Kinship is not a 'thing in itself'
Kinship is not a thing in itself. It is not substantial nor all there is. And the study of it is not — as Geertz once said of aesthetics1 — to do with appearances. Kinship is part of the symbolic order, it is an idiom, a way of saying things. It signifies in its elementary forms the elementary structures of mind: it is at another level solidarity and blood.
Essentially kinship from the above perspective is a rejection of that positivistic classificatory tendency that dogged those unfortunate early anthropologists who apparently could see no further than the terminology, the politico-jural norms, rights and duties, and ideal relationships that are merely the surface matter of other cultures. And the critics of these views, those who found themselves leaping Kierkegaard fashion into or across the epistemological break or paradigmatic shift, hold hands across the half century with Marx and Freudian analyses.2 Kinship thought of as a thing in itself is an absurd view that lacks perception of depth and meaning, of the 'reality' behind it, of the differing characteristics that may ultimately dissolve it in totemic dissolution.
As Schneider didn't quite put it, but the Hollywood movie almost did: there must be more to kinship than bringing up baby.3
It is this denudation, dispossession of the apparent substantive nature of kinship that I wish to concentrate on; and the division into two camps as just outlined must be taken as an approximation — an attempt, if you like, to understand what happened to kinship studies from the mid 1940s to the beginning of the 1970s.4 For this period was characterised by several sets of backbiting discussions, each of the contenders claiming (in so many words) to understand what kinship was all about. As a measure of anthropological approaches and quarrels the concept became — at least at the theoretical level of discussion — a worthy barometer. For the purposes of this essay I have chosen to look at the five main arguments about kinship, none of which are mutually exclusive. I will also look at how far the principle of alliance and the notions of emic and etic were involved. Above all, however, my interest is in the confrontation itself and the issues that appear to lie behind it.
Let us begin with Levi-Strauss of whose work Leach5 said in one of his kinder moments: "(S)ome passages ... when translated into English seem almost meaningless". With his 'gallic erudition' placing him at a most unfair advantage6 Levi-Strauss shattered conventional British anthropology7. Indeed his effect was such that Meyer Fortes, some 16 years later in an address to the 1966 RAI Annual Proceedings, sounded as if he was still reeling from the shock: "... our studies are reverberating with new words and new ideas," he said, apologising for tackling such an orthodox subject as totem and taboo.8
The reason for this lay partly in Levi-Strauss's 'message' and partly in the eruption yet again of the Continental influence into an insular, pragmatic and highly empiricist-minded anthropological community.9 French anthropology was built up by philosophers, British by biologists, classical scholars or lawyers.10 The influence of Durkheim, coupled with British pragmatic political reformism and philosophic empiricism had produced an anthropological stress on social order, government and political and social control.11 What kept society together? asked Durkheim (in the philosophic tradition). The kinship system, answered Radcliffe-Brown and others, including Fortes12 (in the empiricist tradition). In fact, to understand any political, economic, etc, aspect of a society one had to have a "thorough knowledge of their system of kinship and marriage".13 Kinship was the arrangement that enabled tribal peoples "to live together and co-operate with one another in an orderly social life".14 Following from this was a concentration on the rights and duties that members had towards each other by virtue of their specific kinship status and which apparently prevented the society's collapse into primitive anarchy.
Two background details are necessary here to understand what was to happen in the next 15 years. The first was that the Methods of Natural Science (or what were thought to be the methods) were deemed a suitable model for anthropological studies. Specifically these were classification, observation, and the building up of concepts on the basis of accurately described empirical data.15 The aim? Systematic comparative studies (ie, scientific) which would prevent anthropology from becoming only historiography and ethnography.16 The goal? The discovery of the fundamental similarities that lay beneath (or above) the differences and wide variations. These small number of structural principles17 would satisfy all desires to establish anthropology as a nomothetic discipline and, by 1953, quite a number of them were thought to have been found by abstraction from observed behaviour in the field.18
The second point lies in the concentration on descent systems and the notion of unilineal descent as a universal structuring principle.19 With the accumulation of ethnography from India and South East Asia it became clear that in this area the solidarity of society was better looked at in terms of alliances between groups. Levi-Strauss's first major work (1949) was an examination of a particular form of exchange marriage, that between cross-cousins.
