American Kinship: A Cultural Account

American Kinship: A Cultural Account

by David M. Schneider

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American Kinship is the first attempt to deal systematically with kinship as a system of symbols and meanings, and not simply as a network of functionally interrelated familial roles. Schneider argues that the study of a highly differentiated society such as our own may be more revealing of the nature of kinship than the study of anthropologically more familiar, but less differentiated societies. He goes to the heart of the ideology of relations among relatives in America by locating the underlying features of the definition of kinship—nature vs. law, substance vs. code. One of the most significant features of American Kinship, then, is the explicit development of a theory of culture on which the analysis is based, a theory that has since proved valuable in the analysis of other cultures. For this Phoenix edition, Schneider has written a substantial new chapter, responding to his critics and recounting the charges in his thought since the book was first published in 1968.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226227092
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 148
File size: 736 KB

About the Author

David M. Schneider is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago and at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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American Kinship A Cultural Account

By David M. Schneider

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1980 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-73930-4




This book is concerned with American kinship as a cultural system; that is, as a system of symbols. By symbol I mean something which stands for something else, or some things else, where there is no necessary or intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes.

A particular culture, American culture for instance, consists of a system of units (or parts) which are defined in certain ways and which are differentiated according to certain criteria. These units define the world or the universe, the way the things in it relate to each other, and what these things should be and do.

I have used the term "unit" as the widest, most general, all-purpose word possible in this context. A unit in a particular culture is simply anything that is culturally defined and distinguished as an entity. It may be a person, place, thing, feeling, state of affairs, sense of foreboding, fantasy, hallucination, hope, or idea. In American culture such units as uncle, town, blue (depressed), a mess, a hunch, the idea of progress, hope, and art are cultural units.

But the more usual sense in which the term "unit," or "cultural unit," can be understood is as part of some relatively distinct, self-contained system. American government is a good example. There is national as against local government and they stand in a special relationship to each other. National government consists of an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch—again, units defined and placed in relationship to each other. One could go on along the line noting and naming and marking each distinct, cultural entity or unit—its definition, the conception of its nature and existence, its place in some more or less systematic scheme.

It is important to make a simple distinction between the culturally defined and differentiated unit as a cultural object itself, and any other object elsewhere in the real world which it may (or may not) represent, stand for, or correspond to.

A ghost and a dead man may be helpful examples. The ghost of a dead man and the dead man are two cultural constructs or cultural units. Both exist in the real world as cultural constructs, culturally defined and differentiated entities. But a good deal of empirical testing has shown that at a quite different level of reality the ghost does not exist at all, though there may or may not be a dead man at a given time and place, and under given conditions. Yet at the level of their cultural definition there is no question about their existence, nor is either one any more or less real than the other.

In one sense, of course, both ghost and dead man are ideas. They are the creations of man's imagination or intellect, which sorts certain elements out and keeps others in, formulating from these elements a construct that can be communicated from one person to another, understood by both. Yet at that level of reality the question of whether one can actually go out and capture either a ghost or a dead man is quite irrelevant.

It would be an error and oversimplification to say that the objective existence of the ghost is lacking, but the objective existence of a dead man can sometimes be established; in that way at least the dead man can exist but the ghost cannot. It would develop this error even further to say that ghosts cannot exist but dead men can. Even though such a statement is certainly true at one level of discourse, it misses the whole point and the whole significance of cultural constructs, cultural units, and culture in general.

Both "ghost" and "dead man" are words, of course, and it is certainly important to note that words "stand for" things. As mere disturbances in the atmosphere which are heard, or as mere distortions of the otherwise placid surface of a page which are seen, they nevertheless remain words which stand for something.

But the question is not what thing they stand for in the outside, objective, real world, although with a word such as "dog," we can take that concrete animal, stand him on the ground, point to him, and say, "That is a dog." The question is rather what different things does such a word stand for. The word "dog" certainly is a cultural construct—in one of its meanings—and it is defined in certain ways as a cultural unit. Its referent in that context, then, is not the "objective" animal itself, but rather the set of cultural elements or units or ideas which constitute that cultural construct.

Insofar as a word is the name for something, and insofar as the word names—among many other things—a cultural unit or construct, one might conclude that culture consists of the language; that is, the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, or the words and their definitions and their relationships to each other.

There is no question but that language is a major part of culture. It is certainly a system of symbols and meanings and, therefore, in that sense alone it conforms to the definition of culture which I have offered. We know immediately that "ghost" is a cultural construct or unit of some kind because there is a word for it, it has a name, the word has meaning, and the friendly natives can explain that meaning and define the word.

