What Kinship Is-And Is Not

What Kinship Is-And Is Not

by Marshall Sahlins

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In this pithy two-part essay, Marshall Sahlins reinvigorates the debates on what constitutes kinship, building on some of the best scholarship in the field to produce an original outlook on the deepest bond humans can have. Covering thinkers from Aristotle and Lévy- Bruhl to Émile Durkheim and David Schneider, and communities from the Maori and the


In this pithy two-part essay, Marshall Sahlins reinvigorates the debates on what constitutes kinship, building on some of the best scholarship in the field to produce an original outlook on the deepest bond humans can have. Covering thinkers from Aristotle and Lévy- Bruhl to Émile Durkheim and David Schneider, and communities from the Maori and the English to the Korowai of New Guinea, he draws on a breadth of theory and a range of ethnographic examples to form an acute definition of kinship, what he calls the “mutuality of being.” Kinfolk are persons who are parts of one another to the extent that what happens to one is felt by the other. Meaningfully and emotionally, relatives live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths.
In the second part of his essay, Sahlins shows that mutuality of being is a symbolic notion of belonging, not a biological connection by “blood.” Quite apart from relations of birth, people may become kin in ways ranging from sharing the same name or the same food to helping each other survive the perils of the high seas. In a groundbreaking argument, he demonstrates that even where kinship is reckoned from births, it is because the wider kindred or the clan ancestors are already involved in procreation, so that the notion of birth is meaningfully dependent on kinship rather than kinship on birth. By formulating this reversal, Sahlins identifies what kinship truly is: not nature, but culture.

Editorial Reviews

Janet Carsten

What Kinship Is is clearly destined to become something of a classic in kinship studies in anthropology. This is partly because of the huge breadth of Marshall Sahlins’s scholarship, which takes in everything from Aristotle to the most up to date references in the study of kinship, including a wonderful range of standard and lesser-known works along the way. But this of course is not just a work of synthesis; it is also an original, brilliant, and, above all, creative contribution to current debates in the discipline.”

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

“The work of Marshall Sahlins has continuously inspired whole academic generations of anthropologists. As with many of his previous interventions, this bold and incisive essay will be hailed as a beacon of lucidity in the somewhat foggy conceptual landscape of current anthropology. The all too neglected structuralist insight of the radical identity between sociality and semiosis is rescued and developed by Sahlins in a wonderfully refreshing way, with the help and the benefit of an easy, capacious scholarship that embraces everything from philosophy to linguistics to contemporary ethnography (from the Nichomachean Ethics to Benveniste on pronouns, from Amazonian couvade to Maori gift-exchange). This book musters deep and convincing arguments in favor of a thoroughly relational human ontology, bodying forth a renewed notion of internal or intrinsic relationality, which runs counter to the current infatuation with substances and impenetrable essences. It shows that what is natural in human culture is what is cultural in human nature: kinship, precisely.”
Alan Rumsey

What Kinship Is—And Is Not is a tour de force, even by Sahlinsian standards. Kinship is one of the oldest topics in anthropology, but by the 1970s it began to lose its centrality, partly under the weight of critiques which denied the cross-cultural validity of ‘kinship’ as an analytical category. Sahlins develops an incisive counter-critique of that position while at the same time radically reframing kinship as ‘mutuality of being,’ which he takes to be a pan-human phenomenon. A superb piece of anthropological writing, this book does a wonderful job of ethnographically substantiating that concept, along the way making several other major contributions to anthropological theory.”
Thomas Trautmann

“In What Kinship Is—And Is Not, Marshall Sahlins argues that kinship is culture, not biology, and he does so in the pure, uncompromising, vivid way of which he is the master. We now have the case for the cultural interpretation in the strongest imaginable form, which is at the same time a case for not splitting the difference in the quandary at the heart of kinship studies. It is a service of inestimable value, and all who study kinship will benefit.”
Anthropological Quarterly - Robert Parkin