Since descent groups were discrete units, marriage had been discussed largely in terms of recruitment to the group, legitimate marriage necessary to provide legitimate offspring to replenish the group.20 In Alliance theory the accent changes, what becomes the focus of attention is the way women are exchanged between units in a system. A segment is defined in terms of unilineal descent rule and exogamy as opposed to just its corporate character 21 and the relation between them is one of alliance through marriage. The perspective also moves with respect to kinship terminology. Instead of interpreting them as Radcliffe-Brown did, from the viewpoint of Ego and associating them with specific behaviour and sentiments, the terminologies were seen as defining classes between whom marriage may or may not take place.
Here we see the shift away from concentration on behaviour and social organisation to an understanding of the kinship system in terms of the rules which govern the exchange of women by groups and as a model created by the anthropologist to describe them. But this is the alliance system from one level, and the one to which most anthropologists subscribed.
Now to return to Levi-Strauss, looking at the reaction to him in the light of the above; this will in turn reflect on his part with respect to the title of this essay.
Two assumptions underlined the criticisms to be thrown at Levi-Strauss. One, that his first book was only an elaborate analysis of prescriptive marriage systems22 (which it was, at worst) and, following from this, that it should follow the Rules of Scientific Method as prompted by Bacon, Descartes, Newton and, later, the turn-of-the-century positivistic philosophers of science — that consistency and empirical verifiability should be bywords (if not preconditions); and that if you can't experiment on your subject describing behavioural regularities is the next best thing.
Thus Leach in 195123 could not accept Levi-Strauss's disregard for the empirical facts.24 He took the Frenchman to task for unreliability, misapplication of ideas due to weakness of ethnographic detail, misunderstanding his sources and carelessness. And on the updating of ESK [The Elementary Structures of Kinship], Leach – despite having made some of Levi-Strauss's structuralist methods his own – still betrayed his background by expressing astonishment that Levi-Strauss did not seem at all worried that he had got his original facts wrong.25 "Levi-Strauss, as always, has got everything back to front," he concluded.26 He should, in fact, stick to correlating kinship structure and varied institutional dimensions27 — which is, of course, what Leach had done in his article, relating kinship with the political and economic aspects of the Kachin in a most admirable way.28
Levi-Strauss, under the influence of Mauss, Durkheim, the 1930s Prague Linguistics School, Freud and Marx,29 looked beyond kinship as a 'concrete' behavioural manifestation making up that actual visible social structure of Radcliffe-Brown to demonstrate that ultimately it was not a thing in itself. Kinship, while still being a recognisable institution, was symptomatic of a few underlying structures. For the kinship structure was the result of and expressed on closer examination two things — one, the principle of exchange in which was the genesis and rule for human society and, two, the elementary structures of mind, these giving shape or form to cultural elements,30 the environment determining the content. Kinship was like language, both in that it derived from the unconscious and, secondly, that just as language involved the exchange of codes, kinship involved the communication of women (though language was prior to kinship and on a 'higher' level since signifier and signified were different).31
It is thus that Levi-Strauss is able to flick the Leachian gnat from his shoulder32 by appealing over the empiricists' heads to a different 'Scientific Tradition' and indirectly to the Marxian comment that 'Science would be superfluous if there were no difference between the appearance of things and their essence'33. And he was also armed with the use of a Scientific Technique derived from the linguists Troubetzkoy and Jakobsen, this enabling the linguists to look past the surface phenomena of language, the phonemes, to simpler structural ('distinctive') features34 — "to which they owe all their reality".35 As he said himself, he saw his kinship model as running counter to "the present trend of kinship studies, which advocates that not models, but real peoples and empirical terminologies be taken as the starting point".36 In alliance theory, where each segment "is maintained ... by its systematic relationship in opposition to other like units"37, the meaning of each marriage is given by its position in the total system of marriages just as the word is given meaning by the sentence, or the letter by the word. Equally the institution of kinship does not stand on its own as a concrete thing in itself, but only exists in the relation with other structures.38
As far back as 1945, Leach had raised questions about the traditional functional method as carried out by Radcliffe-Brown,39 but this was due less on his part to some ontological doubt concerning the use of Scientific Method in anthropology (although Leach was later able to question which one was the most appropriate, after a decade of absorbing Levi-Straussian Structuralism) than how it was carried out. By 1961 he was stating that anthropologists had to get back to "first principles"40. Three features characterised this debate, which continued throughout the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, and which underlined Leach's statement that "Kinship ... is not 'a thing in itself'"41.
