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Small Places, Large Issues

An Introduction to Social and Cultural anthropology




Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Pluto Press 2010




Introduction to the third edition

 1.   Anthropology: Comparison and Context
2.   A Brief History of Anthropology
3.   Fieldwork and Ethnography
4.   The Social Person
5.   Local Organisation
6.   Person and Society
7.   Kinship as Descent
8.   Marriage and Relatedness
9.   Gender and Age
10. Caste and Class
11.  Politics and Power
12.  Exchange and Consumption
13.  Production, Nature and Technology
14.  Religion and Ritual
15.  Language and Cognition
16.  Complexity and Change
17.  Ethnicity
18.  Nationalism and Minorities
19.  Anthropology and the Paradoxes of Globalisation
Epilogue: Making Anthropology Matter

Introduction to the third edition

This book, now in its third, revised and updated edition, is a rather conventional introduction to social and cultural anthropology. As the chapter titles indicate, the book does not represent an attempt to ‘reinvent’ or revolutionise the subject, but simply, and in a straightforward way, introduces the main tools of the craft, the theoretical discussions, the subject-areas and some of the main empirical fields studied by anthropologists. By ‘conventional’, incidentally, I do not necessarily mean ‘boring’. (Innovation is not always a good thing. Who wants to go to an innovative dentist? Or to fly with an innovative and creative pilot?)

            Today, anthropology is a global discipline, but it is unevenly distributed across the globe. English is the dominant language of anthropological discourse, indeed more so today than before, but important research is also being carried out in other languages, from Russian and Japanese to French and Spanish. It is beyond my abilities to do justice to all these national traditions of anthropology, but I have made some feeble attempts. It remains a fact, though, that this book is written from a vantage-point in Anglophone anthropology. For many years, it was common to distinguish between a British ‘social’ and an American ‘cultural’ anthropology. Today, this boundary is blurred, and although the distinction is sometimes highlighted in the text, the book is deliberately subtitled with ‘social and cultural anthropology’ in a bid to overcome an unproductive boundary.

            The most controversial aspect of this book may be the prominence given to ‘classic’ anthropological research in several of the chapters. In my view, it is not only a great advantage to be familiar with the classic studies in order to understand later trends and debates, but I also remain convinced that a sound grasp of classic modern (mid-20th century) anthropology is essential for doing good research in the 21st century. Since many students no longer read classic monographs and articles, the capsule reviews provided here may also give an understanding of the context of contemporary research – its intellectual origins and theoretical debates on which it elaborates. I do not want to give the impression that contemporary anthropologists are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, but they do stand on the shoulders of anthropologists of considerable achievement, and their work needs to be known, even if superficially, in order to understand properly what anthropological researchers are doing now. Some of these people were actually quite impressive.

         The general development of this book, both at the theoretical and at the empirical level, moves from simple to increasingly complex models and sociocultural environments – from the social person to the global ecumene. The book is intended as a companion volume to ethnographic monographs, which remain an indispensable part of an anthropologist’s training, notwithstanding the summaries a textbook is capable of providing.

         This book introduces both the subject-matter of social anthropology and an anthropological way of thinking. It is my conviction that the comparative study of society and culture is a fundamental intellectual activity with important implications for other forms of engagement with the world. Through the study of different societies, we learn something essential not only about other people's worlds, but also about ourselves. In a sense, anthropologists excel in making the familiar exotic and the exotic familiar through comparison and the use of comparative concepts. For this reason, comparisons with modern urban societies are implicit throughout, even when the topic is Melanesian gift-giving, Malagasy ritual or Nuer politics. In fact, the whole book may, perhaps, be read as an exercise in comparative thinking.

             In this third edition, I have kept the structure and chapter titles nearly unchanged, but both ethnographic examples and theoretical discussions have been updated and modified. Some new areas of research are being introduced, but scarcely any of the older ones have been deleted. The increased interdependence of human worlds (often described under the headings of globalisation. transnationalism etc.), described already in the first edition and elaborated further in the second edition, now pervades the text throughout. Just as no man is an island, one cannot speak of isolated societies any more.

            Also, the strengths of social and cultural anthropology as ways of knowing are emphasised more explicitly in this (and the second, 2001) edition than in the 1995 book. In recent years, anthropology has increasingly been challenged by alternative, highly articulate and publicly visible ways of accounting for the unity and diversity of humanity. One the one hand, humanistic disciplines (sometimes lumped together as ‘cultural studies’) and, on the other hand, approaches based on natural science (evolutionary psychology, or second-generation sociobiology, being the most powerful one), propose answers to some of the questions typically raised in social anthropology – concerning, for example, the nature of society, the predicaments of ethnic complexity, kinship, ritual and so on. In this situation, neither antagonistic competition nor the merging of disciplines into a ‘super-discipline’ of sociocultural science appear as attractive options; instead, I advocate openness, dialogue and interdisciplinarity when feasible. Owing to the prevalence of competing claims, however, I try to state explicitly what it is that the methods, theory and body of research in anthropology have to offer in studies of the contemporary world. I argue that credible accounts of culture and society should have an ethnographic component, and that proper knowledge of traditional or otherwise ‘remote’ societies greatly enhances the understanding of phenomena such as tourism, ethnic violence or migration. If social anthropology does have a bright future, it is not in spite of, but because of global change.

