Kinship and Conklin at the 111th American Anthropological Association Meetings

I just came back from the 111th AAA Meetings in San Francisco (November 14-18, 2012). At the end of my stay I was lucky to have a conversation with one of the early practitioners of kinship studies and ethnoscience, Harold Conklin (see on the left). A student of Alfred L. Kroeber, Conklin, despite his advanced age, attended the Stanford Anthropology reception, was full of energy and charm, and stole the show from some of the younger professors. It was fascinating to learn that Harold was brought to anthropology and into kinship studies by his precocious interest in American Indians (he was adopted by the Mohawks at the age of 13). We had a good laugh about how both of us took the same path into the discipline and how the whole discipline was founded by a man, Lewis Henry Morgan, with the same passion for American Indian cultures and human kinship.

At the meetings, I presented a paper entitled “Kinship Across Cultures and Disciplines:  Leanings from the Global Interdisciplinary Bibliography of Kinship Studies.” Dwight Read and Fadwa El-Guindi organized a session “Boundaries of Discipline, Boundaries of Kinship” that brought together an international group of scholars with widely-ranging interests in human kinship. Another session with a strong focus on kinship studies within a broader theme of the evolution of culture and cognition (“Evolutionary Understandings of Cultural Practices,” organized by Douglas Jones), happened simultaneously with the Boundaries one, and people were wondering why AAA did not assign them into completely different time slots to enable participants and listeners to attend both panels. A day earlier, Kathryn Goldfarb and Caroline Schuster ran another kinship session entitled “(De)Materializing Kinship: Relational Borders and Troubled Crossings.”

With kinship not a central concern of anthropology anymore, I did not have high expectations for my panel’s attendance. I was pleasantly surprised to observe that this year kinship commanded quite a bit of public interest, with the audience numbers reaching 50-70 people during some of the talks. People had to stand along the wall of the conference room or sit on the floor, as all the seats were taken. Marshall Sahlins‘s paper (“What Kinship Is Not – Biology”) read by Michael Silverstein naturally attracted a few extra people, but, even without it, attendance was very impressive. My paper is below.

German V. Dziebel (111th AAA Meetings, San Francisco, November 15, 2012)

Kinship Across Cultures and Disciplines:  Leanings from the Global Interdisciplinary Bibliography of Kinship Studies

Since the mid-1990s, I have been compiling comprehensive bibliographies of kinship studies (including the study of family, adoption, marriage/mating, and divorce) across the social sciences. One part of the project involves works published in Russian and the languages of the former Soviet Union. The other part covers works published in Western languages. The Russian bibliography containing 2000+ entries is now complete and submitted for publication. The bibliography in Western languages is available as PDF files here and is being updated regularly. It now contains upwards of 20,000 entries.

As an anthropologist with a strong interest in linguistics, I originally began tracking publications on human kinship authored within the anthropological tradition of studying systems of kinship and kinship terminologies and the linguistic tradition of analyzing kinship terms as a lexico-semantic field. My main research focus was the compilation of a worldwide database of kinship terms and semantic patterns with the goal of constructing plausible pathways of kin terminological change as reflection of changes in marriage rules, residence, descent rules, etc. in the tradition of Lewis H. Morgan, W.H.R. Rivers, Robert Lowie, George P. Murdock, Gertrude Dole, Mikhail Kryukov, Nick Allen and others. This involved an audit of all publications in which kin terminological systems were described either as part of the ethnographic description of a culture, as a formal system of classification or just a lexical set in a classified or thematic dictionary. I have been tracking kinship vocabularies (with or without a corresponding linguistic or anthropological analysis) across a wide range of sources, including books, papers, Ph.D. dissertations, Master’s theses, fieldwork notebooks, and magazine articles. This has resulted in a database of kin terminological patterns and terms from some 2500 languages (almost half of the 6000+ languages currently spoken in the world). The focus is primarily on such terminological phenomena as sibling classification and cross-generational equations. Some of the conclusions derived from the study of the database of kinship terminologies were published in my book The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies (2007).

The bibliographic references on which the database drew are organized according to the Ethnologue language classification and cover 150 language families and isolates. The Ethnologue classification for such areas as Papua New Guinea and South America is still work-in-progress and is periodically updated to reflect new developments in the field. I re-organize my bibliographic references accordingly.

In addition to the empirical research devoted to or containing meaningful information about a culture’s kinship system, the bibliography contains theoretical and methodological works divided by anthropological school (evolutionism, functionalism, structuralism, constructivism) and thematic divisions representing intersections between the study of kinship and the study of other anthropological subjects or cultural domains and phenomena, including myth, ritual, gender, age, ethnicity, race, religion, literature, popular culture, music, globalization, gay and lesbian studies and others.