The first two were as follows: that the so-called norms described by Radcliffe-Brown were little more than the informant's ideal model of his society.42 And that if the anthropologists were to arrive at any valid principles of social organisation they would have to use the comparative method, but this would have to start from a concrete reality rather than some abstract concept of the lineage or kinship system.43 Leach was able to arrive at this by a comparison of Levi-Strauss's armchair analysis of the Kachin (and discussion of the Kariera, etc, as described by Radcliffe-Brown) with his own fieldwork amongst the Kachin. Here it seemed obvious that the models set up by these two were singularly inaccurate (if for different reasons) if thought of as describing the 'reality'. The problem arose over confusing, as in the case of Radcliffe-Brown, the ego-centred kinship descent lines with local descent lines which only consisted of living generations and who lived in a real place.44 Even the assumption that the terminology was ego-centred was incorrect and arose from a confusion of the native terms with their English 'blood' equivalents.45
Amongst the Kachin it seemed obvious that the political, demographic and economic aspects had to be taken into account. This almost follows by definition from the nature of the Alliance model: since at some stage the anthropologist will have to ask why this alliance, between these people? And realisation of the status involved in being either a wife giver or taker and its implications for the model. Here Leach, with respect to Levi-Strauss, points out that the kinship reciprocities were not just symbols of alliance they were also "economic transactions, political transactions, charters to rights of domicile and land use"46. Certainly the society involved talked in terms of unilineal descent groups, but one had to look at the behaviour on the ground.
Thus Radcliffe-Brown's norm becomes, for Leach, an ideal representation, a point he explores further with respect to equilibrium models47 (as well as running into confusion himself over whether he is talking about the native's conceptual model or his own.48). The attack on Fortes in this book was supplemented in 1956 by Worsley's criticism49 that Fortes, by taking kinship as a moral system to be the master principle for the social structure as a whole had not realised that he was merely echoing the native's ideal view on the solidarity of the lineage when he talked about how rights and duties based on amity, within the elementary family, were extended outwards towards the whole lineage and society as a general uniting factor. This was inaccurate, said Worsley, people stayed together because of underlying economic interests (if they did at all, since Tali society in the traditional sense was breaking up). Kinship was not an 'irreducible principle' as Fortes put it,50 it was a form of expression for other activities, these latter talked about in terms of kinship. So a kinship relation between members of a productive unit (economic) were not the same as that between political groups (though they may be descent groups).51 The multiplicity of ties in Taleland were "expressed in the idiom of kinship".52
Leach's 1961 concerns were not however with the nature of kinship which, to a certain extent, Worsley was trying to deal with. Here we find our third feature which, to a certain extent, deals with the nomothetic aspect of early anthropology and the system of Alliance.
Fortes is wrong when he sees the problems arising from Leach (and others') discussion of kinship lie in regarding property as the "basic stuff of social life".53 He attacks the latter and Worsley for saying that the concepts of descent and affinity are merely expressions of property relations, these latter enduring throughout time. The real issue concerns the application of such 'principles' as that of unilineal descent to all societies. As Strathern was to mention with respect to the New Guinea Highlands, anthropologists found they could not apply the African model: it was not clear whether groups were corporate or even lineages, and the mode of segmentation was different.54 Leach extended the principles of solidarity outlined in Fortes' model of unilineal descent, those constraints which were moral and social, to see why Pul Eliya held together. However, while he found the members of the village stressed their membership in terms of kinship recruitment,55 it was really on the basis of establishing a property right through affinal links with someone in the village; the previous functional stress on the legal principles in descent theory had been to the detriment of society's economic aspects.56 The empirical facts (economic) were adapted to the ideal concept (kinship) by "means of fictions"57. Ideal models and principles therefore did not lead to an understanding of societies 'on the ground'58.
