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Modernist Anthropological Theory of Family

The Family In Early Social Evolutionary Theory

The origins of the academic discipline of anthropology—and of the study of kinship—can be found in the writings of nineteenth-century European and European-American intellectuals, men who constructed grand comparative schemes designed to clarify the relationship between their own societies and those of the colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, a relationship that most of these scholars understood as intrinsically hierarchical, with Western Europe representing the pinnacle of human cultural achievement and racial superiority. A countervailing strain of romantic primitivism within this same intellectual tradition found in simpler societies a purity later contaminated by modernity, but even these more favorable interpretations of what were imagined to be our "primitive" forebears did not challenge the notion that all human societies, and all of human history, could be placed within a single evolutionary framework. These writers too often melded an entirely hypothetical history of early human life—and of the family—with anecdotal evidence from contemporary societies deemed to be primitive, or not yet fully "evolved," creating a matrix in which geographical distance from Western metropolitan life was equated with temporal distance from modernity.

Twentieth-century social scientists would reject such speculative histories, and later anticolonialist writers would excoriate the scientific racism that undergirded their construction. Nevertheless, the quest for a single human history, and for an over-arching theory that explained the coexistence at a single moment in time of societies that differed enormously in their scale and organization, inspired much of the foundational thinking of twentieth-century social science, including that of Karl Marx (1818–1883), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), and Max Weber (1864–1920). And while most of the social sciences and humanities have rejected these evolutionary schemas, they retain a fascination outside of academia, where notions of primitive matriarchies and shamanic tribal religions continue to have romantic appeal. Within academia, too, hypothetical early histories of the family continue to find a place among evolutionary psychologists, who find evidence of long-vanished primitive sexual and reproductive customs in the foibles of contemporary urban-dwellers.

In the nineteenth century, along with the evolution of religious thought from animism to polytheism to monotheism, the purported evolution of the family was a central theme for intellectuals interested in social history, who typically proposed a tripartite development of family life from an earliest phase, that of the promiscuous horde, through matriarchy to patriarchy. Perhaps best exemplified in the Swiss scholar J. J. Bachofen's (1815–1887) Das Mutterrecht (1861; Mother Right), this narrative imagines humans beginning their social existence with a sexual life barely distinct from bestiality, in which an undifferentiated group mated indiscriminately, producing children without distinct social identities. Women, finding this form of life abhorrent, then initiated a social revolution, in which they introduced religious worship and the family, the latter centered on the bond between a mother and her children. This was, however, an incomplete revolution, with human potential still to be finally realized by a second transformation, led by men, in which matriarchy was converted to patriarchy, primitive earth religions to monotheism, and the role of motherhood and of the family confined to an interior, domestic life, while the larger social sphere became the world of politics and, ultimately, of the state, understood to be the domain of men.

Bachofen's writings were very influential at the time, but the writer whose work would endure into the twentieth century was the American lawyer Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881); the sharply bifurcated history of Morgan's influence on later scholars exemplifies a fundamental conflict in kinship studies between historical materialism and structural functionalism. Morgan's master narrative of social evolution, Ancient Society (1877), with its detailed framework of evolutionary stages extending from "savagery" through "barbarism" to "civilization," was clearly his most significant contribution to nineteenth-century intellectual life. Two significant attributes of this work are its materialist orientation, in which basic technological and economic developments such as fishing or farming were seen as causal factors that determined the shape of social life, and an underlying moral interpretation of human history that was far more ambivalent about progress and civilization than most of his social-evolutionary peers.

This combination of a materialist slant and a critical stance toward contemporary capitalist society made Morgan's work an inspiration to two German intellectuals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). After Marx's death, Engels found among his papers detailed notes on Ancient Society, and used them to write his own tome on world history, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). This book, although it follows the same sort of evolutionary scheme as many others, and despite its clear debt to Morgan, differs radically from its sources in its insistence that the evolution of the family can best be seen as the development of an institution dedicated to the oppression of women. Its other enduring contribution is its clear articulation of an idea also found in Bachofen and Morgan: that far from being a universal, unchanging institution that predates the development of complex social structures such as capitalism or the state, the family is a structure that takes radically different forms within different political economies or modes of production. Recapitulating the stages of evolution described by Morgan, Engels emphasizes the fundamental differences between "barbaric" social forms such as the ancient Roman family—a structure of domination rooted in a slave-holding economy, in which the paterfamilias exerted absolute control over slaves, wives, and children—and "civilized" nineteenth-century forms of marriage as found among the bourgeoisie, for whom the management of assets mattered intensely, and among the proletariat, whose lack of inheritable property freed women and men to marry for love. In each case, the fundamental economic organization of the class or society in question determined not only the shape of the family itself, but individual access to such fundamental human rights as control over sexual access or the right to have children.

Although Engels's evolutionary scheme would remain central to the development of anthropology within the Soviet Union and would, in turn, influence Third World scholars within the Soviet sphere, intellectual history in Western Europe and the United States soon took a new turn that sidelined Engels's insights, and evolutionary social theory in general, for several decades. Within the newly emergent paradigm of what would later be called modernist anthropology, Morgan would still have an important role to play as a founding figure in the study of kinship, but only through a sharply limited and partial reading of his work designed to excise all that Marx had found most stimulating about it.

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