“Marshall Sahlins is one of the great names of modern anthropology, but thus far he has not counted as one of the key figures in the study of kinship. . . . but [The Use and Abuse of Biology] and the present text both show that Sahlins is knowledgeable about kinship and entirely capable of contributing something new to debates concerning it. . . . He has clearly ransacked the most recent literature in the search for relevant ethnography, though he also finds support for his argument in some of the older literature, going back to Tylor in 1865, and even to Plato. The basic theme, therefore, is not new, though his treatment of it is. Sahlins has given this phenomenon a name—“mutuality of being”—and that in itself will compel us to take notice of it.”
NPR Culture & Cosmos

“Sahlins catalogs brilliantly the varied ways in which people construct family ties completely apart from their genetic relationships. . . . This is cultural anthropology at its best.”
Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory - Jeanette Edwards

What Kinship Is—And Is Not is a gem of a book; a joy to read and a reminder of why I was enchanted by anthropology when I first encountered it. Ethnographic example tumbles after ethnographic example; many familiar, others less so, all attesting to the richness of the ethnographic record on that contested, albeit perennial, topic of kinship.”
Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory - Robert Brightman

What Kinship Is—And Is Not exhibits its authors’ signature brilliance, erudition, and originality (not faulting wit), and it is impossible to address its many virtues. . . . Sahlins’s Janus-faced universalizing-particularizing orientation provides an encompassing context whose value for the exploration of both earlier and contemporary kinship concerns would be difficult to exaggerate.”
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Marilyn Strathern

“Exhilarating. Sahlins’s essay has (re)captured a significant truth—freshly, memorably. He does so without pre-empting the diversity of conceptual interests that anthropologists find their category ‘kinship’ generates, or indeed the manifold truths to be spoken of people’s interrelations. Conversely, this bold articulation of co-presence, of people’s intersubjective participation in one another’s lives, does not need to be confined to discussions of kinship as usually understood. It is important, however, that Sahlins’s argument implies not just a communicative mutuality (reciprocity, anticipation of others’ intentions, etc.), but also mutuality of bodily and personal (in the sense of ‘transpersonal’) being. The book leaves a provocation with this reader: maybe we should think twice when this kind of mutuality flourishes in otherwise non-kinship contexts before taking it simply as an extension of kinship thinking from some pre-metaphorical base.”
European Journal of Social Sciences

What Kinship Is—And Is Not is a complex book, subtle and important. Since its publication in 2013, it has continued to challenge the experts. . . . It can be read as a response—late but brilliant—to the radical questioning initiated by Schneider more than forty years ago and the progressive marginalization of the field that followed the corrosive analytical critique that was last made in 1984. . . . The main merit of the book is that Sahlins has produced a remarkable critical synthesis of new kinship studies, which have remained somewhat underground for the last twenty years, despite their importance and their vitality. It is thanks to the diversity and quality of this rich ethnographic corpus that Sahlins was able to carry out his undertaking. Thus, this undisputed master of anthropology. . . . has managed to put these studies at the center of contemporary anthropological debate.”

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What Kinship Is—And Is Not


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ISBN: 978-0-226-92512-7

Chapter One

What Kinship Is—Culture

The social universe [of Palau people] is divided into persons who are classed as kauchad 'mutual person(s)' and those who are simply ta er tir 'one of them.' ... Ties of mutuality are commonly established through concepts of shared blood, shared land, shared exchange and/or shared ancestors who once behaved as 'mutual people.' ... These ties of mutuality are glossed as 'kinship' by English-speaking Palauans. (Smith 1981, 226)

Native [Piro] communities focus on the relationships in which food is produced, circulated, and consumed, such that for native people, to live with kin is life itself. (Gow 1991, 119)

Despite the variation in and complexity of what [Korowai] kin relations are, it is worth postulating an overall quality by which these relations are known and measured. I will call it a quality of "intersubjective belonging." ... [A] kinship other is a predicate of oneself. A speaker recognizes the other as the speaker's own, and embraces the other as an object proper to the speaker's own being. (Stasch 2009, 129, 132)

What is crucial in traditional Ashanti law, moral values, ritual practice, and personal sentiment is the notion that the abusua as lineage is "one person," nipa koro. This, again, is no metaphor. It is another way of expressing the fact ... that a lineage is of "one blood," mogya koro, transmitted matrilineally from a single common ancestress. (Fortes 1969, 167)

The dala [clan of Gawa Islanders] forms the core of the individual's self.... [I]t grounds the bodily person in pre-given, transbodily being through bonds of bodily substance (notably by blood) to other, living and dead, persons. (Munn 1986, 27)

This is a Frazerian-style piece, which is to say, an exercise in uncontrolled comparison. As graduate students, we used to call the like an "among-the-text," with ethnographic examples cherry-picked from among this people and that. My defense is that I am not trying to prove empirically what kinship is, only to make some exposition of what I claim it is. I am trying to demonstrate an idea, for which purpose the ethnographic reports are mainly meant to exemplify rather than verify.

