Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies

Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies

by Sarah Franklin, Susan McKinnon, Janet Carsten, Gillian Feeley-Harnik

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The essays in Relative Values draw on new work in anthropology, science studies, gender theory, critical race studies, and postmodernism to offer a radical revisioning of kinship and kinship theory. Through a combination of vivid case studies and trenchant theoretical essays, the contributors—a group of internationally recognized


The essays in Relative Values draw on new work in anthropology, science studies, gender theory, critical race studies, and postmodernism to offer a radical revisioning of kinship and kinship theory. Through a combination of vivid case studies and trenchant theoretical essays, the contributors—a group of internationally recognized scholars—examine both the history of kinship theory and its future, at once raising questions that have long occupied a central place within the discipline of anthropology and moving beyond them.
Ideas about kinship are vital not only to understanding but also to forming many of the practices and innovations of contemporary society. How do the cultural logics of contemporary biopolitics, commodification, and globalization intersect with kinship practices and theories? In what ways do kinship analogies inform scientific and clinical practices; and what happens to kinship when it is created in such unfamiliar sites as biogenetic labs, new reproductive technology clinics, and the computers of artificial life scientists? How does kinship constitute—and get constituted by—the relations of power that draw lines of hierarchy and equality, exclusion and inclusion, ambivalence and violence? The contributors assess the implications for kinship of such phenomena as blood transfusions, adoption across national borders, genetic support groups, photography, and the new reproductive technologies while ranging from rural China to mid-century Africa to contemporary Norway and the United States. Addressing these and other timely issues, Relative Values injects new life into one of anthropology's most important disciplinary traditions.
Posing these and other timely questions, Relative Values injects an important interdisciplinary curiosity into one of anthropology’s most important disciplinary traditions.

Contributors. Mary Bouquet, Janet Carsten, Charis Thompson Cussins, Carol Delaney, Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Sarah Franklin, Deborah Heath, Stefan Helmreich, Signe Howell, Jonathan Marks, Susan McKinnon, Michael G. Peletz, Rayna Rapp, Martine Segalen, Pauline Turner Strong, Melbourne Tapper, Karen-Sue Taussig, Kath Weston, Yunxiang Yan

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This important collection of inter-disciplinary essays on the new kinship shows diverse ways that relative values, shifting solidarities, and partial connections of truth and affect today create the ties that bind.”—Paul Rabinow, University of California, Berkeley

“This is one of the few books which crosses disciplinary terrains with clear and brilliant consequences. It not only brings anthropology into every sphere, but shows that fundamental thinking on life and kinship under conditions of globalization compel us to accept and work with a radical remapping of knowledge. This text considers these issues with prismatic illumination and is unprecedented in its success.”—Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley

Judith S. Modell

"The challenge of recoding our kinship studies and our kinship behaviour remains, but the essays in Relative Values provide a broad template that makes meeting the challenge possible—and necessary. Scholars in a multitude of fields will be grateful for this finely executed collection."

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Reconfiguring Kinship Studies

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2796-7

Chapter One

Substantivism, Antisubstantivism, and Anti-antisubstantivism

Janet Carsten

This essay explores the uses of the term substance in the anthropological literature on kinship. I begin with the varied meanings of substance in English. The very breadth of this semantic domain, I suggest, has been central to the fruitfulness of analyses of kinship that have employed the term. And this is amply attested to elsewhere in this volume, where substance is used not only to refer to blood (see Weston) and other bodily fluids but also to information (Helmreich), rivers and railways (Feeley-Harnik), and family photographs (Bouquet). But the ambiguities of substance, which seem to have gone largely unexamined in the literature, also raise problems-particularly for the analytic rigor of any comparative endeavor.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists twenty-three separate meanings for substance covering three full pages. Several of these meanings clearly overlap or are closely related to each other. Nevertheless, there are some important distinctions between substance as essential nature or essence; a separate distinct thing; that which underlies phenomena; matter or subject matter; the material of which a physical thing consists;the matter or tissue composing an animal body part or organ; any corporeal matter; a solid or real thing (as opposed to appearance or shadow); a vital part; what gives a thing its character; and the consistency of a fluid. I have selected just some of the OED's long list of meanings-those that, it seems to me, have relevance for an examination of the uses to which substance has been put in the anthropological study of kinship. The OED's list of meanings might be further reduced to four broader categories: vital part or essence; separate distinct thing; that which underlies phenomena; and corporeal matter. All of these distinct meanings have some bearing on anthropological understandings. Indeed, I maintain that the utility of substance as a term is due in large measure to the very breadth of the meanings that I have delineated.