In a certain sense, this is the fifth version of this book. The first edition, Små steder, store spørsmål in Norwegian, was originally published in 1993. Subsequently, Anne Beech at Pluto Press invited me to make an English version, but it would have to be substantially shorter than the original, which was a large, expensive and lavishly illustrated book. I kept the basic structure and chapter titles, but compressed and adjusted the content to make it suitable for a non-Scandinavian readership. In 1998, a revised and updated version of the Norwegian original was published, and in 2001, the second edition of Small Places, similarly revised, appeared.

            When Anne Beech suggested a third edition, I had already been contacted by Universitetsforlaget, my Norwegian academic publisher, about the book. The editor, Per Robstad, wanted an updated Små steder, store spørsmål, but he held, doubtless correctly, that the 1998 edition was too bulky to fit the current structure of academic teaching in Norway, which is now based (as in the English-speaking world) on smaller, more clearly focused courses than had been the case before the Bologna reforms of 2003. Our conclusion was that making a Norwegian translation of the English edition might solve the problem. So in a sense, I have come full circle with this textbook, ending this revision by translating the third edition of the English version into Norwegian (with, as always, a number of minor adjustments). Obviously, when I began drafting the first chapters in 1992, a reasonably happy young man just having emerged from his Ph D rite of passage, it would never have occurred to me that I should still be working on the book eighteen years on. Perhaps it is exactly the rather conventional structure of the book that has passed the test of time; whatever the case may be, it is a privilege to be allowed once more to develop, and not least to revise, my vision of anthropology through a fairly comprehensive text like this.

            Over the years, I have received many suggestions and comments on the earlier editions of the books from people all over the world, and for this I am grateful. I see the production and dissemination of knowledge as an essentially collective endeavour, as a gift economy of the kind described especially in Chapter 12. This, then, is my belated return gift to my teachers –Harald Eidheim, Eduardo Archetti, Fredrik Barth, Axel Sommerfelt, Arne Martin Klausen and others – to my students, colleagues, translators and everybody who has cared to read the book and send me their comments and questions. Finally, I owe a special debt of gratitude to Anne Beech at Pluto Press for her encouragement and a regular sprinkling of positive energy over quite a few years now.

Oslo, February 2010







They are our enemies, we marry them.

—Nuer proverb

There are no societies based on kinship, nor has there ever been.

—Maurice Godelier

Seen from a male point of view, women are a scarce resource. No matter how male-dominated a society is, men need women to ensure its survival. In matrilineal systems, the men’s sisters carry out this work; in patrilineal societies, their wives do it; and in cognatic or bilateral societies, sisters and wives each do part of the job, seen from a male perspective. A man can have a nearly unlimited number of children – in theory, he can beget several children every day – while a woman’s capacity is limited to one child per year under optimal conditions, and moreover, in many societies, child mortality limits the number further. From the perspective of human reproduction, one may thus state baldly that sperm is cheap while eggs are expensive. This simple fact may be a partial explanation of the widespread tendency to the effect that men try to control the sexuality of women, as well as the tendency for men to regard the women of the kin group as a resource they do not want to give away without receiving other women in return.

There may be several reasons why men often want many children. Frequently, they need the labour power of the children for their fields or herds; and children can also form the basis of political support or be seen as an old age insurance policy. There are also biological explanations for the male ‘drive to reproduce’, which, for all their possible merits, fail to account for variation and historical change.

In many societies, polygyny (a system where a man can have several wives) has  been widespread. Polyandry (where a woman can have several husbands) is much rarer. In fact, in the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, compiled from survey data on 1231 societies, polyandry occurs only four times. 186 were classified as being monogamous, polygyny occurred occasionally in 437 cases, while polygyny was common in 588 societies (Gray 1998). Now, regarding the marriage institution as such, its rationale is evidently, at least partly, its efficacy in producing and socialising children. Comparatively and historically speaking, romantic love is rarely seen as an important precondition for a good marriage. Rather, marriage in most traditional societies tends to be arranged by kin groups, not by the individuals concerned; if the parties happen to like each other, this may be seen as a kind of bonus. Whether or not persons choose their spouses, marriage is very commonly perceived as a relationship between groups, not primarily between individuals.

