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Modernist Anthropological Theory of Family

The Modernist Study Of Kinship

Twentieth-century anthropology was founded on a total rejection of what had come before. Instead of pseudohistory and pseudoscience, this new social science would be based on a rigorous empiricism that would examine social groups as they are, in the present, with an emphasis on the functionality of existing social structures and institutions. Taking as a basic premise that all living humans share the same intellectual and moral capacities, scholars such as Franz Boas (1858–1942) in America, or E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973) in England, regarded all human cultural laws as based on rational principles, regardless of the race of a society's members, the alien nature of their customs, or the simplicity of their material culture. The evolutionary thinking of the past was declared anathema, but an exception was made for Lewis Henry Morgan because in his work was to be found the germ of the new scientific study of kinship. Morgan, an American, differed from his European contemporaries in one important respect: as a young man in upstate New York, he had done actual empirical research among the Seneca, one of the Iroquois nations, with the assistance of an astute Iroquois intellectual named Ely Parker (1828–1895). If Morgan's Ancient Society was now to be consigned to the dustbin, his publications on Iroquois kinship terminology—the first to accurately record the kinship nomenclature found within a unilineal descent system—became the subject of exhaustive study. This new approach to reading Morgan, with its emphasis on the elucidation of principles of descent through a close analysis of the language of kinship terms and relations, exemplified the modernist theory of culture, which envisioned the latter as a complex system of rules and rites. Although field-workers would collect a great deal of evidence about everyday work practices in the ensuing decades, this evidence would be valued primarily for what it could reveal about underlying structures and principles, which were taken to be the real focus and goal of ethnographic research. And for all its liberal championing of human equality and of non-European cultures, a fundamental conservatism would drive this new anthropology. Engels's emphasis on the family as an institution that could support multiple inequities, from the oppression of women to the sexual abuse of slaves, would completely vanish, replaced by a Durkheimian emphasis on social cohesiveness and the stability of institutions. The study of everyday practice, of social inequality, and of the deployment of power would have to wait for a different era.

These new structural-functionalist anthropologists, as they came to be called, were still deeply interested in comparative ethnology, but now, instead of an evolutionary paradigm, unprejudiced comparisons would be made based on the discovery of similar structural patterns between different societies. In the small-scale, non-Western, and premodern societies that were the focus of much anthropological work, economic, political, and religious life was organized among kin, so that these underlying structural principles were especially to be found through study of the rules of kinship.

Reading the work of the structural-functionalists in the early twenty-first century, a curious dichotomy emerges. On the one hand, this intellectual paradigm freed scholars to study non-Western societies with as few presuppositions as possible, and stimulated an enormous amount of excellent research on native peoples throughout the world. Once-obscure places and peoples—the Andaman Islands, the Trobriands, the Nuer, the Azande—were made famous in anthropological circles. The rules of non-Western kinship became ever clearer, as did the fact that, while other peoples did not share Western assumptions about family and society, every society had social rules that provided systems of etiquette, standards of morality, and a way to ensure continuity over time. Anthropologists elucidated three key structural elements that constituted any given kinship system: descent, residence, and marriage. Descent systems included unilineal structures, such as patriliny and matriliny, and bilateral systems like those in most of the United States. Residence might be uxorilocal (meaning that the new family lives in the wife's family's home), virilocal (the family lives in the husband's family's home), or neolocal (the couple moves to their own home). Marriage might be monogamous or polygamous. Some of the findings challenged Western ideas more than others. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, in his study of the North African Nuer, found that a vast network of segmentary lineages could take the place of the state, allowing thousands of people to live together without an overarching centralized political authority. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), like Morgan before him, studied a matrilineal people, for whom the role of the father was far different, and much less important, than in European society. Instead, it was the mother's brother, the adult male who came from the mother's lineage, who represented authority, discipline, and an ideal of adulthood for young males, a fact that led Malinowski to challenge Freud's ideas about the Oedipus complex. Pointing out that young men within matrilineal societies channel their hostility toward their mother's brothers, rather than their own fathers, he posited that competition over the right to claim political authority, rather than sexual tension, underlies the resentment that growing boys feel toward adult men within their family circle. This use of the cross-cultural record to challenge assumptions about human universals would become the hallmark of twentieth-century anthropology, as seen in the later arguments of Margaret Mead (1901–1978) about adolescence.