Leach's disillusion with kinship was more fully revealed in Rethinking Anthropology, which appeared at the same time as the Pul Eliya study. In 1951 he thought comparison should be of models59 (the Alliance system conceived at the level of a model), but by 1961 — with the failure of the universal application of Fortes' and Radcliffe-Brown's principles — Leach decided that contextual studies were obviously the thing.60 And if comparison should be carried out, it would have to be through mathematical generalisation. Contrary to the Functionalist (Radcliffe-Brown/Fortes type) kind of comparison, which merely ended up with numerous typologies, Leach's version concerned the principles of operation. By describing relational pairs with associated behaviour and their opposites (with their opposite behaviour) in terms of mathematical formulae, the Trobriand system of relations would be seen to be equivalent to that of the Kachin.61 Mathematics would get rid of the category distinctions62 and the absurd concentration on kinship. And rather than anthropologists taking such words as descent, marriage, etc, as automatically having universal validity, it would simply have to be a case of their minding their p's and q's.63
La Fontaine put her finger on the whole problem more succinctly: if the concept of unilineal descent had no applicability, she stated, then "the whole status of anthropology as a generalising discipline, aiming at statements of universal validity is at stake."64
When Gellner suggested an outline for an ideal language for the kinship structure he was, of course, fighting a losing battle. To suggest a notation that expressed "the underlying biological presuppositions of kinship..."65 such that biological impossibility (eg, man mating man) would constitute a notational impossibility and that social roles would be mere suffixes he was courting disaster – which he got. The debate over the physical-genetic-social 'content' of kinship — certainly with respect to his pronouncements — continued on and off over the next six years.
What lay behind the comments66 directed at Gellner that he should get back to philosophy and leave the social anthropologists to do what they were best at — a comment repeated by Beattie four years later?67 Why was his picture of a descent system "fallacious and it cannot in any case support the ideas he advances" ?68
At its simplest the debate ran along the lines of universalist vs. relativist (as sort of parallel to the Gellner vs. Winch discussion69) — which could, if distorted, be rendered as 'etic' and 'emic'. For Gellner it was the first, for the anthropologists the second. This newer way of treating the ethnographer's material differed from the ideal/actual slant to Leach's discussions of kinship, in that the latter contrasted a supposed "set of patterned regularities consisting of what people say ... they do ... and another set of patterned regularities concerned with what they actually do".70 The emic view was concerned with reflecting the units of behaviour meaningful to the actors, together with understanding their system of categories, taxonomies, etc, from within the observed society and letting them stand on their own terms. The etic categories of the analyst were to be regarded as neither more real or true than the etic ones.71
Thus Needham's reply to Gellner that kinship roles were not just a function of biological kinship72 — that we could not just analyse the categories of a descent system as if they governed biological relations: "The ideas and categories by which the members of a social aggregate may order their relations according to the criterion of descent are not tangible in any sense..."73. Each descent system had its own logic and was not "analysable in terms of Gellner's 'universal relations' which are simply biological"74. Neither could one apply the ego-centred terminology that Gellner proposed, a name in a descent group was not an individual but a term applied to a class of individuals "defined by criteria which may be strange to us"75. Thus we have the nub of the argument — Gellner had placed himself in the seat of Radcliffe-Brown and Meyer Fortes where, for the first, meanings were assumed to be genealogical referents76 and for the latter the irreducible facts about fatherhood were fatherhood.77
The first set of discussions took place in the Philosophy of Science journal and involved Gellner (1957), Needham (1960), Gellner (1960), Barnes (1961), Gellner (1963) and, yet again, Barnes (1964). This generally concerned the relevance of the physical basis of kinship in anthropological studies, as compared with its social and cultural recognition. Gellner accused the anthropologists (as represented by Needham) that while they stated they were not concerned with the biological basis, their kinship structures were all the time by definition, impositions of social ascription onto "a pattern of physical relations which are biologically given".78 Barnes indicate the biological connection was irrelevant, what anthropologists were concerned with was not genetic kinship, but the native's conception of what this was (social-physical kinship) and how his behaviour and institutions related to this.79
While this — indeed, often time wasting — discussion relates to the subject of the essay in the sense hinted at above, the second half, between Beattie (1964 and 1965) and Schneider (1964 and 1965) — and which was prompted by Gellner's "odd idea of ... kinship"80 is perhaps more relevant. According to Harris,81 Schneider and Beattie's discussion rested "on the conviction that there must be a cross-culturally valid emic definition of kinship distinct from a biological genealogy" — the only problem was they couldn't find it. What it does indicate is that the issue of emic-icity becomes less clear cut.