But if language is, in one of its meanings, culture, culture is not wholly or exclusively or entirely language. Culture includes more than language because language is not the only possible system of symbols and meanings. This means that there can be and often are cultural units without simple, single words or names for them. It means that there are units which can be described in words and identified as cultural units, but which do not have names in the special sense of the single lexeme, as the name for the dog is "dog" or the name for the chief executive officer of the government of the United States is "President."

I am less concerned in this book with the question of whether a cultural unit has a single name or a two-word name, or can only be designated by a series of sentences, than I am with the definition and differentiation of the cultural units themselves. It is vital to know that cultural categories or units very often have single-lexeme names and that one of the most important ways of getting started on a description of those units is to get a collection of such single-lexeme names and try to find out what they mean.

It is equally vital to know that cultural categories and units often do not have single-lexeme names, and that the description of the cultural units is by no means exhausted when a complete list of names with their meanings has been assembled.

It is useful to restate this in another way. The semantic analysis of a system of lexemes is not isomorphic with the description of the system of cultural units or categories, even if it remains an open question whether the semantic analysis of a single lexeme within a system of lexemes is isomorphic with the analysis or description of that single cultural unit of which that lexeme may be a part.

This same point can be put very simply. The meanings of the names alone are not exactly the same as the meanings of the cultural units. This is necessarily so because some cultural units do not have names. Since this book is about the cultural units, and since the names are very important parts of the cultural units, this book uses them and deals with them; but the names are only one among many parts of the subject of the description, they are not the object of the description.

Words, as names for cultural units, are one of the best ways to begin to discover what the cultural units are. But they have one fundamental characteristic which must be taken into account. A word never has a single meaning except in one, limiting set of circumstances. When a word is being used within the very narrow confines of a rigidly controlled scientific utterance where the meaning is explicitly defined in unitary terms for that particular occasion or that particular usage, any other meanings that word might have are suppressed and the defined meaning is its only meaning. But since words are seldom used in this way, and rarely if ever in "natural" culture, this limitation can safely be ignored while the polysemic nature of words is kept firmly in mind.

Simply knowing that a word can have many meanings, and simply knowing which are the many meanings a word can have, are not enough. What is necessary to know is which of the many meanings applies when, and which of the many meanings does not apply or is not relevant under what circumstances; and finally, how the different meanings of the word relate to each other. This point, too, becomes rather important in the material which follows, so I have stated it in its most general terms here.


I started with the point that a cultural unit or cultural construct must be distinguished from any other object elsewhere in the real world, and that the cultural unit or construct has a reality of its own. The ghost and the dead as cultural constructs are quite real, demonstrable elements even though, at quite another level, ghosts do not exist but dead men do. This subject soon led into the problem of the relationship between cultural units and the words which name them and to the point that a semantic account overlaps, but is not identical with, a cultural account since significant cultural categories do not always have names.

Now I must return to the starting point once more to make explicit certain other implications of the basic point that culture must be distinguished from other objects in the real world.

Certainly culture is in one sense a regularity of human behavior, and as such it is quite objective and quite real. But this does not mean that any observable, definable, demonstrable regularity of human behavior is culture. Neither does it mean that culture can be directly inferred from any regular pattern of human behavior.

Among the different forms in which symbols can be cast, one consists of the definition and differentiation of persons in interaction. This is the set of rules which specify who should do what under what circumstances. It is the question which proceeds from the fact that the members of a given culture have chiefs and counselors whom they can ask what their rights and duties are, what their roles are, what rules are supposed to guide and govern what they do. These are the standards, the guides, the norms for how action should proceed, for how people of different cultural definitions should behave.

But the cultural constructs, the cultural symbols, are different from any systematic, regular, verifiable pattern of actual, observed behavior. That is, the pattern of observed behavior is different from culture. This is not because culture is not behavior. Culture is actual, observable behavior, but of only one specially restricted kind.

An example may be helpful here. In American culture there is a culturally defined unit called "policeman." The policeman's role is defined as that of enforcing the law. One set of laws consists of traffic laws of the sort with which we are all familiar. The driver of a vehicle (another culturally defined unit) is supposed to stop at a red traffic signal, and go when the signal is green. These are all units in a cultural domain.

If the driver stops when the signal is red and goes when the signal is green, the observing policeman does not act. But if the driver goes when the signal is red and stops when the signal is green, the policeman should give the driver a ticket or a summons for breaking the law.