The ideology prevalent in North Atlantic societies to the effect that marriage should be built on pure love, which may even transcend class boundaries, is peculiar if seen in a comparative perspective. Among the Maasai, for example, the famous cattle nomads of East Africa, it is seen as a distinctive disadvantage if the romantic love between the spouses is too powerful. In this society, marriage is chiefly seen as a business relationship, the purpose being to raise children and make the herd grow. If the spouses fall in love, the result may be jealousy and passionate outbursts with adverse effects on business. Many Maasai women regard marriage as a necessary evil (Talle 1988). On the other hand, it is not true, as some believe, that high divorce rates exist only in modern societies. Divorce occurs in most societies in the world, and some ‘traditional’ peoples have higher divorce rates than the inhabitants of any European city.

Dowry and Bridewealth

In European and some Asian societies, the dowry has traditionally been an important institution (it is sometimes described as an ‘Indo-European institution’). It means that the bride brings gifts from her family into the marriage, often household utensils, linen and other things for the home. The institution can be seen as a compensation to the man’s family for undertaking to support the woman economically. A dowry can also be an advance on inheritance. In some societies, the payment of dowry entails a considerable economic burden. The costs associated with having daughters marry are a main cause of the high rates of female infanticide in India.

Bridewealth (sometimes called ‘bride-price’) is more common than dowry in many societies, particularly in Africa. Here, the groom’s kin is obliged to transfer resources to the bride’s kin in return for his rights to her labour and reproductive powers. The payment of bridewealth establishes the rights of the man in the woman and her children. If the bridewealth is not paid, the marriage may be void, and disagreement over bridewealth payments is traditionally a common cause of feuds among many peoples.

In societies where bridewealth is common and the agnatic kin group is strong, the levirate may occur. This means that a widow marries a brother of the deceased (the levir), and in this way the patrilineage retains control of the woman and her children after the husband’s death. The sororate, where a widower marries a sister of the deceased, is not a simple inversion of the levirate: in most cases it means that the woman’s kin group has committed itself to replacing the dead woman with a living one.

Payment of bridewealth creates several kinds of moral bonds between people. First, it creates a contractual tie between lineages, being a sign of mutual trust. When the bridewealth is paid over a long period, for example through bride-service whereby the groom works for a certain period for his parents-in-law, the bonds are strengthened further. Second, the system of bridewealth strengthens solidarity within the paying group. Frequently, several relatives must contribute to the payment of the price, and often the groom must borrow from his relatives. Such loans may create long-term debt and moral obligations on the part of the groom towards his kinsmen.

Moieties and Marriage

Exogamous groups must by definition obtain women from outside. It is a fact that property, inheritance and political office tend to be transferred between in most traditional societies, and that men often take the formal decisions regarding who is to marry whom. So even if the pattern of residence should be uxorilocal (that is, the groom moves in with the bride’s family), the woman’s brothers and other male relatives tend to determine her matrimonial destiny, even if they live with their wives in a different village.

The simplest form of woman exchange would consist in the exchange of sisters: I give my sister to you, and you give me yours in return. In lineage societies, it is corporations rather than persons who exchange women. If a society consists of two kin groups who regularly exchange women between them, the society is divided into moieties. Frequently, moieties have a division of labour in addition to exchanging women.

The moiety system of exchange is widespread among Australian peoples. In studies of these marriage systems, it has been pointed out that the outcome of a moiety system is eventually a kind of classificatory cross-cousin marriage. It happens like this: in a fairly small group, like the Kariera of Central Australia, all members of society define themselves as relatives. They reckon patrilineal descent and are organised in two exogamous ‘marriage classes’. They can marry anyone of the right gender who is not classified as a sibling. The Kariera, like the Yanomamö and many others, have a classificatory kinship terminology, which means that they use a single term to describe many different persons, in this case everyone belonging to the same gender, generation and clan, independently of biological kinship. The Kariera thus use the same term to describe a father, his brothers and other males of the same generation and same clan. One cannot marry persons considered as siblings, a category which includes those analytically labelled classificatory parallel cousins (father’s brother’s and mother’s sister’s children). On the other hand, father’s sister’s children and mother’s brother’s children, and everyone included in the same category, that is everybody who we would call classificatory cross-cousins of the opposite gender, are marriageable.

Seen through a certain period, this kind of system takes on the form of a moiety system based on two patriclans which exchange women between them. A man marries where his father married, which is into his mother’s patriclan. Both father’s sister’s children and mother’s brother’s children belong to this clan, since father’s sister also married into that clan.

A similar example, which may further illustrate the logic of exchange within a moiety system, is provided by the Yanomamö. A Yanomamö man marries a person classified as father’s sister’s daughter and/or mother’s brother’s daughter. A woman, similarly, marries a person classified as father’s sister’s son and/or mother’s brother’s son. The patrilateral parallel cousins belong to one’s own group, as do the matrilateral parallel cousins, since mother’s sister by definition is married to father’s brother. Remember that we are talking about a classificatory kinship system and not a system which distinguishes terminologically between people of varying degrees of biological relatedness.

