Welcome to Kinship Studies!

This website is split into a few categories where we discuss them in depth. Not all of them are on “kinship,” but the word seems to be a fairly good catchword to cover my diverse research interests. The crux of my research agenda is intense interdisciplinarity and rich empiricism: I work with original data bringing to the front fresh, unacknowledged, forgotten, and/or marginalized evidence. I study kinship terminologies, do original etymological work within the Indo-European language family, tread an uncharted terrain of Cold War archives, and document the contemporary phenomenon of Europeans reenacting traditional Native American cultures. Kinship systems lost their appeal among anthropologists in the late 1960s. There is a general feeling among Indo-European linguists that all sound correspondences have already been identified. Very few people know that American Indians have spiritual “brothers” all over Europe. And finally everyone believes that American Indians “peopled” the Americas. I challenge all these assumptions, and test established ideas against facts.

The word “kinship” has an ambiguous ring for an Euro-American anthropological ear. It used to be a cover symbol for Europe’s pre-modern condition in which individual freedom was allegedly suppressed in favor of social connections based on sex, generation, age, lineage, or caste. It used to be a bulwark of the anthropological description of non-European peoples, a primary tool with which a trained European could penetrate into the depth of social psychology of a dark-skinned islander. Alternatively, kinship studies gave the anthropologist an instant methodological advantage over the missionary, and they became, therefore, a tool for preserving cultural diversity and local sovereignty. Incidentally, local peoples also relied on traditional kinship structures in order to withstand the homogenizing influence of an imposed Judeo-Christian culture. In the 1960s, in a heated atmosphere of post-colonial struggle and civil rights movements, anthropologists decided to abandon kinship studies, for there was no other way for them to lead the world struggle for liberation. The fact that liberatory movements around the world were themselves embedded in local kinship structures and symbols was conveniently ignored.

I do not take seriously the subversion of “classic kinship studies” by the majority of anthropologists. In my opinion, the banishment of kinship from anthropology is an interesting case of epistemological scapegoating. There was a whole world of things behind “classic kinship studies” that was asking for an interdisciplinary explosion rather than intradisciplinary flaggelation. However, there is no smoke without a fire. Scholarly ideas about human kinship needed to be revolutionized. Unfortunately post-modernists took it into a wrong direction. “New kinship studies” have only aggravated the old parochialism and vulgar naturalism associated with the study of human kinship.

I suggest an answer to the challenge put forth by Michael Peletz (1995), namely to circumscribe what human kinship looks like after its deconstruction by various postmodernist, constructivist, and feminist critiques. I contend that a new understanding of human kinship can be achieved by, first, deconstructing postmodernism itself, and, second, by unearthing the real potential of anthropology to revolutionize kinship studies.

An effective reform of kinship studies should have brought death into connection with birth and marriage. When feminists drove the bronevik of gender into the palace of kinship, it was just a wrong thing to do. Gender is organically linked to age and the brain. Separating these categories means creating artificial men-against-women political discourses, reifying gender as a distinct force in the world, ignoring childhood as a formative period of gendered behavior, and confusing neurophysiological with genital sexuality. Gender, age and brain as internally dichotomous (male-female, older-younger, left-right) sociosomatic factors constitute the buiding blocks of which human kinship is made. The old debate between category and genealogy in human kinship can be peacefully resolved by the introduction of a third variable, namely human phenotypes. (Naturalization sometimes is a positive thing when it is used to make scholastic debates more earthly.)

Kinship therefore is a system of social categories naturalized into a genealogical matrix by means of the constant processing of phenotypical information from birth to death, and from one generation to the next. It describes a uniquely human reality underlying the whole scope of cultural diversity. I therefore treat the category of kinship as the very substance of the category of “essential humanity,” which every anti-racist discourse posits but leaves blank. (For my philosophical and semiotic definitions of kinship, see the page on gignetics.)

David Schneider’s gravest mistake (and, ironically, the very root of his swollen popularity among reflexive anthropologists) was that he closed the gates to the understanding of this human reality by misconstruing the empirical challenges to the existing academic ideas about human kinship as a “Western” bias. (The further difficulty with his legacy is that he apparently did not know what he wanted to say, for, in his unpublished correspondence with Levi-Strauss, he proposed not to destroy kinship but to do the exact opposite – to make kinship a global phenomenon on a par with Levi-Straussian “myth.”) In the late 1960s, many anthropologists were dissatisfied with the kinship studies conducted under the auspices of British structural-functionalism, French structuralism, or American formalism, but Schneider’s “critique” of kinship studies was essentially a racist (sic!) attack.