If Needham's study of alliance system in Asia led him to state the emic position in terms of internal logic, Beattie — in the African tradition — related institutions with concepts but found the institutions were not quite as men made them out to be. Schneider operated from the American 'cultural' anthropological position.
Beattie, in his 1957 article on the Nyoro, presented, he hoped, the material in terms of Nyoro kinship categories rather than those of Western culture. English kin terms implied a certain classification that the Banyoro did not make. In addition, Beattie discovered that though people talked about their relationships in kinship terms it was really a matter of belonging to the locally based clan that gave one a common ancestor, and whom one called kin depended on the occasion. Beattie came to the conclusion that social relations were talked about in terms of kinship.
Thus when Gellner stressed the physical nature of kinship Beattie took up the glove and stated that kinship was a set of social relations which the anthropologist selected because people spoke of them in terms of kinship (and not because they matched any biological counterpart). They were really names of categories and it was the anthropologist's task to "understand other people's social categories" and not uncritically impose his own.82 Kinship was an idiom, said Beattie — but it differed from Worsley's idea of idiom in that any aspect could become its content, eg, jural, political, etc.
Schneider's disagreement largely centred on this rather vague notion of 'content', or lack of it — since Beattie oscillated from social content to others, the first being rather redundant (strikingly similar to his definition of ritual, that it was expressive action). What, said Schneider, was the 'content' difference between a plain economic relationship and an economic one between father and son?
This concentration on content (away from what Beattie saw as the whole point, that anthropologists were not concerned with physical but with social relations) by Schneider can be understood in relation to his work on American kinship which he developed a little later.
The difference between Schneider and Fortes, according to Strathern83 is that the former wouldn't say the "irreducible fact about fatherhood is fatherhood itself".
Schneider rejected the componential analysis technique84 of his contemporaries because, as he saw it, it predetermined the structure of what it was studying and thus ignored the true extent or characteristics of the semantic domain of kinship.85 In 1968 he came to the conclusion that, for Americans at any rate, kinship was defined as 'biogenetic' and contrasted the cultural order of nature (ie, consanguineals) with that of law (affinals, eg, mother-in-law). Culture was defined as the system of symbols and meanings of a particular society. By 1972 the scheme had expanded: at the 'pure' cultural level — the emic one — these cultural orders of kinship were now clarified as being shared biogenetic substance (which sounds pretty awful at best) and the order of law. And at this level we find that kinship, nationality and religion are all the same. (It is significant that while Schneider puts quote marks around the word 'kinship' he cannot do so round religion or nationality.86) In a comment on comparison Schneider asked how it could be accomplished when the analyst's society and cultural concepts intruded.87 If the cultural bias of biogenetic substance constantly underlies the American or European analyst's observations on kinship this would take us some way to understanding the difficulties of extracting the subject of kinship from that of genealogy. (Schneider is, of course, accomplishing the feat of letting his own cultural assumptions define his study of his own culture.)
At this point we seem to have come full circle. Kinship, it appears, is not what it is when it is something else. The contrast between Schneider and Levi-Strauss on this point could not, however, be more profound. For Schneider the meaning of kinship resides in its content, for Levi-Strauss it is in the structure.
