The Metamorphoses of Kinship

June 7, 2012

Has the study of "kinship", always something of an esoteric specialism for the general reader, really faded from mainstream anthropology itself? A concept of the kinship-based society began with Lewis Henry Morgan's late 19th-century studies of Native American peoples, and became fundamental to anthropology for the next hundred years. But where are the courses on kin terms, marriage rules and incest prohibitions, alliance and descent systems and so on in today's syllabuses or textbooks? Maurice Godelier laments this loss, while at the same time suggesting that the really basic issues are still with us. By shifting our focus away from "social systems" and more towards matters of social-cum-bodily reproduction, we can re-evaluate the old ethnography and see its relevance to contemporary trends among ourselves.

A close reading of this book, a truly monumental work here translated into English for the first time, is not for the faint-hearted. The opening chapter takes the reader through Godelier's own intensive fieldwork among the Baruya of New Guinea, showing step by step how he began to see the logic of their understanding of gender, bodily processes and the reproduction of human beings. This is a strongly patrilineal world, not only in the social sense but the "biological" one, too, where male sperm is assumed responsible not only for the making of a baby in the first place, and in a ritual sense, but also for the growth and nourishment of a maturing boy. This case introduces the book as a whole: Godelier is recommending us all to ask questions about how people understand the making of babies and how they should be raised. A baby can only survive and become a person through the collaborative - and equally at times conflictual - processes of maturation as a member of a group or wider society.

Although some familiarity with anthropology would help readers to get their bearings, Godelier does provide clear explanations, from first principles, of some of the classic ethnographies and debates around them. He argues that what we traditionally call "kinship" can never completely define the basis of a social world. Components such as patterns in the classification of cousins (eg, into parallel and cross), alternating generations or descent rules are certainly entangled in the way that groups see their own coherence over time, put forward claims to land, organise marriage strategies through exchange and so forth, but none of these can stand alone as a vision of the whole. Here, Godelier is implicitly evoking ideas we could trace back to Karl Marx, Max Weber or emile Durkheim (take your pick) about the fundamental place of the "political-religious" as the encompassing and validating source of authority imbuing social practice. Against this background, we are invited to reconsider the field of "parenthood" and its relation to the begetting of humans, both ordinary and extraordinary - where ultra-human factors may come into play. Sex-as-desire is to be distinguished from sex-as-reproduction (involving some combination of bodily - merging into spiritual? - elements). Godelier argues that existing treatments of the incest taboo by Sigmund Freud and Claude Levi-Strauss are not adequate to meet a range of ethnographic cases (including many worldwide concerning a spouse's kin).

These arguments lead into a discussion of contemporary issues linked with the new reproductive technologies - in vitro fertilisation, sperm and egg donation, and the new role of the surrogate mother. Modern individualism as an ideology has contributed to a weakening of gendered roles and traditional marriage ties in the West. At the same time, parenthood is valued and children are therefore still much desired. The growing acceptance of same-sex couples has led to arguments that they should be able to marry and become parents without question. Of course, there have always been adoptions and "illegitimate" conceptions concealed from child and family alike, sometimes not even transparent to the mother. The new possibilities, however, evoke some extraordinary parallels with some of the classic ethnographic literature, if we allow the point of comparison to be the social making of parents, taking into account "biology" as locally understood.

The point where a potential person can be said to come into being often has a political-religious justification - in medieval Europe, for example, God intervened at a particular point in pregnancy. In several Western countries today, a fetus legally becomes a person at 24 weeks, thus establishing "parenthood" - at least for the birth mother or the married couple, or through welfare arrangements. The surrogate mother cannot automatically be a candidate for parenthood - but nevertheless, given the flexibility that human beings have shown in recreating themselves, who knows what the future might bring us.

The Metamorphoses of Kinship

By Maurice Godelier, translated by Nora Scott. Verso, 654pp, £30.00. ISBN 9781844677467. Published 16 April 2012

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