At the end of the 1960s, our perspective on human kinship was incomplete, but it was not false or inherently biased. Notably enough, the collapse of kinship studies in North America ran parallel to the proliferation of novel ethnographies from Native South America (previously heavily understudied) in which the category of kinship was radically restructured but also retained as a viable conceptual tool for the study of human societies. One of the gists of my research into Amerindian kinship terminologies is the demonstration that, although Amerindian kinship structures inspired kinship theory at its beginnings, from the times of structural-functionalism it has been eclipsed by African, Australian, and Southeast Asian data and hence its significance for kinship theory has never been fully appreciated.

In addition to elaborating on kinship as a “thing,” I use kinship metaphorically to refer broadly to my theoretical and methodological outlook. My long-term analytical and participant observation research on the bizarre and spectacular phenomenon of European reenactment of Native American cultures as well as my program for a tighter marriage between phonology and semantics in Indo-European formal reconstructions and my growing interest in the Russian-German cultural interface can justly be called “new kinship studies.” As a theoretical and methodological model, the “kinship” approach is characterized by a dynamic balance between the old and the new, the core and the periphery. Contrary to the dominant distaste on the part of sociocultural anthropologists for the whole history of anthropological thought before Clifford Geertz, I think that the power of the discipline of anthropology lies in its history. I crtitically engage with the “old” theories, and believe that anthropology has to recombine itself rather than shake off an old baggage and march forward into a brave new world. For instance, the notion of totemism, so famously deconstructed by Claude Levi-Strauss, fell into disfavor due to a “sampling bias.” Scholars focused on John F. McLennan‘s self-conscious treatment of totemism in Kinship in Ancient Greece (1866, 588, n. 1) and, especially, in The Worship of Plants and Animals (1869-1870), but overlooked Lewis H. Morgan’s American Beaver and His Works (1868), in which totemism was practiced and thereby explained as the unity and identity of “mind” and “instinct.” Totemism is a theory of nature in which humans and animals are connected not by a long series of proceative acts, not through their bodies, not by biological descent (“a hidden bond of connection,” according to Darwin), but through the sharing of an inherent behavioral pattern. Totemism is a strict opposite of Darwinism in so far as the latter claims that humans acquired a “mind” after their separation from their immediate primate ancestors, while totemism holds that animal species have diverged from each other only biologically, forming a myriad of physical forms, one of which is represented by human beings. This understanding of totemism seems to be in agreement with the notion of multinaturalism developed by South American anthropologists and first of all by Eduardo Viveiros-de-Castro. Latour’s multinaturalism (see We Have Never Been Modern, 1993) is also a close cognate, although Latour has not elaborated the other side of the “totemic” equation, namely the unity of the “mind.” Both Viveiros-de-Castro and Latour oppose multinaturalism to multiculturalism, to which I also responded negatively in a lengthy paper written in response to Renato Rosaldo‘s class “Cultural Citizenship” (1997).

In the kinship studies agenda, interdisciplinarity means engaging with existing theories in adjacent fields and not the demolition of boundaries for the sake of constructing a new “enlightened” knowledge. The engagement of anthropology with other disciplines should proceed with an acute awareness about the core of anthropological knowledge accumulated during its two hundred years of history. Finally, kinship studies treats observers (including anthropologists themselves) as participants in cultural processes, whose parameters were best outlined on the basis of “primitive” societies. Contrary to the current assumption that there are no savages among humans, and that all societies are equally “civilized,” kinship studies’ agenda holds that we are all “savages.” Regardless of whether we are dealing with a native from Papua New Guinea or with a Noble Prize winner, we are only partially aware of the meanings of our actions. I do not grant post-modernists a final say on the conditions of our knowledge, because post-modernism itself is a form of behavior incapable on reflecting upon itself. With our actions, we all leave indelible imprints on the world, and the task of anthropology is to unearth the hidden meanings of human actions through reflection, fieldwork, comparative and historical analyses.

Human Origins/Amerindian Origins


Shoshonean Ethnology

Mordvinian Ethnology

Anthropology of Ethnicity

Theory, Methodology and History of the Social Sciences

Native Americans and Europeans: A Holistic Approach to Transculturation

Russians and Germans: Archaeologies of a Kinsite

St.Petersburg-St.Anford Journal of Anthropology (SPSJA)


German V. Dziebel

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