But if structural-functionalists were engaged in documenting the diversity of forms of family to be found in global societies, at the same time they oddly insisted on the supposed universality of a certain basic family form, hidden within the apparent diversity of polygyny and polyandry, lineage and clan, band and tribe. Whether these (mostly) male scholars were motivated to insist on the universality of women's status as wife and mother by a desire to oppose feminist movements within their own society would later become the subject of some debate, as would, more recently, the question of whether they also suppressed or downplayed evidence of homosexuality in other societies. What is clear is that the claim of a biologically determined basic family structure was critically important for the modernist anthropologists as a refutation of the evolutionists' claim that the human family had not always been the same, and it is difficult, given the intellectual climate of the Cold War, not to see a certain political utility in this hostility toward a body of theory so closely associated with Marxist intellectual history.

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955), a founding father of functionalist kinship studies, saw an unchanging natural "sub-stratum" beneath the whole edifice of social structure, which he called the "elementary family." In 1969 Meyer Fortes began an important lecture in honor of Morgan with an oblique reminder that the "momentous importance" of the scientific study of kinship lies in its special insight into the basis of human social life. The implication was made explicit in 1973 when John Barnes in turn introduced a tribute to Meyer Fortes by flatly stating that kinship is the aspect of human culture with the closest links to the natural world. All of these statements spring from an underlying assumption that the structures of kinship and culture are built on a natural foundation: the biological link of physiological reproduction that connects mother and child. As Malinowski stated, in the domain of kinship, above all others, physiology creates purely cultural institutions.

Malinowski placed greater emphasis on the biological underpinnings of culture than his peers, for whom the elementary or natural family, because of its ahistorical, essential nature, was unimportant. What really mattered, because it was the locus of cultural creativity, was what Meyer Fortes called the "jural dimension" (1969): the social edifice constructed on this natural base. Underlying this distinction is a theory of procreation—and of gender—succinctly summarized in John Barnes's (1973) equation "'genetrix:genitor::nature:culture." Roger Keesing elaborates:

Humans everywhere observe the same processes of sex and reproduction. A female has sexual intercourse.… Once she is pregnant, it is ultimately obvious that she is, and that the infant is connected to her by the most physical of bonds—by the umbilical cord, by childbirth, by the milk of her breasts. But the connection of the one or several men who had intercourse with the mother … to the process of pregnancy and childbirth is far from obvious … [creating] a gulf between 'social' and 'physical' kinship, or between pater [the legitimate social father] and genitor [the presumed physical begetter of the child]. (1975, pp. 11–12)

The diversity of kinship forms that anthropology celebrated, then, with the implication that humans are free to invent their own societies as they will, is here invested with a strict gender segregation: while creativity and historicity are granted to males, females remain rooted in a biological reality that precludes them from becoming fully cultural actors or agents of history. Men may invent many forms of social fatherhood, as Malinowski had documented, but women must always be simply mothers. That the actual data gathered by these anthropologists contained ample evidence to contradict this assertion, such as the multiple cases in which people insisted on calling other women "mother" within their kinship network, such as their mother's sisters or father's or brother's wives, and the prevalence of socially constructed forms of motherhood completely divorced from biological reproduction, such as the "Mother Superior" of a convent, did not seem to matter.

With the rise of feminist anthropology in the 1970s, these assumptions would come under rigorous scrutiny and produce vigorous debates. A precursor to these events was the turn that kinship studies took toward a still greater emphasis on the symbolic realm, and even further away from Malinowski's emphasis on the family's role in fulfilling basic physiological needs. The two figures most prominently associated with this move are the great French philosopher–anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), and the American cultural anthropologist David Schneider (1918–1995). While their work did not directly address questions of gender—and Lévi-Strauss, in particular, was seen by many later anthropologists to be antifeminist—it is in their writings that feminist scholars would find the inspiration for a new form of kinship studies in which the agency of women, both as mothers and on their own terms, would be front and center.