In brief, the idea of kinship in question is "mutuality of being": people who are intrinsic to one another's existence—thus "mutual person(s)," "life itself," "intersubjective belonging," "transbodily being," and the like. I argue that "mutuality of being" will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether "consanguineal" or "affinal," as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, "mutuality of being" will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds—of the kind often called "mystical"—whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.


It seems fair to say that the current anthropological orthodoxy in kinship studies can be summed up in the proposition that any relationship constituted in terms of procreation, filiation, or descent can also be made postnatally or performatively by culturally appropriate action. Whatever is construed genealogically may also be constructed socially: an affirmation that can be demonstrated across the known range of societies and not infrequently within a given society (Bamford and Leach 2009; Carsten 2000a, 2000b, 2004; Franklin and McKinnon 2001; McKinnon 2006). Indeed, constructed forms of so-called "biological" relationships are often preferred to the latter, the way brothers by compact may be "closer" and more solidary than brothers by birth. But then, kinship is not given by birth as such, since human birth is not a pre-discursive fact. A whole series of persons may be bodily instantiated in the newborn child, including lineage and clan ancestors, while even the woman who gave birth is excluded—in which case, as Karen Middleton observes, "it becomes inappropriate to say either that 'women make babies,' or ... that 'the mother-child relation in nature is plain to see'" (2000, 107; emphasis in original). This would be all the more so where parentage is formulated through the postnatal practice thereof, as among the To Pamona of Sulawesi:

The ease with which children move from house to house reflects a notion of parentage rooted in nurturance and shared consumption rather than narrowly defined biological filiation.... It cannot be assumed that the recognition of "natural" parentage flows automatically from the event of birth.... To Pamona parents and children see the recognition of parentage as emergent through time and effort. (Schrauwers 1999, 311)

Symbolically formulated and culturally variable, human reproduction involves a differential valuation of the contributions of the genitor and genetrix that ranges to some sort of parthenogenesis—the woman functioning as medium only or the man's role unacknowledged—and at the limit, to the exclusion of both. Long ago, E. B. Tylor noted the doctrine of "the special parentage of the father," as in the Code of Manu where the mother is compared to a field that yields the plant of whatever seed is sown in it. Again in the Eumenides of Aeschylus, Tylor wrote, "the very plea of Orestes is that he is not kin to his mother Klytemnestra, and the gods decide that she who bears the child is but nurse to it" (1878, 299). Karla Poewe (1981) argues that the like is found in many patrilineal societies, the converse being the occasional indifference of a matrilineal people to the male contribution to conception, such as the so-called ignorance of paternity among Trobriand Islanders. What may not be depreciated, however, is the necessary participation of third parties such as ancestors, gods, dreamtime spirits, or the potency acquired from captured enemies. Maurice Godelier and Michel Panoff (1998, xvii–xviii), surveying this issue across a number of societies, conclude that two human beings are insufficient to produce another human being; the intervention of a spiritual third is also required. Moreover, the world around, human begetters are connected to their offspring by a great variety of transmitted substances—blood, semen, milk, bone, genes, flesh, soul, etc.—with various effects on children's appearance and character. Although it is an axiom of our own native folklore that "blood" ties are "natural" and irrevocable, as David Schneider demonstrated in well-known studies of American kinship (1968, 1977, 1980), in truth, as he also told, they are as conventionally made as relatives by marriage. "Substance" is as constructed as "code"—for what is to be conveyed in procreation is not mere physical substance but social status.