Southwold put his finger on the difficulty when he said that problems about kinship "are inescapably problems of meaning"88, and that the tendency to constantly redefine terms — definitions of which are rarely widely adopted — misunderstood the point of words, that they constituted a framework for social action.89
Needham, whose love of Radcliffe-Brown (and perhaps Fortes) was as great as that for Gellner, attacked the problem in the same sort of way. He castigated the assumption in the comparative typologising of Fortes and Radcliffe-Brown that disparate institutions and systems could be grouped under the concept.90 Secondly, that kinship classifications did not indicate objective properties but were behavioural guides. Their importance lay in their interpretation and application by the people:91 the meaning of institutions and systems lay in the context.92
In the new logico-semantic age Needham, through Hocart, Wittgenstein, Leach, Levi-Strauss and the Alliance system, was able to sum it up quite briefly: there was no such thing as kinship.93
Hocart had suggested that the ultimate meaning of a classification system could only be discovered by observing any common behaviour (ritual functions for him?) of those who were addressed by the same term.94 Wittgenstein, very popular at Oxford (cf. Horton), had stated that the referents of a word were frequently mistaken to constitute a class when in fact all they had in common was a family resemblance. Leach (and Dumont) had stuck to contextual analysis of single societies rather than indulging in bad generalisations.95 And alliance models tended to stress the internal logical of a system.
Where it seems from Needham's point of view that the 'old-guard' functionalists had gone wrong — yet again — was in their imagining that the categories they applied actually existed in the societies to which they applied them. As a result of this reification the functionalists indulged in bad mannered undisciplined and uncritical application of these categories and assumed that because they typed disparate phenomena in different societies under one term, they constituted a class. Kinship, according to Needham, was not a discriminable class of phenomena nor a distinct type of theory.96
Equally, neither could we say that the 'statuses' for one term, eg, that the Purum word pu indicated ancestor, grandfather, wife-giver, etc, had a common property. The values, ideas and premises had all to be taken into account when studying the social-classification of a society.97
But despite the noise he made, had Needham said anything new? Contextual analysis was not novel and Leach had suggested ten years previously an 'atheoretical' mathematical method of comparing relations. Perhaps he has reminded us (as Kroeber and Hocart had stated in their own ways sometime before) that it was very much a matter of language and that, as a way of ordering life 'kinship' could not be taken out of its conceptual context.98
For Needham, if comparison was to be achieved it was best done by formal criteria and assessing logical possibilities. For example, the most common factors associated with descent were inheritable rights and duties, the possible permutations for say rights would be worked out and applied to each sphere of society.99 This would ensure that single institutions were not picked out at random and compared out of context. And instead of labeling a society matri- on the basis of a few observations, the concatenation of differing rights, etc., in each sphere would have to be taken into account.
But however much Needham dissolved kinship as was commonly understood into a combination of features, and questioned its genealogical presuppositions from the actor's point of view — he had, in fact, reached a logical and sociological impasse. As Scheffler asked, by what criteria were the statuses distributed, allocated or transmitted? Upon examination the common factor turned out to be the genealogical connection.
The irreducible facts about kinship stand thus; it is simply the setting which has changed.
1 Geertz, C. 1975:111-112.
2 Marx, K. (1956, Selected correspondence): "The philistine’s and vulgar economists’ way of looking at things stems from the fact that it is only the direct form of manifestation of relations that is reflected in their brains and not in their inner connections."
3 Schneider, D. (full quote in Barth 1973:8): "... it seems self-evident that there is more to kinship than ... caring for the baby...."
Bringing Up Baby, RKO, 1938. With Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Baby, in this case, was a leopard.
4 Selby (1971:286) suggests a paradigm dividing major work in anthropology into four cells: collective mentalist, collective empiricist, individual mentalist, and individual empiricist – the ‘mentalist’ and empiricist approximating somewhat to my two outlines (others might call it ideal and real – both are erroneous). However, it would – as Selby so rightly points out – be folly to take his model terribly seriously.
