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Modernist Anthropological Theory of Family

The Family In Early Social Evolutionary Theory, The Modernist Study Of Kinship, Bibliography

Although anthropology has devoted a great deal of attention to families, anthropologists do not generally speak of studying the family, a word whose meaning varies so much throughout history and around the world that it may be said to have no objective or transcultural meaning whatsoever. Many of the families that anthropologists and historians study bear little resemblance to the nuclear family portrayed in American mass culture. There are the enormous, rigidly hierarchicalized patrilineal families of pre-revolutionary China, which bound together ranked sets of wives, sons, and servants under the control of a senior male; the gender-segregated villages of twentieth-century Amazonian South America, where men might well consider "home" to be the central men's house where they live for years at a time, rather than the smaller residences occupied by their wives, children, and dogs; the "bands" of foraging societies like the Ju/'hoansi (ZHUN-twasi) of southern Africa, with their flexible membership and fluid boundaries; or the "houses" of some gay prostitutes in the urban United States, where senior transvestites rename themselves "Mother" and take in younger boys off the streets, offering them a new kind of family to replace the biological kin who disowned them. Furthermore, this confounding word, family, is made even more slippery by the great burden of quite specific emotional, symbolic, and pragmatic meanings with which people invest it: it is the opposite of a value-neutral descriptive term.

In their efforts to bring some analytical rigor to the study of this confusing but important concept, anthropologists have come to speak not of "the family" but of "kinship," a larger, more inclusive category that can refer to any and all of the ways in which we find or forge relationships between ourselves and others, although it is usually confined to those relationships that are at least metaphorically connected to coresidence and/or reproduction. The study of kinship was long a mainstay of anthropology, and dominated the field during the heyday of modernist anthropology; indeed, so central is it to the discipline's identity that the decline of interest in kinship studies during the latter decades of the twentieth century was seen by many as an indication that anthropology itself was about to disappear. By the same token, the emergence of a revitalized but vastly changed form of kinship studies at century's end seemed to indicate that anthropology, too, would continue to reinvent itself to fit the changing circumstances of the twenty-first century.

The history of kinship studies is a contentious one, filled with lively debates and sudden changes in direction that make distinguishing three clearly distinguishable phases relatively easy, although some underlying intellectual trends do not conform to these neat temporal divisions. Broadly speaking, there was an early phase dominated by evolutionary theories; an early-to mid-twentieth-century period of modernist anthropology—the true heyday of kinship studies; and a final, heterogeneous period of change and reformulation, spurred first by feminist and later by gay and lesbian anthropology, as well as by intellectual movements that refocused attention away from underlying structures and toward the practices of everyday life, and the interplay of biology, technology, and society. The focus here is primarily on the first two of these phases, but the emphasis is on those aspects of early kinship studies that are most relevant to contemporary anthropological thought about the family.

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