The Yanomamö use the term suaböya about all marriageable women, who are classificatory mother’s brother’s daughters and/or father’s sister’s daughters. However, although there are only two kinds of same-generation women in Yanomamö terminology – wives and sisters – they distinguish in practice between ‘close’ and ‘distant’ cross-cousins. Many parents therefore try to marry their children into lineages with whom they want to forge alliances.

Through a statistical analysis of several Yanomamö villages, Chagnon (1983) has argued that political stability is highest where the biological kinship bonds are strongest. Obviously, the members of groups which have exchanged women for several generations are related in more ways – both in terms of kinship and other obligations – than persons who have a purely classificatory kin relationship. Further, it is obviously in the interest of women to marry ‘close’ cross-cousins as they live in the same village as themselves. Thus the women can be close to their brothers, whom they may need for protection.

The ideal model of cross-cousin marriage among the Yanomamö, as depicted in Figure 7, would create a very stable system where the inhabitants of the shabono were very close relatives. However, in practice the Yanomamö are often forced to develop links beyond the confines of the village, both to reduce the danger of war (see Chapter 11) and to look for wives. As a consequence, the inhabitants of the shabono are less close relatives than they would ideally be, according to Chagnon’s biologically oriented model of analysis.

Exchange and Rank Differences

Many peoples traditionally practise the cyclical exchange of women between more than two groups, so that, say, clan A gives women to clan B, which gives women to clan C, which gives women to clan D, which in turn gives women to clan A. Within this kind of system, a woman can only be ‘paid for’ with another woman.

A system where three or more groups are mutually linked through some kind of cyclical exchange of wives may be on a larger scale than moiety systems, since it depends on a greater number of relationships to function. Such a system, where one distinguishes categorically between wife-givers and wife-takers, is called an asymmetrical alliance system, whereas a moieties constitute a symmetrical alliance system. While the latter implies equality between the groups, an asymmetrical alliance often, but not necessarily, implies rank differences between the groups. This system of exchange thus contributes both to the cohesion of society, through the establishment of enduring ties between clans, and to the reproduction of hierarchical relations.

The Kachin of upper Burma traditionally practise exogamy at the level of the patrilineage (Leach 1954). Their rules for wife exchange reveal a more complex and more hierarchical social organisation than that of the Yanomamö. Among the Kachin, wife-givers (‘mayu’) have higher rank than wife-takers (‘dama’).

The Kachin, who are rice cultivators, are divided into three main categories of lineages: chiefly, aristocratic and commoner. Women move downwards within this system as every lineage is mayu to those with lower rank than themselves. The dama is obliged to pay bridewealth to its mayu, but is usually unable to pay immediately. Frequently, therefore, the groom has to work for years – sometimes for the rest of his life – for his higher-ranking parents-in-law. In this way, since wives are ‘expensive’, the rank differences between mayu and dama are reproduced and strengthened through time.

All of the examples so far have dealt with exogamous marriage systems. Group endogamy also exists, particularly in highly stratified societies where considerable resources are transmitted through marriage. European royal families and Indian castes are thus known to be endogamous. However, we should remember that endogamy and exogamy are relative terms. All peoples are exogamous at least at the level of the nuclear family; conversely, few peoples would encourage their children to marry anybody without any discrimination. Even in societies where individual freedom of choice is stressed as a virtue, such as the United States, ‘race endogamy’ is common. So is, incidentally, endogamy regarding social class.

Descent and Alliance Theory

A principal point in the study of marriage rules and practices concerns politics, alliances and stability. Since all groups are exogamous at some level, marriage necessarily creates alliances outside the nuclear family, the lineage or the clan. These kinds of alliances have been emphasised by many anthropologists, who have implicitly or explicitly argued against those who regard descent and lineage-based solidarity as the most fundamental facts of kinship.

Some innovative, classic studies of kinship, notably Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) and Fortes’ (1945) studies of the Nuer and the Tallensi, respectively, focused strongly on descent-based corporations. They showed how groups with shared unilinear descent – be it factual or fictitious – were cohesive and could be mobilised politically (see Chapters 7 and 11). This corporate group, united through shared ancestry, was seen as the fundamental fact of kinship in stateless societies.

Several anthropologists reacted against the elegant logical models of segmentary clans presented by this group of Africanists (Kuper 2005). In particular, this was the case with those who had done fieldwork in New Guinea, where it had initially been expected that the patrilineally based communities would be organised in segmentary lineages, as was the case in much of Africa. However, it soon transpired that New Guinean societies included persons who did not belong to the patrilineage, and that they lacked the mechanisms of fusion and fission that had been described for the Nuer and the Tallensi (Barnes 1962). The Chimbu of highland New Guinea, for example, could just as well be described either as a cognatic system with a patrilineal basis, or as a patrilineal system with many exceptions. Thus the general validity of the models proposed by Evans-Pritchard, Fortes and others was questioned on empirical grounds – and it was concluded that they had probably exaggerated the importance of the unilineal descent groups at the cost of underestimating the importance of cognatic and affinal (in-law) ties. An interesting detail in this regard may be the fact that the anthropologists who focused on the structured, systemic aspect of kinship were associates of Radcliffe-Brown, while the critics who stressed the primacy of practice over abstract structure, notably the Africanist Audrey Richards (1956), but also Firth, tended to be students of Malinowski (Kuper 1996).