Now it is clear that the definition of the units and the statement of the rules is quite different from our going out on a street corner and watching the behavior of drivers and policemen. After some systematic observation we may find that most drivers, but not quite all, do not go through red lights, that they do tend to get their vehicles moving when the light turns green, and that there is some specifiable rate at which traffic summonses are issued to those drivers who do drive through red lights and who fail to move through green lights.

The distinction between the definition of the units and the rules on the one hand (culture) and the patterns of actual behavior derived from observation of traffic-light behavior on the other hand is fundamental to this book. This book is concerned with the definitions of the units and rules, the culture of American kinship; it is not concerned with the patterns of behavior as formulated from systematic observations of each of its actual occurrences.

What is equally important is that these two are to be understood as independent of each other and not as being in tautologous relationship. That is, the definition of the units and the rules is not based on, defined by, drawn from, constructed in accord with, or developed in terms of the observations of behavior in any direct, simple sense.

Let us go back to the traffic light and the street corner once again. How do we know that there is a rule against driving through the red light except by observing what happens? Cars generally do not go through red lights. How do we know that there is such a thing as a policeman except by observing him arrest drivers and give them summonses when they pass the red light? How do we know that the policeman is not just another driver in different clothing except by observing him giving but not receiving summonses?

When we observe a regularity in behavior, which takes place in a given situation over a period of time, and when that regularity consists of visual observations or statements by the actors themselves that there is such a regularity—"people in this town stop for red lights"—then indeed there is reason to suspect, or we may formulate the hypothesis, that there are cultural units and cultural rules entailed in that regularity.

But once again, the regularity "people actually stop for red lights" is different in a fundamental and important way from the regularity "people are by law supposed to stop for red lights." The first may or may not imply the second. And since it is the cultural units and rules that this book seeks to locate, the presence of observable regularities is only a suggestion about where to look for them. The two can and must be kept separate; the evidence for the existence of a cultural unit or a cultural role cannot rest on any observed regularity of actual instances of the behavior itself.

This is fundamentally the same problem, even in this guise, as the problem stated earlier where ghosts were the example. And the point remains that the cultural rule or the cultural unit exists at a cultural level of observation and without regard to the level of specific instances and concrete occurrences. No amount of direct observation of the behavior of ghosts themselves will yield any information about how the cultural construct of the ghost is formulated. Direct visual observation can certainly yield hypotheses , but only hypotheses, about the units and the rules of traffic lights as cultural constructs, but even in such a case it is a moot question whether this manner of producing hypotheses about the cultural constructs is very useful.

Since it is perfectly possible to formulate, to communicate, to describe, and to understand the cultural construct of ghosts without actually visually inspecting even a single specimen, this should be true across the board and without reference to the observability or nonobservability of the objects that may be presumed to be the referents of the cultural constructs.

But consider, now, a problem of the same order but posed in a somewhat different way. Suppose that we know that there are cultural units X, Y, and Z . And suppose that the rule is that units X and Y never appear together, but X always appears associated with Z. Now we observe what actually happens in a carefully selected sample of cases. Direct observation shows that in 32.7 per cent of the cases X and Y appear together (contrary to the rule!) and that in no instances which are observed does Z ever occur when X is present (contrary to the rule in 100 per cent of the cases!).

Do we infer that the rule is weak where 32.7 per cent of the cases deviate from it and that there is no rule where 100 per cent of the cases fail to conform to it? We do not at all. The question of whether there is a rule formulated as a cultural rule cannot be decided on the basis of such evidence. To put it simply, such evidence is quite irrelevant to the question of whether there is or is not a cultural unit, a cultural concept, a cultural rule, a cultural entity.

This problem has one other direction which should be considered. The argument might be developed in this way: Cultural units, constructs, rules, and so on are not just "given." They are not, contrary to mythology, handed down from the sky to remain in the same state until they are taken back by the gods who invented them. They arise, they grow, they change. They may or may not be responsive to the actual conditions of life, to different population pressures, to different ecological conditions, to the scarcity of food or the prevalence of disease, to the joys and the sorrows of life. One essential problem, then, is to chart the relationship between the actual states of affairs and the cultural constructs so that we can discover how the cultural constructs are generated, the laws governing their change, and in just what ways they are systematically related to the actual states of affairs of life.


Excerpted from American Kinship A Cultural Account by David M. Schneider. Copyright © 1980 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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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, 1980
1. Introduction
Part One: The Distinctive Features Which Define the Person as a Relative
2. Relatives
3. The Family
Part Two: The Relative as a Person
4. A Relative Is a Person
5. In-laws and Kinship Terms
6. Conclusion
7. Twelve Years Later

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