Early on I began noticing that, in both Russia and the West, kinship is not a pre-occupation of anthropology alone. A whole variety of other disciplines and subdisciplines – including linguistics, logic, sociology, history, psychology, evolutionary biology, primatology, demography, epidemiology, theology – study kinship or use the metaphor of kinship to analyze their subject matter. In many cases, these non-anthropological traditions in the study of kinship have a long history going back to the 18th century and earlier. For example, in Russia there was an influential school of historical thought initiated by a German historian, Gustav Ewers, in 1829, and further developed by the foremost Moscow historian, Sergei Soloviev (1820-1979), that sought the roots of the Russian state in ancient Russian kinship structures. This school preceded the launch of kinship studies in the U.S. by Lewis Henry Morgan by several decades but fundamentally it was grounded in the same principle of reifying consanguineal kinship as the cornerstone of pre-modern social and political organization as Morgan’s work. Although this Russian historical school died out by the end of the 19th century, there are some similarities between its focus on kinship structures in the Slavic world with the relatively recent interest of European historians in the structure of pre-modern and early modern European family as exemplified by the periodical Journal of Family History, collected volumes such as Family Forms in Historic Europe and one-author monographs such as Plakans’s Kinship in the Past: An Anthropology of European Family Life, 1500-1900 (1984).

In both Russia and the West, kinship and marriage constituted a prominent concern of legal historians, law practitioners as well as Christian ministers who deemed it necessary to explain to their parishioners the church rules of marriage. This tradition of thinking about kinship goes back to at least 1400s in the West when Italian expert on canon law Johannes Andreae, or Giovanni d’Andrea published his influential Super arboribus consanguinitatis, affinitatis et cognationis spiritualis et legalis and to the book by a provincial Russian minister, Mikhail Zadorin, entitled “On the Marital Union. A Practical Guide to the Rules of Kinship” (1866). It is within this tradition that kinship and connections were visualized as either “trees” or “networks” for the first time. The founder of kinship studies in anthropology, Lewis H. Morgan, was himself a lawyer, and the 19th century German legal scholar, Josef Kohler, was a prolific writer on group marriage and mother right across cultures and the founder of Zeitschrift fur Vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft.

Logicians picked up on the peculiar logical structure of kinship terms, namely their relationality, back in the 1850s independently of anthropologists and linguists. In 1859, the British logician Augustus de Morgan (whose name ironically is identical to that of Lewis Henry Morgan who at that time was working on his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family) published a treatise on the logic of relations. This treatise so profoundly influenced the American philosopher Charles Peirce that he used kinship terms as a prototype for the kind of sign he called an icon and for the kind of logic he called abduction. Kinship terms were different from the other kinds of nouns in being both subjects and predicates. Peirce wrote,

 “A relative is just that, an icon, or image, without attachments to experience, without ‘a local habitation and a name,’ but with indication of the need of such attachments.”

 Anthropology’s interest in the matters of kinship, marriage and the family in the mid-19th century developed side by side with Victorian fascination with heredity. The now-largely forgotten founder of eugenics Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), the cousin of Charles Darwin, was a child prodigy himself and the author of Hereditary Genius (1865) the book that purported to explain the hereditary basis for talents and pronounced physical and psychological abilities.

Galton is considered to be one of the early contributors to network analysis (see Freeman, 2004) and an admirer of logical analysis of kinship terms in the style of Augustus De Morgan. Galton was interested in calculating the probability of the extinction of noble families. In 19th-century Europe, noble lineages were associated with death and extinction, hence it comes as no surprise that Freud considered fantasies about being an offspring of a noble parent to be neurotic. Nobility was thought of as a reactionary force, standing in the way of economic progress and biological evolution. It was opposed to active selection, and Galton was eager to help his cousin Darwin with bringing about the triumph of this natural force in the intelligent human world clouded with degenerate “nobility.”

Most interestingly, studying “family likeness” (comp. Peircean “icon”) in size, stature, eye-color and mental abilities, Galton invented two statistical operations that are still widely used, namely regression and correlation. In one study, Galton compared fathers’ heights to their sons’ heights. The heights of sons both of unusually tall fathers and of unusually short fathers was typically closer to the mean height than their fathers’ heights. It means they were more like their ancestors than like their parents. Regression toward the mean blends the qualities of time progression with spatial distribution. Since the fathers of exceptionally tall people also tend to be closer to the mean than their sons, the overall variability of height among fathers and sons is the same. What later became known in statistical theory as “independent” and “dependent” variables was in Galton’s original kinship terminology simply “father” and “son.” In Galton’s mind, all reciprocal kinship positions were mutually correlated: father was correlated with son, grandfather with grandson, uncle with nephew, and so forth. The correlation eventually became associated with the name of Galton’s student and protégé, Karl Pearson (1857–1936), who founded the first statistics department at a university (University College, London) and is universally credited as a founder of modern statistics.

The Peircean typology of signs as well as Pearson’s correlation coefficient are widely known but their indebtedness to the logical structure of kinship terms came up only as a result of the bibliographic and historiographic inquiry into kinship studies as an interdisciplinary subject matter.