Elementary and Complex Structures

In one of the most influential books ever published about kinship, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969 [1949]), Lévi-Strauss challenges descent theory in a more theoretically principled way than Malinowski's students did. Unlike the structural-functionalists of the British school, Lévi-Strauss did not regard shared descent, but rather the development of alliances between groups through the exchange of women, as the fundamental fact of kinship. Taking his cue from structural linguistics (which saw the relationship between sounds as fundamental to language) and the sociology of Marcel Mauss, where reciprocity was seen as a fundamental fact of human life (see Chapter 12), Lévi-Strauss develops a highly original view of the institution of kinship. Indeed, he argues that the very formation of society occurs when a man gives his sister away to another man, thereby creating ties of affinity.

A central element in Lévi-Strauss’s perspective is the idea that all kinship systems are elaborations on four fundamental kin relationships: brother–sister, husband–wife, father–son and mother’s brother–sister’s son. Lévi-Strauss regarded this ‘elementary structure’, or ‘kinship atom’, inspired by similar structures from structural linguistics (see Figure 8), as being fundamental to kinship and thus to human society as such. Some societies are constructed directly on the ‘elementary structure’, including societies based on classificatory cross-cousin marriage as well as societies based on asymmetrical alliances. ‘Complex’ systems, in Lévi-Strauss’s terminology, add further relationships to the four fundamental ones as determining factors in marriage. He argues that elementary systems have positive rules; they do not only specify who one cannot marry, but also who one can marry (as among the Yanomamö). Complex systems, prevalent in modern societies and based on individual choice, have only negative rules and are therefore unable to create long-term alliances between kin groups.

The mother’s brother is an key figure in Lévi-Strauss’s kinship atom. Granted the universality of the incest prohibition, and granted that men control women, the production of children ultimately depends on his willingness to give away his sister. Inspired by an earlier argument by Radcliffe-Brown (1952), Lévi-Strauss argues, further, that the relationship between a man and his maternal uncle is crucial. If the spouses are intimate, the wife will have a distanced relationship with her brother and vice versa. If one has a close, tender relationship with one’s maternal uncle, the father will be a strict and severe person and vice versa. The ‘severe uncle’ usually appears in matrilineal societies.

Lévi-Strauss’s argument is complex and covers much ground, both theoretically and empirically. An important point, pertinent to the earlier discussion about descent and alliances, is nevertheless that his line of thought implies that alliances between groups are more fundamental for the reproduction of society than shared descent. Affinality is thus a universal key to the understanding of the integration of society. The nuclear family, which was earlier considered to be the smallest building-block of kinship, becomes a secondary structure within this schema, since it presupposes the brother–sister relationship and affinality.

Prescriptive and Preferential Rules?

As remarked, Lévi-Strauss regarded the principle of cross-cousin marriage as a fundamental expression of reciprocity between kin groups with an elementary kinship system. These groups would also, according to him, have positive as well as negative marriage rules. Such elementary systems would moreover have unilineal descent systems and would exchange women at the level of the group.

The Oxford anthropologist Rodney Needham, an early translator and critic of Lévi-Strauss, held that the latter’s model was only valid in societies with prescriptive marriage rules, even if a distinction between prescriptive and preferential systems (proposed by Needham) was not elaborated in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Needham 1962). Lévi-Strauss repudiated Needham's interpretation, and stated in no uncertain terms that he regarded the kinship atom as a universal elementary structure, that his theory about the exchange of women was valid for all unilineal societies, and that the distinction between prescriptive and preferential systems was irrelevant. In practice, he argued, so-called prescriptive systems are preferential, and in theory so-called preferential systems are prescriptive. Prescriptions thus only exist at the normative level, and in practice such rules are never followed a hundred per cent.

It thus seems necessary to distinguish between categorisations of persons one can and cannot marry (such as rules of exogamy) and cultural preferences concerning whom it is particularly beneficial to marry. To individuals, marriage practices may be perceived as prescriptive rules if their parents arrange the marriage, but at a societal level it would be misleading to use this model as a description of the overall practices. What Lévi-Strauss speaks of as prescriptive rules simply amount to the categories through which the members of society think; Needham’s distinction makes it possible to distinguish between these categories and the strategies actors follow to achieve specific, culturally defined aims.