For that matter, among Amazonians, a birth may involve no kinship ties with anyone, if what the woman bore was the child of an animal (Vilaça 2002). Certainly as regards shared substance, the Kamea of New Guinea are not the only ones who know no such connections between children and those who conceived them (Bamford 1998, 2007, 2009). Parenting is also devalued in the reincarnation concepts of many circumpolar societies. On the Alaska North Slope, the Iñupiat will name children and sometimes adults after dead persons, thus making them members of their namesakes' families. Over a lifetime, reports Barbara Bodenhorn (2000, 137), an Iñupiat may acquire four or five such names and families, although those who bestow the names were not necessarily related before, and in any case they are never the birth parents. Begetters, begone: natal bonds have virtually no determining force in Iñupiat kinship. Kinship statuses are not set by the begetters of persons but by their namers. Indeed, it is the child who chooses the characteristics of birth, including where he or she will be born and of what sex.

Among the far-off Greenland Inuit, when a child is named after a deceased relative—say, a maternal grandfather—he addresses his birth mother as "daughter," her husband as "daughter's husband," and his grandmother as "wife" (Nuttal 2000, 48–49). One is reminded of stock African examples of mothers' brothers who are called "male mother" (Radcliffe-Brown 1924) or wealthy Lovedu women who use their cattle to acquire "wives" and become "fathers" to the latter's children (Krige and Krige 1943). Inasmuch as brothers and sisters of the Karembola people (Madagascar) are of one kind, "rooted in one another"—n.b., the mutuality of being—a man can claim to have given birth to his sister's son: "I am his mother. He is my child. Born of my own belly. Made living by me. Crying for the breast" (Middleton 2000, 104). Thus men who are mothers, women who are fathers: there is nothing inevitable about the kinship of procreation.

It is not even inevitable that the kinship of procreation is essentially different from relationships created postnatally. Kinship fashioned sociologically may be the same in substance as kinship figured genealogically, made of the same stuff transmitted in procreation. For the New Guineans of the Nebilyer Valley studied by Francesca Merlan and Alan Rumsey, kinship, whether by sexual reproduction or social practice, is produced by the transmission of kopong, "grease" or "fat"—"he essential matter of living organisms, whose ultimate source is the soil" (1991, 42–45). Conveyed in the father's semen and mother's milk, kopong founds a substantial connection between a child and its birth parents. Yet as such "grease" is also present in sweet potatoes and pork, the same consubstantial effect can be achieved by food-sharing, commensality, or eating from the same land. In this way, the children or grandchildren of immigrants may be fully integrated as kinfolk; but for that matter, the offspring of two brothers are as much related because they were sustained by the same soil as because their fathers issued from the same parents.

Elsewhere in the New Guinea Highlands, as reported of the Maring by Edward LiPuma, for example, the generative "grease" flows into the land from the bodies of clansmen and "from there (through the use of labor and magic) into taro, pigs and other foods, and then ultimately returns to clansmen through eating food" (1988, 6–7; see also Strathern 1973). Or as neatly put for Baruya by Maurice Godelier: "The land nourishes men, but men by their flesh fatten the land that they leave to their descendants" (1998, 10; the critical word is engraisser, to "fatten" or "fertilize," thus something of a trilingual pun). Similarly in New Caledonia: "The yam is a human thing. Since it was born in the earth in which the ancestors are decomposed ... the yam is the flesh of the ancestors" (Leenhardt 1979, 62). Kinship thus produced from the fruits of the ancestral earth is summed up deftly by Clifford Sather in reference to the Iban of Kalimantan, for whom "rice is the transubstantiation of the ancestors" (1993, 130).

Thus the capacity of shared food to generate kinship—a mode of "consumptive production" that Marx did not imagine. Rather to the point, however, was Marx's notion of a tribal community that included the objective conditions of its existence as an extension of itself, from which it might well follow that the land has certain intersubjective relations with its human possessors, or indeed a certain kinship with the people (Marx 1973, 471ff.). Or perhaps John Locke's notion of men claiming ownership by mixing their labor with the land is more pertinent for its direct implication of mutuality of being. In South Pentecost, the effect of just such a transfer of being, reports Margaret Jolly, is that, "the human inhabitants merge with the land. Thus, like children, land is not so much owned as part of one's human substance" (1994, 59). Likewise, Jane Goodale on Kaulong people of New Britain, for whom all descendants of an ancestor are " 'together brothers,' sharing similarity of biogenetic substance not only with each other but with a place and its resources" (1981, 280). In his excellent monograph Creative Land, James Leach details how Reite people of New Guinea's Rai Coast "incorporate places into bodies and bodies into places" (2003, iv). As against those who argue that kinship is an idiom or metaphor of land-holding (e.g., E. Leach 1961a), property supposedly being the utilitarian reality of the matter, James Leach shows that land and the persons integrated with it are in the same ontological register. The land and the people are alive and akin:

The land is very much alive, and enters directly into the constitution (generation) of persons. The relation between land and person is not one of containment, with the land outside and the essence of the person inside, but one of integration.... [T]he constitution of persons and of places are mutually entailed aspects of the same process. In this sense kinship is geography, or landscape. (2003, 30–31)

Then again, the social construction of kinship may function as a necessary complement of sexual reproduction, the two working together over time to forge a parental bond. Anne-Christine Taylor (2000) relates how the Amazonian Jivaro (Achuar) develop the kinship of father and son through a process that begins with the former's contribution of semen in sexual reproduction, continues with the food he provides during pregnancy, and is definitively achieved by his nourishment of the child in life. Note it is the nurture, rather than the transfer of bodily substance, that makes the relationship, for, by Jivaro lights, "procreation does not suppose a substantial connection between parent and child" (Taylor 2000, 319). Moreover, unlike kinship by procreation alone, an extended temporality is a condition of the relatedness at issue, since it requires a cumulative process of parental care—a condition more or less true of many forms of performative kinship. It follows that memory is also essential, the recall of acts of compassion. "Memory for Amazonian peoples is essentially linked to kinship. Indeed, in some sense it is kinship itself" (Taylor 1996, 206). Likewise, Aparecida Vilaça writes of the Wari':

It is not just substances which circulate. The Wari' body is also constituted by affects and memories. Memory, say the Wari', is located in the body, meaning the constitution of kin is based to a high degree on living alongside each other day-to-day and on reciprocally bestowed acts of affection. (2005, 449)

Given such possibilities of kin relationship—that is, on the basis of shared life conditions and shared memories—one can imagine why the constructed forms of kinship are legion. Ilongot of the Philippines say that those who share a history of migration and cooperation "share a body" (Rosaldo 1980, 9). The Malays studied by Janet Carsten acquire the same "blood" by living in the same house and eating from the same hearth, "even when those who live together are not linked by ties of sexual procreation" (2004, 40). A catalogue of commonplace postnatal means of kinship formation would thus include commensality, sharing food, reincarnation, co-residence, shared memories, working together, blood brotherhood, adoption, friendship, shared suffering, and so on. But the performative modes of kinship known to anthropology—if not to sociobiology or evolutionary psychology—are indefinitely many, inasmuch as they are predicated on particular cultural logics of relatedness. In certain Inuit groups, people born on the same day are kin, even as those are "brothers" whose parents once had a sexual liaison, although they are no longer together and neither of the brothers was born of their union.

Indeed, the Eskimo-speaking peoples must be the world champions of postnatal kinship. Notoriously flexible as well as inventive, their kinship practices not only demonstrate that relationships of all kinds may be constructed in practice, but equally that they may be deconstructed in practice. As Mark Nuttal says of Greenlanders: "If a relationship does not exist, then one can be created. At the same time, people can deactivate kinship relationships if they regard them as unsatisfactory. People are therefore not constrained by a rigid consanguineal kinship, but can choose much of their universe of kin" (2000, 34). The people's freedom to revise their kin relationships, however, does not mean that the relationships as such are under revision—or otherwise without determinate properties and codes of conduct. In a highly performative kinship order, as that of the Inuit, the existing relations between persons are potentially unstable: continuously vulnerable to events and ever subject to negotiation. Unfortunately, such common instabilities of practice have likewise made kinship studies in anthropology vulnerable to the deconstructionist dispositions of the (former) avant-garde in cultural theory.


Excerpted from What Kinship Is—And Is Not by MARSHALL SAHLINS Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the British Academy, he is the author of many books, including Culture and Practical Reason, How “Natives” Think, Islands of History, and Apologies to Thucydides, all published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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