This ambiguity emerges clearly in David Schneider's deployment of substance in American Kinship: A Cultural Account (1980). In tracing the passage of substance, from Schneider's original application of it in 1968 in the analysis of American kinship, to India, and from India to Melanesia, I attempt to highlight some of these discrepancies of meaning. It would be quite impossible to present a thorough examination of all the uses to which substance has been put. I have selected a few of the more prominent instances in order to make explicit the analytic work that is being done. It should be clear that I am more interested in what substance does than what it is. I focus on how substance has been employed in the analysis of kinship, rather than on what it means within any one particular culture. This is part of a larger project to study critically what kinship itself does for anthropologists (see Carsten 2000).

This chapter offers a critique "from within." The work that I discuss here has been highly influential and fruitful in the analysis of kinship and personhood over the past twenty years. Substance has undoubtedly been "good to think with," yet partly because of a lingering dissatisfaction with my own use of substance in the study of Malay kinship, it seemed worth exploring its ambiguities. Finally, therefore, I turn to my own study of Malay relatedness to see whether "making things explicit" actually achieves an advance on previous ways of understanding indigenous relatedness.


Schneider was one of the first anthropologists to use substance as an analytic term in relation to kinship. As is well-known, Schneider argues that "relatives" are defined by "blood," and that "the blood relationship, as it is defined in American kinship, is formulated in concrete, biogenetic terms" (1980, 23). Each parent contributes half of the biogenetic substance of their child. "The blood relationship is thus a relationship of substance, of shared biogenetic material" (25). Schneider notes two crucial properties of such relationships. First, blood endures and cannot be terminated: blood relationships cannot be lost or severed. Even if parents disown their children, or siblings cease to communicate, the biological relationship remains unaltered. Blood relatives remain blood relatives. Second, "kinship is whatever the biogenetic relationship is. If science discovers new facts about biogenetic relationship, then that is what kinship is and was all along, although it may not have been known at the time" (23).

Schneider's analytic strategy, then, moves between blood and biogenetic substance-also rendered as "natural substance." Hence he writes, "Two blood relatives are 'related' by the fact that they share in some degree the stuff of a particular heredity. Each has a portion of the natural, genetic substance" (24). Blood is the symbol for biogenetic substance (24). But what is remarkable in this rendering of American kinship is that blood and biogenetic substance are quite unexplored as symbols-one could, after all, easily imagine a whole book on American notions of blood. Elsewhere in this volume, Kath Weston demonstrates the potential fruitfulness of such a line of inquiry by comparing two highly specific and politically charged "moments" in U.S. history when the symbolic imagery of transfers of blood is vividly elaborated. The links between blood and race, and the contrast Weston sketches between discourses about blood transfers in a novel set in 1930s' rural Georgia and a blood drive for Betty Shabazz in 1990s' Harlem, are highly suggestive of the potential scope of an anthropology of blood in American culture.

Further, Schneider's shift from blood to biogenetic substance (in other words, the relationship between the symbol and what is allegedly symbolized) is also unexamined. It is, for example, not at all clear that biogenetic heredity, or substance, is not itself a symbol in American culture. It may be that recent scientific and popular discourses in which the biogenetic components of heredity have been particularly prominent have made Schneider's shift from blood to heredity, and from heredity to genetic substance, appear less than self-evident. If that is the case, this only underlines the point that there is something worth studying here.