Even perfect knowledge of categories and rules does not enable us to predict how people actually will act, and at this point we might recall Firth’s distinction (Chapter 6) between social structure and social organisation. Rules and norms are not identical with the social application of rules and norms.

Most kinship phenomena can probably be interpreted from an alliance perspective as well as a descent perspective. Both alliances and descent are aspects of every kinship system, although, as Kuper (2005) has remarked, descent theorists largely concentrated on societies where agnatic lineages were especially important in the organisation of society, whereas alliance theorists were more concerned with the study of societies where the forging of alliances between kin groups was crucial. It is nevertheless quite possible to identify important cross-cutting alliances in societies usually thought of in terms of descent groups.

Kinship, Nature and Culture

In many societies, it is customary to think of kinship in terms of biology. Europeans generally see themselves as more closely related to their siblings than to their cousins and more closely related to first cousins than to second cousins. Classificatory kinship seems to be more or less absent in this kind of society. However, even this kind of society has kin terms which derive from social organisation rather than from biological kinship. Among the Yanomamö, all of the women of one’s patrilineage are regarded as ‘father’s sisters’, and all of the men in mother’s patrilineage are regarded as ‘mother’s brothers’. In the parental generation of ego, only two kinds of men and two kinds of women exist: fathers, mother’s brothers, mothers and father’s sisters. Among the Kariera and several other Australian peoples, all members of a moiety of the same generation and gender can be spoken of with the same kin term. All ‘brothers’ are brothers for nearly all practical purposes, even if they do not have shared biological descent.

In most European kinship terminologies, some affines are labelled ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’, namely those who have married our parents’ siblings. In many Indo-European languages, moreover, there is no terminological difference between biological and affinal uncles and aunts. The European kinship terms brother-in-law and sister-in-law may also refer to two different kinds of relatives. A brother-in-law may be the brother of ego’s spouse; he may also be ego’s sister’s husband. Kin, in other words, do not come naturally; they must be created socially, and this is at least partly fashioned so as to facilitate tasks to be solved and to create order in an otherwise chaotic social world.

Arguing against those who have emphasised the biological foundations of kinship, Needham (1962) and Schneider (1984) have argued that kinship is an invention with no necessary connection with biological facts, and they both stress that in a certain sense, kinship is the invention of anthropologists. At least, the examples in this chapter have shown that the kinship system in a society does not follow automatically from biological kin relations. When descent is important in order to justify claims to land, it may be common to manipulate genealogies. Laura Bohannan (1952) has dealt with this in a study of the Tiv of Nigeria, an agricultural people organised in landholding segmentary patriclans. In this society, the structure and origins of the lineage are frequently consciously manipulated for the benefit of the interests of the living. Anne Knudsen (1987, 1992), writing about kinship, vendettas and mafia in Corsica, shows that of the total number of cousins (male collateral kin) a person has, only a small proportion is socially activated. Only the kinsmen one has shared interests with are in practice reckoned as kinsmen. Frequently, those cousins who are genealogically the most distant ones, become the closest ones in practice. Geertz (1988, p. 8) puts this openness of ‘facts’ to manipulation and interpretation in a more general way when he refers in passing to the North African mule, ‘who talks always of his mother’s brother, the horse, but never of his father, the donkey’.

Despite the importance of the objections against a biologically based view of kinship, it remains a fact that important forms of kinship is universally (or nearly universally) framed in terms of biological descent, although other forms of kinship – classificatory, affinal, symbolic – may be mor e important in a variety of circumstances.

Some Common Denominators

As we have seen, there are many different ways of resolving the problems associated with kinship, but all societies have some common denominators: all have rules regulating incest and exogamy. In all societies, alliances are forged between persons or descent groups, whether their importance is marginal or significant. All societies also seem to have developed a social organisation where mother and child live together during the first years of the child’s life (a possible exception being societies with a high density of kindergartens). All societies have also developed functioning reproductive institutions, and all have rules of inheritance.

Further, many societies have also developed forms of local organisation, with political, economic and other dimensions, which are based on kinship. Both religion and daily rules for conduct may in such communities be based on respect for the ancestors and ancestral spirits (see Chapter 14). Differences in power are also often related to kinship. Kinship, indeed, is often the master idiom for talking about society and human existence. What, then, is the role of kinship in societies which lack corporate kin groups, prescriptive marriage rules and ancestral cults?

Kinship and Bureaucracy

It is doubtless correct that kin-based forms of organisation continue to be important in many societies after having gone through processes of modernisation, that is after the inhabitants have become citizens and taxpayers, wageworkers and TV audiences. In most modern states, family dynasties exist in the realm of finance (and sometimes in politics), and genealogies remain important to individual self-identity. The nuclear family is an important institution in modern societies, and in many such communities kinship is decisive for one’s career opportunities, political belonging, place of residence and more.

