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Biology and genealogy

Kinship has been a central focus of study in anthropology since the discipline’s existence and the need to classify the term has made it a complex yet mature area of study (Holy,1996;2). Whole ethnographies were based on the scrutiny of a society’s kinship system (Evans-Pritchard 1951). However, in the past century, the centralization of kinship and its’ presumed ‘given facts’ based on bio-genetics have become a subject of anthropological inquiry.

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In specific, it has been questioned in how far is the ethnography not an objectification of natural or observable facts but is it a representation of the ethnographer’s values and beliefs? Schneider’s seminal work on creating a discourse on kinship (Schneider, 1972 and 1984) reinforced the need to investigate how kinship operates, how kinship ties articulate themselves in a society and to move away from the functional and structural explanations of kinship, which were previously heralded.

Anthropologists’ have began to recognize different forms of kinship, based on metaphoric relations (Schneider 1968), practice (Bourdieu, 1972), sharing a house (Li?? vi-Strauss, 1982) or relatedness (Carsten, 2000). Until then kinship had been seen as a “socio-cultural” elaboration on ‘natural facts’ of biological and sexual reproduction” (Thomas, 1999;. 21). This seems to stand in contrast with the aforementioned different forms of kinship that recent Anthropologists have advocated.

Therefore in regards to anthropology’s recent understanding of kinship, the paper will discuss whether “Kinship must, ultimately refer to biology and genealogy”. Evolutionist, Lewis Henry Morgan (1871) tried to establish that by comparing systems of kin classification, one could reveal the path of cultural evolution, on the notion that contemporary usages of non-western people were survivals of earlier stages of society. In this view, the Hawaiian system, in which the same kin term is used for all relatives of common sex and generation, originated from the earliest stratum of human experience, that of group marriage.

This “consanguine family,” Morgan felt, had originated in plural marriages including own brothers and sisters hence Morgan presumed that kinship ultimately referred to biological relations. Although Morgan’s work was one of the first to recognize kinship amongst other societies, it is nonetheless out dated. Moreover, Morgan may have been influenced by the enlightenment period, thus his methodology may have been biased in understanding kinship.

Symbolic Interactionist, David Schneider rejected the presumption that Kinship relationships are biological/reproductive relations and advocated that these presumptions were used as a universal genealogical grid, and made allegedly relevant to all cultures. The presumed biological reproductive basis has been introduced, he suggests, since “kinship has been defined by European social scientists, and European social scientists use their own folk culture as the source of many, if not all, of their ways of formulating and understanding the world about them” (Schneider 1984:193).

Tjerfore Scnheider argues that sex is only reffered to when they are reffered to as metaphors, for example, wesitamental demonstrates that for zumbaugaua’s the bond of blood signifies the emblem of parenthood and and those who eat and live together (Weismental, 693) Schneider presumed that common presumption of kinship amongst American society is based on scientific research, hence from Schneider’s viewpoint (Schneider,1964;393), America’s reference to kinship ultimately refers to that of bio-genetic relations, hence the remaining of blood is culturally defined as being an objective fact of nature.

Therefore the western fetishism with law advocated that genealogically related kin will always remain. Schneider illustrates the importance of the blood relations amongst the American law through his analysis of American kin terminology “ex”. For example, when a person is describing a previous terminated affinal relationship, it is referred to as ex-husband or ex-sister-in-law. However, when one is describing a consanguine relationship, the term ex, in regards to a child’s genitor or genetrix is not used, thus ex-mother or ex-father are not recognized.

Therefore using ‘ex’ with only affinal terms suggests that by American law, a relationship with consanguine kin cannot be terminated due to the genetic connection, thus Schneider identified the importance of blood ties within the American system. However, Schneider is critical of this ‘universal’ usage of terminology especially when anthropologists carry out cross cultural studies and try to establish the social function of kinship groups. His study of the Island of yap demonstrates how using a universal kinship terminology whilst applying it to other societies could be misleading.

For example, the yaps did not specify genealogical relationship as non-relatives and often the same term used for genelogical brother was also applied to a non-geneological relationship (Kuper, 126). Therefore if the dichotomous terms of blood-ties and non-blood ties are applied to other kinship groups than this could be misleading as what the brother in Euro-American culture refer to blood ties may not refer to blood ties in another. Therefore Schneider is correct to point out that anthropologists should be careful of what they use in regards to their analysis of kinship terminology.

Thomas suggests that if procreation and reproduction are to be presumed as ‘real’ kinship relations then these terms should be examined rather than presumed (Thomas, 1999;21). For example, substance can refer to not only sperm, but blood, saliva and breast milk (Thomas, 1999; 22). For example, when a wet nurse shares her breast milk with the infant, she is biologically transferring a substance, therefore if one would to understand kinship in terms of substance, she would also be seen as the child’s ‘real’ or ‘natural’ mother.

This illustrates that Thomas is right in suggesting substance can be misleading in itself, therefore does not give a fixed definition of kinship. Furthermore, Turner advocates that it is not actually the solid substance that determines the relationship between of kin in terms of biology, but it is rather the action of ‘transferring’ the substance which establishes the relationship thus, the biological nature of kin has to be initiated by an action, thus making it cultural. Although it can be argued that ancestry includes blood relations, this could also be misleading in and exemplify ethnocentric bias.

However, affinal links seems to widen kinship patterns and the eternal bond can be maintained through marriage laws. However, by having children substance is passed genealogically and so bond is made ‘forever’ and beyond, because new blood kin is created, culture has become genetic. Nevertheless, it is difficult to undermine what is more important in term of kinship and marriage. Is it important that a genealogical substance has been passed into the child or is it because a cultural importance of marriage has been symbolized? .


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