Jeanette Edwards's observations from northwest England about what is transferred from mother to child through the placenta are suggestive in this context. Her informants speculate on the effect on a baby of being nurtured in an artificial womb in the laboratory. Such a baby would not be connected to its mother or her feelings.

Somebody somewhere must be creating this artificial womb. A baby reacts to what you're feeling-if your heartbeat is faster then the baby's heartbeat is faster. It could be fed on just vegetables-how would it react then, through the placenta-not what you fancy like crisps, or salad, or chewitts on the bus, like cravings at different times-vegetables, sweets, alcohol whatever it takes to make a baby. It will have no feelings because no feelings are going through it. (Edwards 1992, 59)

The image of a baby born without feelings because it was never connected to maternal emotion, never received the effects of maternal cravings in the form of a packet of crisps, or a glass of beer, indicates something rather different from scientific discourse on biogenetic heredity. It is beyond the scope of the present essay to explore the meanings of blood and biogenetic substance in American culture. As Charis Thompson (this volume) shows through her analysis of practices and discourses in infertility clinics, "biological" kinship can be configured in a remarkable number of ways, as can the connections that are made between "social" and "biological" kinship. Her conclusion that there is no "unique template" for biological kinship implies that the relationship between blood and biogenetic substance is less straightforward than Schneider appears to assume.

Schneider's analysis also asserts that American kinship is a product of two elements: relationship as natural substance and relationship as code for conduct. These elements are themselves derived from the two major orders of American culture: the order of nature and that of law (Schneider 1980, 29). Certain relationships exist by virtue of nature alone-for example, the natural or illegitimate child. Others, like husband and wife, are relatives in law alone. The third class of relatives are those defined by blood. These include father, mother, brother, sister, son, and daughter, as well as aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandparent, grandchild, cousin, and so on. These derive from both nature and law, substance and code. Schneider's analysis thus not only suggests the combinatory power of substance and code in the category of so-called blood relations but also posits obvious, strong boundaries between substance and code, and the two cultural orders from which they are derived: nature and law. Each can be clearly defined, and legitimacy is derived either from one or the other, or from both together-but one can attribute aspects to either one domain or the other. As Schneider himself puts it,

It is a fundamental premise of the American kinship system that blood is a substance and that this is quite distinct from the kind of relationship or code for conduct which persons who share that substance, blood, are supposed to have. It is precisely on this distinction between relationship as substance and relationship as code for conduct that the classification of relatives in nature, relatives in law, and those who are related in both nature and in law, the blood relatives, rests.... [T]hese two elements, substance and code for conduct, are quite distinct. Each can occur alone or they can occur in combination. (1980, 91)

It is this seemingly unproblematic distinction between the order of nature and that of law, and between natural substance and code for conduct, that I question here.

I have already cited a case from northwest England that makes the distinction between substance and code-between a biological basis for heredity and maternal cravings for crisps or chewitts on a bus-rather difficult to draw. My questioning comes with other recent ethnographic examples from Britain and the United States in mind. The first is from Gerd Baumann's portrait of the mixed ethnic setting of the London suburb of Southall. Baumann describes how young Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims, as well as Afro-Caribbeans, and whites in Southall emphasize "cousin" relations to a remarkable degree-and often in the absence of specific genealogical ties. Young people make claims to cousinship for a variety of reasons, saying "cousins are friends who are kin and kin who are friends" (Baumann 1995, 734). It is precisely the coincidence of nature and choice in the discourse about cousins that Baumann underscores. Cousins are sufficiently related to owe solidarity to each other, but distant enough to require a voluntaristic input. This explicit blurring of the boundaries between the natural and social orders bears some similarities to Weston's depiction of gay American kinship ideology (1991, 1995). Gay coming-out stories stress the traumatic experience of disruption to bonds of kinship that are supposed to be about "diffuse enduring solidarity." Weston's informants emphasize the enduring qualities of friendship in the face of an experience of kinship that involves the severance of "biological" ties. Reversing the terms of the dominant discourse of kinship, ties that last are here defined as those of kinship. Once again, this discourse suggests an explicit attempt to "muddle" the distinction between two cultural orders. Weston openly challenges the traditional anthropological ascription of one set of ties as "fictive," while Marilyn Strathern has underlined how the critique of gay kinship makes plain "the fact that there always was a choice as to whether or not biology is made the foundation of relationships" (1993, 196, cited in Hayden 1995, 45). And this point is amply substantiated by Thompson's ethnography of the way discourses about biology are deployed in infertility clinics (this volume).