The capitalist labour market, however, is ostensibly based on voluntary labour contracts and individual achievement – not on kinship commitments and ascribed identity. It is therefore customary to regard the kin-based organisation as a contrast, and possible threat, to the bureaucratic organisation characteristic of both the labour market and the system of political administration in modern state societies. Kin-based organisation is based on loyalty to specific persons, while bureaucratic organisation ideally is based on loyalty to abstract principles, notably the law and contractual obligations. Kinsmen may be obliged to help each other out, whereas bureaucrats have committed themselves to following identical procedures and principles no matter who they are dealing with. According to a kinship ideology, it is appropriate to treat different people differently; according to a bureaucratic way of thinking, everybody is to be treated according to identical formal rules and regulations. When a person of high rank employs one of his kinsmen, others may call this practice nepotism (literally, particularism favouring nephews), that is ‘unfair’ differential treatment on the basis of kinship. According to a kinship logic, such a differential treatment is not unjust, however, but is rather an indication of loyalty and solidarity. The two logics, which coexist in virtually every society today, are thus difficult to reconcile in theory – they represent opposing moralities.

Max Weber (1978 [1919]) was the first social theorist to write systematically about the differences between kinship-based and bureaucratic organisation. His point of departure was the industrialisation of Europe, and he demonstrated a clear interrelationship between the industrial revolution, the growth of anonymous bureaucratic organisation based on formal rules and the weakening of kinship bonds. Although he was critical of some aspects of bureaucracy (he feared the inflexibility of the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy), Weber regarded this form of organisation, based on anonymous principles of equal treatment and a clear distinction between a person’s professional and private statuses, as a distinctive advance over the particularistic principles that had dominated earlier. Talcott Parsons, Weber’s main intellectual heir in the mid-20th century Anglophone world  (Parsons 1977), regarded modern societies as achievement-oriented and universalistic, as opposed to ‘traditional’ societies, which he saw as ascription-oriented and particularistic. This distinction means that a person’s rank and career opportunities in a modern society depend on his or her achievements and achieved statuses, and that equal treatment for all (notably equal civil rights and equality before the law) is an important principle. In a traditional society, on the contrary, Parsons held that ascribed statuses, frequently connected with kinship, were more decisive; in other words, that it was less important what a person did than what he or she was. The theory of bureaucracy, in this form, thus can be seen as an elaboration on themes introduced in 19th century social science, through dichotomies like Gemeinschaft–Gesellschaft, status–contract and so on.

Dichotomies of this kind are always simplistic. First, it is definitely not true that particularistic principles are absent in modern societies, notwithstanding their bureaucratic organisation. Second, anthropological research has shown that there exist many ‘traditional’ societies which are highly achievement-oriented, where individual achievements are more important than lineage membership. This is the case, for example, among many hunters and gatherers, as well as in highland New Guinea. Further, the very term ‘traditional societies’ is inadequate since it lumps together a mass of highly diverse societies – from a Quechua village in the Andes to the Chinese empire.

On the other hand, dichotomies of this kind can be useful as conceptual tools, and provided we do not confound them with descriptions of an empirical reality they can be helpful in the process of organising facts. We should never forget, though, that they are ideal types (Weber’s term); stylised, abstract models of aspects of the world, which are never encountered in their pure form ‘out there’.

The relationship between kin-based and bureaucratic organisation must always be explored in an empirical context. Then we will discover that the two principles very often function simultaneously; that they are not mutually exclusive in practice. A person may support both ideals of formal justice and kinship solidarity in different situations (see e.g. Herzfeld 1992).

Metaphoric Kinship

A lesson from the study of bureaucratic organisations is that the introduction of universalistic principles (formal rules, contracts, etc.) does not simply do away with particularistic principles: the two sets of rules coexist, just as individualism has not made the family superfluous, although many of its former functions have been taken over by other institutions. Let us now consider if a kinship way of thinking may have survived in other, less obvious ways in modern state societies.

Owing to industrialisation and the integration of large, heterogeneous populations in nation-states, it has in many contexts become impractical to maintain clan- or lineage-based social organisation. In this kind of society, everybody is dependent on a large number of persons one is not related to, and each person is responsible for his or her life, largely without support from the kin group. The labour contract has replaced the clan land and the family trade, and social mobility is high. A marriage ideology based on individual choice has replaced the former lineage-based marriages. The monetary economy and the ideology of universal wagework has turned questions of subsistence and place of residence into individual and not collective issues.

