2 - The Anthropological Sense

This is the third in a series of notes to fifteen lectures for my class TF5005: Interdisciplinary Study of the Family.
  1. By the 1950s, anthropologists had almost universally given up on the totalizing effort of people like Murdock who had thought to demonstrate that "the family" was of universal import in any single fashion.
  2. What Murdock had seen as "exceptions" were now taken to be the most revealing of the underlying processes.
    1. Thus the interest in the Nayar as a challenge to the apparent universality of marriage
    2. the interest in African families in the Americas (in the Caribbean and the United States as evidence that family structure in human societies is not a simple affirmation of the biological facts of reproduction.
  3. Lévi-Strauss, in the paper on "The Family" expands on this earlier statement about culture "transforming" nature and stresses the malleability of the arrangements that can arise in social evolution to deal, not only with biological reproduction and early socialization, but also a host of other functions that can be performed at the same time.
    1. This builds on the major theoretical argument in The elementary structures of kinship that culture has to do with the establishment of new rules on top of possible biological ones that become facts with major consequences when they have been institutionalized.
    2. It also prefigures his later interest in representational systems (myths particularly) and later developments in theory that often present themselves as opposed to his.
  4. In this perspective the second part of Lévi-Strauss's paper is the more important in that it moves our attention from
    1. the family (in the multiplicity of its apparent forms within particular limits)


    2. the relationships between families, and, by implication perhaps, to the practical work that families must always engage in as their local conditions change (through the birth, death and marriage of various members).
  5. Lévi-Strauss himself did not directly explore the implications of the second part of the paper and it is only recently that attention has turned to the work that all must perform (what some have called the "turn to practice," often with a bow to Bourdieu that should more profitably be a bow to ethnomethodology as some are not using it).
  6. Anthropology itself focused more on the implications for research of the emphasis on culturally constructed difference leading to first a radical critique and now, possibly to a return to an interest in "households" that may be part of a return to a new kind of empiricism focusing on commonsense behavior
    1. Schneider and the question of the definitional bounding of the field: the epistemology of the question "what is 'mother'?" on the grounds that only if we start   from a point of reference privileging biology or socialization can we even talk about "difference."  Thus Schneider suggested that the whole field of kinship studies was untenable since we could not provide a definition of the field that did not start from a particular cultural framework.  His work parallels a rapid disinterest by most students of the next generation in questions of family.
    2. Schneider's critique is also directly tied to developments in feminist theory that are still evolving and focus on the political aspects of any interest in family matters.
    3. In recent years, there has been a small resurgence in research in what would have been called kinship with an attempt to recapture grounds for comparison through a focus on "households" as the possibly universal smallest units of sociability where most children are in fact raised--without any a priori about the kind of relationships the members of the household might have had prior to their coming together, or the regulation of their interaction.
further readings for anthropologists

September 21, 1999