Lévi-Strauss's Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1967; The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969), the great masterpiece of modernist kinship studies, rests on the insights of previous scholars from Durkheim to Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheim had early recognized the significance of the incest taboo as a foundational law that created the social fabric by forcing people out of their natal families and into alliances with other groups. Radcliffe-Brown had emphasized the social-structural and juridical aspects of marriage, such as the exchanges of gifts between kinspeople in Africa, which served to sever women from their natal kin and bind them to their husband's family, and he had insisted that kinship "results from the recognition of a social relationship between parents and children, which is not the same thing as the physical relation, and may or may not coincide with it" (1967, p. 4), and that the primary purpose of the institution of marriage was as a "social arrangement by which a child is given a legitimate position in the society" (p. 5). In other words, it organized descent more than it facilitated union. Lévi-Strauss took these themes and built from them a single Hegelian (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel [1770–1831]) principle of social organization in which the opposition between descent and alliance is continually forced, through the operation of the incest taboo, to create new, synthetic social units. Consanguinity (social relationships based in the parent–child link) and affinity (social relationships based in marriage, such as between husband and wife, or son-in-law and father-in-law) thus joins the set of great, foundational oppositions out of which each human society then constructs its own unique cultural pattern, along with life and death, youth and age, masculinity and femininity. Like Radcliffe-Brown, he saw marriage, not from the point of view of the actual spouses, but as a system of exchange between descent groups compelled by the incest taboo to give away some of their kin to other groups in order to gain spouses and, thereby, children. This emphasis on exchange—of persons, and of the flow of gifts that surrounds this central transfer—is a direct outgrowth of the Durkheimian tradition, and especially of Marcel Mauss's (1872–1950) The Gift. And, like Radcliffe-Brown, Lévi-Strauss envisioned this exchange not in gender-neutral terms, but specifically as an exchange of women by men.

Where Lévi-Strauss departs from previous authors is in his more direct engagement with the question of what is natural and what is cultural, and his insistence that this contrast is itself part of culture: the very idea of nature, he argued, is itself "an artificial creation of culture" (1969, p. xxix). Similarly, he states in the book's conclusions that, while kinship reshapes "biological relationships and natural sentiments," it is ultimately a completely social product; it is, in fact, "the social state itself" (1969, p. 490). The text is contradictory on this point: he is sometimes even more explicit than previous modernist anthropologists in defining consanguinity and descent as produced by, and symbolic of, physical reproduction and, thus, as something that appears to be part of the natural sphere, in contrast to the purely social structure of alliances between kin groups created through the exchange of women. Unlike his predecessors, however, he insists that the incest taboo does not derive from natural law, but is a purely cultural invention, and is, in fact, the prototypical form of all cultural rules. Similarly, his understanding of the position of women within the system is more nuanced than that of his predecessors: while he assumes the existence of an apparently universal patriarchal ideology, implicit in symbol and language, that posits women as objects rather than subjects, he nevertheless famously asserted that, whatever meaning may be given to "women in general" within a particular symbolic system, each woman is always, in actual fact, "a person … a generator of signs … never purely what is spoken about," but also one who speaks (1969, p. xx).

In the twenty-first century, it is difficult to remember how deeply and widely influential Lévi-Strauss was in Europe and the United States, both inside anthropology and beyond. His work on kinship spurred a wide range of new research, and his compelling, but ambiguous, arguments about nature, culture, and gender stimulated tremendous debate within the emerging field of feminist anthropology. The path-breaking text, Woman, Culture, and Society (1974, Rosaldo and Lamphere), contained two influential articles that, in very different ways, engaged his arguments. One was Sherry Ortner's "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?," in which she used Simone de Beauvoir's reading of Lévi-Strauss to assert that women's reproductive lives condemned them to be seen forever as closer to nature than men. In response, Carol P. MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern produced an edited volume of their own, Nature, Gender, and Culture (1980), in which each author used Lévi-Straussian analysis to demonstrate the quite distinct workings of the nature:culture and female:male oppositions within various cultural settings. Their goal was both to disprove Ortner and to reclaim structural analysis for feminist ends. Strathern would go on to produce a dazzling series of influential analyses of kinship and gender in which traditional modernist anthropology and feminist theory are brought to bear on one another, culminating in a series of publications about postmodern Britain in which she uses the example of new reproductive technologies and their rearrangement of conventional categories of kinship to argue that the nature:culture dichotomy has finally disappeared, and with it the modernist era in which Lévi-Strauss was so dominant a figure.

David Schneider, while couching his argument in less lofty philosophical terms than Lévi-Strauss, would eventually take an even stronger position against biologistic interpretations of kinship. More so than other authors, he would provide inspiration to an entire generation of feminist anthropologists, many of them his students, to reinvent kinship studies yet again. Schneider attacked the biological assumptions that underlay conventional kinship studies directly, arguing forcefully that they derived from the folk beliefs of European-American kinship itself, rather than from any scientific basis, and that the rules of kinship, like those of culture itself, should be seen as a purely symbolic system in which any aspect of the natural world or physiological processes could become centrally meaningful. The great importance that kinship theorists had placed on the biological links between a birth mother and her child, and their insistence that these were of a different order than other kinds of relationships, had more to do with the culturally specific beliefs from the anthropologists' own culture, such as "blood being thicker than water," than with the structures of meaning they found within other societies.