This has led many, among them many social scientists, to believe that kinship has ceased to be important in modern societies. This is clearly not true even at the level of interpersonal relations; class structures are being reproduced quite efficiently through the medium of kinship. Moreover, kinship has important symbolic dimensions in addition to its potential as a vehicle of social organisation. Kinship is, in most known human societies, a main focus for subjective belongingness, sense of security and personal identity. In these areas, it seems clear that kinship has at least partly been replaced by metaphoric kinship ideologies such as nationalism or other ‘imagined communities’ such as religion. Nationalism presents the nation as a metaphoric kin group. Like lineage ideologies, it is based on a contrast between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and although it may be internally egalitarian and universalistic, it favours particularism in relation to other nations (see Chapter 18). The nation may also function as a de facto lineage in certain judicial contexts. If a citizen dies with no personal heirs, the state inherits the estate. The state may also, in certain cases, assume the parental responsibility for children.

A decisive difference between nationalism and actual kinship ideology is the fact that the nation encompasses a large number of people who will never meet personally; it promotes an anonymous, abstract community between people who do not know each other. If we wish to develop an ideal-typical distinction between societies of large and small scale, it may be useful to place the boundary at this point: if important aspects of one’s existence depend on people one does not know, one belongs, in important respects, to a social system of large scale.

Kinship in anthropology today

Whether metaphorical or not (and whether or not this difference makes a difference), kinship remains a core concern in anthropology. In his overview of the anthropology of kinship, Holy (1996) reminds his readers that not all anthropologists agree about the ubiquity and universal character of kinship. However, since the days of Morgan and Maine, many practitioners of the discipline have seen kinship as a human universal although most accept that it varies somewhat between societies. This view, Holy argues, rests on three assumptions:

            (i) That ‘kinship constitutes one of the institutional domains which are conceived to be universal components or building blocks of every society’ (Holy 1996, p. 151). The others, he adds, are an economic system, a political system and a system of belief.

            (ii) The second assumption is the notion that ‘kinship has to do with the reproduction of human beings and the relations between human beings that are the concomitants of reproduction’ (p. 152).

            (iii) Finally, there is the view that ‘every society utilises for various social purposes the genealogical relations which it assumes to exist among people’ (p. 153). Holy then goes on to show that all three assumptions are questionable: The degree and form of institutional differentiation varies from society to society; reproduction and biological relatedness carry varying meanings and social implications; and the ways and extents to which genealogical connections are traced, also vary considerably. Important variations between concepts of personhood and of relatedness may be glossed over by an over-insistence on the primacy of kinship, whether it is seen as chiefly biological or not. In the years following the publication of Holy's book, research on kinship has revealed an even greater variation than he suggested, leading Janet Carsten (2004), among others, to suggest replacing the term at least partly with the wider concept ‘relatedness’.

            Be this as it may, the empirical salience of kinship in most societies — notwithstanding important variations — ensure its place as a main focus of anthropological research today, not least in studies of complex, modern societies, where its significance has probably been underestimated in social theory. The field of kinship studies is also, naturally, a main fighting ground between biological determinists and culturalists. Whatever complementarities may exist between biological or evolutionary perspectives on humanity and perspectives that posit the primacy of social constructions (and I believe these complementarities to be of considerable potential), kinship has proved resilient to attempts at integrating these views. Few themes in anthropology provoke more heated debates than questions relating to the biological versus the socially constructed in kinship.

Kinship and Gender

To round off these two chapters about kinship and marriage, it seems appropriate to linger briefly on the relationship between kinship and gender. During the heyday of ‘kinshipology’, up to the 1960s, anthropologists were, with a few notable exceptions, not particularly interested in gender as a differentiating principle. When reading the classic studies of Boas, Kroeber, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard and Fortes today, the absence of analyses of gender and the social and cultural production of gender differences is striking. In studies of kinship, a male perspective is often taken for granted. Certainly, women have a place in these studies; they sometimes appear as wives, mothers and sisters, but rarely as independently acting persons. They appear as resources which society (that is, male society) controls; they are exchanged between groups, are married, accused of witchcraft and so on. Additionally, classic anthropological studies of kinship have rarely explored how particular kinship systems create particular kinds of gender relations – what sort of ideology justifies men’s power over women – or even reflected on the fairly obvious fact that a kin relationship is often a gender relationship as well.

Today there exists a growing literature which tries to see social life from a gender-neutral perspective or even with an explicit female bias. Since the 1970s, many important studies on the fundamental importance of gender as an organising principle in society and culture have been published, and some of these studies are discussed in the next chapter. However, relatively little of this literature links up with the study of kinship (but see Collier and Yanagisako 1987, Howell and Melhuus 1993, Carsten 1997, Stone 2009). For if Lévi-Strauss is right in that the sister–brother relationship is fundamental in the social production of kinship, it is surely not without interest that this kin relationship is also a gender relationship. The following two chapters deal with various criteria, starting with gender, that are used to classify people into mutually exclusive categories, which more often than not entail differences in power.


Suggestions for Further Reading

Linda Stone: Kinship and Gender: An Introduction, 4th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview 2009.

David Pace: Lévi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes. London: Routledge 1983.

Emmanuel Todd: The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems. Oxford: Blackwell 1989.