I would not claim that these examples rule out the possibility of analyzing kinship in Schneider's terms-indeed, both Baumann and Weston fruitfully discuss their material in terms of Schneider's analysis. But such cases do, I think, indicate that the categorical separation, or even opposition, of the two orders, and of substance and code, is worthy of further examination. That much remains to be said about substance, and the relationship between substance and code, is all the more critical when one begins to trace what happened to substance when it was transferred from American kinship to India. For the relationship between substance and code was very much at issue when anthropologists compared India to the United States, or "the West."


On the one hand, it seems as though the promise of substance as an analytic term lies to a considerable extent in its flexibility, which can be attributed to its multiple meanings in English. On the other hand, the separation or opposition of substance and code, which Schneider proposes, imposes a startling rigidity on the analysis of kinship undertaken in these terms. This rigidity becomes clear when one looks at the way substance came to be understood in the context of Indian notions of kinship and personhood. What is perhaps even more significant is that both the flexible and rigid aspects of substance as an analytic term remain quite implicit and unexplored.

The ethnosociological model of India offered by McKim Marriott, Ronald Inden, R. W. Nicholas, and others explicitly follows the logic of Schneider's analysis and utilizes the same terms. On the first page of an article titled "Toward an Ethnosociology of South Asian Caste Systems," Marriott and Inden write, "The aims of this chapter are inspired by the results of a cultural style of analysis exemplified in Schneider's book American Kinship" (1977, 227). Similarly, in "Hindu Transactions: Diversity without Dualism," Marriott (1976, 110) proposes a model of Indian transaction and personhood that specifically refers to Schneider's model. What these authors assert, however, is a radical opposition between American understandings (Marriott 1976, 110)-or "Western" or "Euro-American" ones (Marriott and Inden 1977, 228)-and those of Indian actors.

Instead of the dual categories of nature and law, substance and code, that Schneider postulates, Indian thinking displays a "systematic monism" (Marriott 1976, 109). Here code and substance are inseparable-a point that Marriott emphasizes by using the forms "code-substance" or "substance-code" (1976, 110). Bodily substance and code for conduct are not only inseparable, they are also malleable: "Actions enjoined by these embodied codes are thought of as transforming the substances in which they are embodied" (Marriott and Inden 1977, 228). Conduct alters substance, and all interpersonal transactions (for example, sex, sharing food or water, coresidence) involve the transfer of moral and spiritual qualities of those involved. Gift giving not only transmits these qualities of the person from donor to recipient but also the physical aspects of gifts. In other words, there is no radical disjunction between physical and moral properties of persons, or between body and soul. This, of course, had profound implications for understandings of personhood and caste, and particularly the significance of food transactions across caste boundaries (see Marriott and Inden 1977, 229).


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What People are Saying About This

Paul Rabinow
This important collection of inter-disciplinary essays on the new kinship shows diverse ways that relative values, shifting solidarities, and partial connections of truth and affect today create the ties that bind.
University of California, Berkeley
Judith Butler
This is one of the few books which crosses disciplinary terrains with clear and brilliant consequences. It not only brings anthropology into every sphere, but shows that fundamental thinking on life and kinship under conditions of globalization compel us to accept and work with a radical remapping of knowledge. This text considers these issues with prismatic illumination and is unprecedented in its success.
University of California, Berkeley

Meet the Author

Sarah Franklin is Reader in Cultural Anthropology for the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, England.

Susan McKinnon is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia.

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