One trajectory in kinship studies in the modernist period, then, was away from biologistic and toward increasingly symbolic analyses of the underlying rules that govern descent and alliance. In these discussions, the dichotomy between nature and culture, and debates about gender, became ever more salient. Feminists saw—and were quick to condemn—clear continuities between the assumptions about the opposition between the "elementary" family and the larger social world, and Bachofen's earlier notion that progress was achieved when women were confined to the domestic sphere, safely under men's control. Discussion of the opposition between public and private spheres, and whether this existed within all societies, thus also became part of the debate over the nature of the family, and the role of women within it. This particular argument, like early feminist social science in general, was also influenced by another important trend in American academia during the latter part of the twentieth century: the reemergence of Marx and Engels.

Marxism reentered American anthropology from a number of directions outside of kinship studies: the growing politicization of American society in the wake of the Vietnam war, and a renewed interest in evolutionary theory, now linked to the newly emerging field of ecological anthropology and to intellectual developments within archaeology. Once the door was open, younger, mostly women anthropologists began reading Engels, and found there the focus on inequality and the oppression of women that they found missing in twentieth-century anthropology. Eleanor Leacock, Karen Sacks, and Richard Lee are among the many American scholars who reintroduced Engels's assumption that the form of the family, even at its most fundamental level, differs radically from society to society. An especially lively debate arose over whether, or to what degree, women had greater equality within the small-scale, egalitarian societies of foragers where "family" and "society" were coterminous, rather than separated into public and private domains. Another productive area of research was whether, as Engels had posited, the rise of the state coincided with a loss in female autonomy and power. A third, more theoretical question dealt with the relationship between production and reproduction.

One of the most stimulating sets of ideas was introduced by Gayle Rubin in her essay on "The Traffic in Women," which also appeared in Woman, Culture, and Society, and which brought together Lévi-Strauss and Marx in a single, breathtaking argument. Bringing Marxian questions about inequality and feminist interests in gender and sexuality to bear on conventional kinship studies, she extended the notion of the incest taboo into the very creation of gender itself, which she named "the taboo against sameness." As Lévi-Strauss had done with the incest taboo and with the idea of nature itself, Rubin assumed that the difference between women and men was itself a product of culture, rather than nature, despite its apparent naturalness. This argument presaged the later development of gay and lesbian anthropology and of queer theory, fields in which Rubin would continue to play an important role.

As the end of the twentieth century approached, modernist anthropology began to lose its appeal, and with it the study of kinship as conventionally defined. Marx and Lévi-Strauss, key intellectual figures in the 1970s and 1980s, began to fade from view, replaced in the 1990s by Pierre-Félix Bourdieu (1930–2002), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and Judith Butler (b. 1956), as structuralism was replaced by a poststructuralist and postmodernist emphasis on the practices of everyday life, and analyses of inequality by a diffuse notion of power. With the publication of his private diaries, with their controversial racial language, Malinowski would become the object of scornful critique by writers who wished to "decolonize" anthropology, just as the modernist anthropologists had rejected nineteenth-century evolutionism. In general, many of the classics of British and American structural-functionalism would cease to be much read by younger anthropologists. Conventional kinship studies, with their emphasis on rules, structures, and terminology, their avoidance of questions about power relations within the family, and their insistence on an "elementary" set of essential, biologically determined relations at the heart of every kinship system, would become a thing of the past. But new questions—about the reshaping of kinship by new reproductive technologies; about the relationship between biological and social reproduction; and above all, about gender and sexuality—would bring younger anthropologists back to the study of the family, and would also find them bringing to bear some of the same techniques and theoretical insights utilized by the modernist and even the evolutionary anthropologists of the past.


Carsten, Janet. Cultures of Relatedness. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Goody, Jack. The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Fortes, Meyer. The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi. London: Oxford University Press, 1949.

——, ed. Marriage in Tribal Societies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Fortes, Meyer, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, eds. African Political Systems. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.

Keesing, Roger M. Kin Groups and Social Structure. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated from the French by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, editor. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

MacCormack, Carol, and Marilyn Strathern, eds. Nature, Culture, and Gender. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1870.

Parkin, Robert, and Linda Stone. Kinship and Family: An Anthropological Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.

Rosaldo, Michelle, and Louise Lamphere, eds. Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974.

Schneider, David. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

——. A Critique of the Study of Kinship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Weston, Kath. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Mary J. Weismantel

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Methane to Molecular clockModernist Anthropological Theory of Family - The Family In Early Social Evolutionary Theory, The Modernist Study Of Kinship, Bibliography