On not defining

What is a book about when it is titled The elementary structures of kinship (Lévi-Strauss 1967 [1949])?  For about thirty years, and during my graduate years at the University of Chicago, it was about “elementary structures” and we debated endlessly what that might mean.  But I also took courses from David Schneider as he was elaborating his most famous book, A critique of the study of kinship (1984).  He taught us that Lévi-Strauss’ book, ostensibly about “kinship,” was actually about NO THING that could be studied cross-culturally.  Schneider’s book, as a version of the history of the near present often say, marked the end of the study of kinship in anthropology and the disappearance of the field as foundational to the discipline.

I thought about all this recently because I had to review an interesting paper for possible publication.  It discussed Schneider’s legacy but it also appeared to search for an alternate definition of kinship.  And so it tickled my dissatisfaction with anything that smacks of definitions, ideal-types, and other attempts to capture a “thing” that is also an abstraction, and to do so deductively.  The paper did make the point that the disappearance of “kinship” did not mark the end of anthropological work on marriage, sex and gender, relationships.  But it may be that, as the author argued, we do not quite know anymore how to classify this work if it is not “kinship.”

So, what are we to do?  I propose that we do not seek a definition or elaborate an ideal-type.

Schneider was no historian of anthropological ideas and his polemical characterizations of many ancestral figures do not always point at what made them interesting.  He does not note, for example, that Lévi-Strauss, when writing about kinship or family (1956), did not write about essences but about “models” that are analytic products rather than representations, and only useful for purposes of experimentation on the analysis and validation of the analysis (1962 [1952]).  Models are built out of 1) recorded observational experience among a particular group (people and the field anthropologist co-participating with them) in order 2) to produce another form of practical experience among another group (the field anthropologist back at home among other anthropologists).

The best example of a model is that drawn by Jean Lave about learning as movement through a “community” on the basis of her experiences with tailors and in supermarkets.  This model opens all sorts of investigations into boundaries, gravity wells (under what conditions might one consider becoming a legitimate peripheral participants, e.g. apply to graduate school at the University of Chicago), chutes and ladders (blockages and bypasses in the movement out of peripheral positions), the ever receding “full” position, etc.

[A CAUTIONARY NOTE: neither Lévi-Strauss nor Lave wrote exactly in the terms I used o summarize what they taught me]

So what might we try to model when observing people “at home”?

Retrospectively, I think I was lucky to start my career in a department of “Home and Family Life” later to be renamed “Family and Community Education.”  It was embarrassing when mentioned at the American Anthropological Association meetings.  But it kept reminding me that, while kinship was NO THING, home and family, hearth and crib, kitchen and school, dating, divorce, menstruation and menopause, illness and death, all were issues for all human beings to face, as transformed in the myriad ways their ancestors frame for them.  As I started reading Bourdieu and many others on the reproduction of birth privilege in democracies famously organized to eradicate it, then I was more convinced than ever that “family” had to remain an irreducible concern, and all the more so as sociobiologists gained the favor they now have among journalists writing, for example, about why hypergamy remains a favored (guiltily preferred?) form of marriage for women.

Anthropologists of everyday life have no choice but to face home and family (hearth and lineage, residence and descent) in about all the very large scale political entities bringing together under their “governmentalities” billions of human beings (from Japan to the Americas, around the globe)—not to use the word “culture” and to emphasize issues of power that I have sometimes been accused, surprisingly for me, to ignore.  But facing home and family is not the same thing as defining “kinship.”  In the field one can start anywhere, e.g. with a woman in her late pregnancy, and trace with whom, where, sometimes when, how she will actually give birth, and with what consequences (to her child, other significant others, and perhaps others, far away, who may suffer because of the child’s privileges accruing with his birth here and then).

Latour has been telling anthropologists that their task is to trace what may also be a “viper’s tangle” to quote François Mauriac most famous novel  (rather than Geertz on webs of meaning).  I have been sympathetic to this call because it brings us back to the anthropological task of uncovering constraints and openings.  Most importantly, as I understand it (or at least as I teach it), this call is not for new definitions, and it discourages debates about essences.  A home is not a thing, but entering one’s kitchen is an experience to be modeled.


Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1969 [1940] The elementary structures of kinship. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1956 “The family.” In Man, culture and society. Edited by H. Shapiro. New York: Oxford University Press. 261-285.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1962 [1952] “Social structure.” In Structural anthropology. Tr. by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books. 277-323.

Schneider, David 1984 A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.


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