The peculiar logical structure of kinship terms may explain why kinship terms have always occupied a liminal place between anthropology and linguistics. Linguists developed their own interest in kinship terms back in the mid-19th century when in 1848, first, Jacob Grimm (Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache) used Indo-European kinship terms as proof of the relatedness of Indo-European languages, and then in 1848 and 1867 Russian philologists, Fyodor Buslaev and Pavel Lavrovsky, published two comprehensive analyses of Slavic and Sanskrit kinship terms as a distinct semantic domain. In 1889, Berthold Delbrück’s monumental Die Indogermanischen Verwandtschaftsnamen inaugurated a long string of philological and linguistic articles, dissertations and books exclusively devoted to the phonology, morphology, semantics and etymology of Indo-European kinship terms. Descriptive linguists working on other language families followed suit. Historical linguists even adopted the term “kinship” to describe the phenomenon whereby regular sound correspondences unite various independent languages into such genealogical units as families and megaphyla. If anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan introduced a semantic analysis of kinship terms within a single language and compared these systems across languages (and Alfred Kroeber and other Boasians considered kinship terms as facts of language, rather than social organization), historical linguists interpreted regular similarities between all and any element of language as signs of kinship between underlying speech communities. There seems to be an intriguing complementarity between the linguistic notion of kinship between languages and the historical typology of kinship terminologies.

Reading the 19th century literature on kinship across anthropology, biology, statistics, logic and linguistics leads to a surprising discovery that  such seemingly disparate notions as “statistical correlation” and “kinship between languages” are concepts that are literally related, a finding that may have implications for the statistical approaches to the determination of kinship between second-order language families, or megaphyla such as Nostratic, Eurasiatic, Dene-Caucasian and others.

The confluence of anthropology, language, mathematics and logic came about again in the 1950s-1960s with the development of formal approaches to the study of kinship terminologies (componential analysis, equivalence rules analysis, generative analysis and others). The latest addition to this slew of studies counting at upwards of 500 in my bibliography are the applications of Optimality Theory to kinship nomenclatures.

Psychology and social psychology hold a strong focus on the theme of kinship, family, marriage and divorce, too, in conjunction with social deviance and psychological disorders. Voluminous literature has been published within the schools of thought known as Family Therapy, Object-Relations, Jungian Psychology and Psychoanalysis, and in the past anthropologists (especially Bronislaw Malinowski and Gregory Bateson) engaged with it bringing perspectives from non-Western cultures.

Evolutionary biology, population genetics, demography and epidemiology frequently tackle the problems of human kinship. A long string of articles documents the presumed effects of the cultural practices of close consanguineal marriages and post-marital residence on genetic diversity in a population, fertility and effective population size, economic development, mental abilities and frequency of congenital diseases. A study of surnames, or family names and genealogies in search of molecular patterns indicative of migrations provides an interesting nexus of onomastics, genetics, demography and anthropology. An example of an interesting bibliographic reference is

“Population Genetics and Social Anthropology.” Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology (1950) 15: 401-408.

 In this rare instance of collaboration, anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn and geneticist Charles Griffith partnered to identify the ways in which marital rules and post-marital residence affect patterns of molecular genetic variation. More recently, Per Hage and Jeff Marck (without referencing Kluckhohn and Griffith) proposed that the excess of Papuan Y chromosomes in Austronesian-speaking populations in Oceania can plausibly be explained as product of matrilocality, a practice which was reconstructed for proto-Oceanic using ethnological and linguistic information. But overall the current studies of modern human origins conducted by population geneticists suffer from unfortunate neglect for the impact of the social institutions of kinship and marriage on the patterns of genetic variation.

By way of a quick summary, what one can learn from the 20,000-entry strong interdisciplinary bibliography of kinship studies is that kinship studies have a strong potential to be developed into a fully interdisciplinary, cross-functional science. The peculiarity of the phenomenon of kinship lies precisely in its strong and consistent appeal to different disciplines and the existence of strong overlap in the approaches to kinship coming out of seemingly different fields. In a sense, kinship, marriage and the family may constitute the nexus of the social and biological sciences, the place where different disciplines can come to celebrate their underlying unity. The decline of kinship studies in anthropology from the late 1960s on can be explained not only as an outcome of cultural and epistemological shifts within anthropology, but also as the necessary product of a trans-anthropological nature of the kinship phenomenon itself. Was it anthropology that shed kinship, or was it kinship that outgrew anthropology? At the same time, scholars working in such fields as economics, sociology and philosophy have noted that, regrettably, relatively little attention is given to kinship in these disciplines. There seems to be an opportunity to export the learnings from the more kinship-focused sciences such as anthropology, linguistics, psychology and law into these other fields. Observations on the comprehensive interdisciplinary bibliography of kinship studies seems to bolster the recent controversial proposal by Marshall Sahlins (and in my Russian book The Phenomenon of Kinship (2001), I developed a similar thought drawing on Martin Heidegger’s philosophical anthropology) that kinship is an ontological, rather than a biological, social or symbolic reality.

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