "natural kinship" and "nature" itself (122, 123). If only for these
reasons, they have profoundly subversive potential.
The extent to which this potential may be realized in the United States or
elsewhere will embroil scholars in debate for some time to come (see 20, 24,

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111). It is clear, though, that developments in the new reproductive technolo-

gies make "nature" and biology more relevant to our analytic thinking about
kinship than they have been since Morgan. Scholarly and public discourses on
lesbian/gay kinship and marriage and, of course, sociobiology have done this
as well. Sociobiologists, however, have yet to bring about the new synthesis
promised by EO Wilson and others, and the overall significance of sociobiol-
ogy is probably exaggerated by proponents and critics alike (75), even though
the field captures the popular imagination. Most (cultural) anthropologists
reject the basic concepts of sociobiology (e.g. kin selection, reciprocal altru-
ism) (62), and have turned their backs on sociobiologists rather than involve
them in serious discussion. This seems a strategic mistake, especially since
anthropology has long been strongly associated within academe and elsewhere
with topics such as kinship and race, which are also central to sociobiology.
We should encourage colleagues and students alike to engage sociobiologists
constructively with data and arguments from cultural anthropology as well as
studies of primate social organization that bear on sex/gender, power, differ-
ence (e.g. 36, 37, 144), and the exceedingly complex relationship between
biology and culture.


I conclude by emphasizing five points. First, while studies of kinship as a

terminological system and as a symbolic system "in its own terms" haved both
waned, studies of kinship in terms of social relations among variably situated
actors engaged in the practice of social reproduction within broader political
economic contexts have become central to contemporary anthropology. Sec-
ond, anthropological (and other) social histories often deal with the same
general subject matter (albeit over time), inasmuch as they commonly revisit
the concerns of kinship studies with production and reproduction. This is
especially true because much current ethnography focuses on socio-cultural
systems (or locales) that were the subject of earlier investigation. Under-
standing socio-cultural transformation thus frequently presupposes a determi-
nation of whether the alleged patriliny or matriliny of an ethnographic starting
time declined or was partly an artifact of some descent theory or other formu-
lation employed by prior ethnographers. Goody perhaps best demonstrates the
necessity of carrying out this task of excavating past studies of kinship in order
to conduct anthropological social history (see also 5, 41, 60, 78, 82, 89, 117).
Third, the twentieth century has witnessed profound, globally far-reaching
changes in relations between expansive political economies on the one hand,
and domains of household, kinship, and marriage on the other, owing to the
spread of capitalism and the attendant transformation of the means and rela-
tions of production and of reproduction. Women are commonly recruited into

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factories in developing Asian economies (83) and expelled from them in

postsocialist Eastern European economies, and in both cases there are massive
repercussions for kinship and gender relations and social reproduction on the
whole. The nexus of kinship, gender, and social inequality explored by Meil-
lassoux, Collier, Collier & Yanagisako, Kelly, and others is thus a problem-
formulation equally relevant to preindustrial, premodern societies, and to their
modern and postmodern counterparts.
Fourth, the concern with contradiction, paradox, and ambivalence that has
represented an established analytic and theoretical current within studies of
kinship anticipates postmodernist critiques of totalizing schemas. Moreover,
kinship is, in a sense, a "postnominalist field" and has been since the work of
Needham (81). Noteworthy in this connection is Comaroff's (16) delineation
of how to reconstitute and reproblematize the field while attending to the
objections raised by the nominalist critique.
The fifth and most general point is that the study of kinship is alive and well
and still vital to the discipline, though often carried out under other rubrics and
aliases. This is epitomized by Marxist approaches and Modjeska's comment
that while he "explore[d]... inequality [by looking at means and relations of
production],... [he] like other anthropologists concerned with neo-Marxist
problematics... [was] led to conclude that production and its relations do not
constitute an autonomous economic level dominating the totality of social
relations since the relations of production are relations of kinship. To pursue
the relations of production to their heart only to find structures of kinship is by
now predictable" (77:51). Much the same discovery is being made by anthro-
pologists and others analyzing gender, social inequality, social history, and the
entailments of capitalist transformation, modernity, and postmodernity. This is
one reason why the reconfigured field of kinship has become a key site on
which to theorize gender, power, and difference.


I am grateful to Raymond Kelly, Nancy Ries, Ric Thompson, and Gary Urton
for reading an earlier draft of this essay on short notice and for offering
comments. Thanks are also extended to the following individuals: Tom Fricke,
Sharon Hutchinson, Mary Moran, Fred Myers, and Terence Turner, who pro-
vided references and/or reprints; Randi Feinstein and Lisa Todzia, who served
as research assistants; and Letta Palmer-Holmes, who patiently prepared many
versions of the bibliography. Because of space limitations, I have focused
almost exclusively on English-language sources and published material.

Any Annual Review chapter, as well as any article cited in an Annual Review chapter,
may be purchased from the Annual Reviews Preprints and Reprints service.
1-800-347-8007; 415-259-5017; email: arpr-class.org

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