5 Leach 1967: xvi-xvii.
6 Jarros 1968:490
7 Cf. Ardener 1971:453, etc.
8 Fortes 1966:5
9 Seddon & Copans (1978:8-14) state that there aren’t any British anthropologists of the stature of Durkheim and Weber due partly to the emphasis on practicality and dislike of abstract theories. Cf. Forster (1973) for a review of the Left-Wing critique of these aspects of classical anthropology.
10 Richards 1967:290.
11 Seddon & Copans 1978:8-14.
12 Fortes (1972 CA:286): "I regard Radcliffe-Brown as the immediate founder of the method and theory of structural analysis as it developed in British anthropology in the 1930s and 1940s." He also regarded Radcliffe-Brown’s two principles of the unity of the sibling group and the unity of the lineage as matching and supplementing Morgan’s discovery of classificatory kinship and having ‘irrefutable validity in the analysis of kinship and descent structures’ (ib.).
13 Radcliffe-Brown 1950:1-3.
15 R. Burghart (Lecture, 8 Nov 1982). Radcliffe-Brown (1950:1-3): "Without classification there can be no science."
16 Radcliffe-Brown (1951:18), quoted in Evans-Pritchard The comparative method in social anthropology (1965:30). As Evans-Pritchard pointed out: "Comparison is, of course, one of the essential procedures of all sciences", although he attached qualifications to this, (ib:14).
17 Radcliffe-Brown 1950:2.
18 Fortes could announce (1953:17-18) that data had moved from erratic to scientific and now, with the Functional method, we could understand societies with reference to each other. Comparative analysis was just the right sort of thing to make the data stand out in proper theoretical perspective (ib:19). Tax (1955) brought the grand total of principles of up 12 while he was under Radcliffe-Brown’s exciting stimulation at Chicago University.
19 Descent groups were a formal corporation recruiting according to the rule which stipulates that all members must be descended from a common ancestor. This kinship may in many cases be a fiction, and thus was considered by Fortes, Radcliffe-Brown, and others to be a social relationship which may or may not have coincided with the physical one (cf. Radcliffe-Brown 1950:4). However, it was considered to have an indubitable biological base (see discussion on pages 12ff). Unilineal descent groups recruited through one parent only (always the same sex), the marrying-in parent considered only in terms of ‘affiliation’. In Africa they provided the political corporative organisation where no government existed, they owned land, a single member was regarded as representative of the whole group, and they had rules governing individual behaviour and intergroup relations which had jural force. Much of the writing before 1955 concerns the rules governing marriage, affiliation, inheritance and so forth for each descent group, as well as a constant classification and discussion of the increasing number of variations on the principle as revealed by the accumulating number of ethnographies. For Fortes (1953:39) the unilineal descent group was a structural frame of reference through which a social system could be analysed, and descent was fundamentally a jural institution. Its members were seen as ‘assemblages of statuses’ differentiated from one another "by structural location and by customary definition" (Fortes 1966:10) through kinship labels, titles, jural rights and duties, etc. These objectified what the roles were about for the actor. For a person in an area where descent groups of this kind existed, membership of them was essential to secure any economic or political rights.
20 (Fox 1967:23). This functional argument has been criticised by Riviere in Needham, ed. (1971).
21 Schneider 1965-68:50.
22 Leach in 1951 (p.37) described the Elementary Structures ... as being a "contribution to incest theory, a study in the relevance of reciprocity to all institutionalised forms of marriage, an analysis of the structural implications of the several varieties of cross-cousin marriage and a general theory of social evolution" (this latter promoting part of Leach’s criticism against Levi-Strauss.)
23 Leach ibid.
24 Cf. Korn (1973) and Barnes (1971) for some more criticisms. However, Levi-Strauss does have his afficionadoes. Eg, Friedman (1974), Ardener (1971), Needham at the beginning until Levi-Strauss told him that he (ie, Needham) didn’t understand him, Douglas (1967), Boudon (1968, in Korn), Piaget, etc.
25 Leach 1969:279.
27 Leach 1951:37.
28 If Leach found it hard to deal with Levi-Strauss, so did Fortes. In his 1966 lecture he repeatedly returns (and, I imagine, wringing his hands) to justify the positivist method and to stress that functionalism was interested in man the social actor (who actually turns out to be no more than a bundle of rights and duties) as a giver and taker of messages — rather than the Levi-Straussian "reduction" of man’s relations with culture to a universal code (Fortes 1966:8-9). And, as for Levi-Strauss’s notion of structural opposition – why, this had been used in early Functional analysis, though as a principle of social structure rather than logical thought. Indeed, "One could not miss it among the Tallensi" (ib:9) — it was there, laid out bare for all to see in the complementary and polar ties and cleavages in the descent group, though the actor only understood them as divisions of interest and loyalties. Looking closer one could find their roots in the elementary family, said Fortes, "in which the complementarity of the sexes and the polarity of successive generations are the critical factors" (ib:10). And it was here the actor found a model for the structure of social groups, not in the structure of the human brain, as Levi-Strauss would have it.
Fortes here appears to thoroughly misunderstand Levi-Strauss on at least two counts: the structural oppositions in the Structuralist sense of the word were not visibly "discernible" and neither did they derive from an abstraction of behaviour in the same way that Fortes’ ‘oppositions’ did (which were concerned with cleavages in property relations, etc, and were about constraining or guiding people in social action). Secondly, Fortes’ own concerns appear to intrude in his reading of Levi-Strauss. Fortes says (1972 CA:286) that he is interested in explaining how individual social action is constrained by "forces and norms of social organisation" from society and from close kindred. His concern is also with the mechanisms of the inter-connections between familial domain and politico-jural domain. For Fortes, everything relates to familial psychology (eg, ‘division of interests’, the universal principle of amity, etc.) and the elementary family (aprospos Radcliffe-Brown’s influence) where the relationship of ‘filiation’ (ib:288) establishes all the norms, etc., of society, ie, actions as a socialisation unit.
29 Cf. Rossi 1973:22-3, 26 & 31 for a summary of these self-admitted forebears. Also Schneider 1965-68:25-29.
To a certain extent I have collapsed Levi-Straussian thought here, since it is not clear whether all the following was considered at the time of ESK.
30 Hastrup (1978:126): "The elementary structures are bundles of logical preconditions for the social system to work, rather than descriptions of the organisation of the elements within the system". She sees this (p.144, fn.4) to be the basis of the confrontation between Needham and Levi-Strauss.
31 Levi-Strauss saw communication working at three levels in society (goods, women and language). Kinship was at a different "strategic" level to linguistics, (something to do with langue and parole??). Radcliffe-Brown for him reduced kinship studies to the same level as that dealing with physiology, rather than Levi-Strauss’s ‘higher’ communication level (1952-79:296-7, 302). Does this importance of language over kinship stem from the fact that man’s ability to symbolise (and exchange signs) is that which distinguishes him from the animals, and the communication of women distinguishes him further since it is a precondition for society (and again differentiates him from the incestuous polygamous animals?). While not suggesting historical priority to either?
32 Rossi (1973:20): In dealing with critics who "complain about the unverifiability of his theories, he makes the gesture ‘of brushing away a fly’" (Levi-Strauss 1971:40).
33 Marx, quoted in Gellner 1970-73:150.
34 After Durkheim and Mauss, who tried to reduce complex phenomena to underlying elements, Levi-Strauss saw their ideas as reaching "behind superficial differences and similarities to the ‘hidden, fundamental elements which are the true components of the phenomena’ "(1945). This, for Levi-Strauss, was still the task of sociology. (Quoted in Harris 1968:483.)
35 Rossi 1973:26; Greenberg 1980:13ff.
36 Levi-Strauss 1965:56.
Levi-Strauss (1965:16): "The model, an ‘ideal’ one of the kinship systems’ rules, takes no more into account demographic conditions than the physicist’s definition of a crystal takes into account the local conditions of heat, pressure and the intrusion of foreign bodies, all of which prevent empirical crystals from assuming a perfect shape." Here directed at Leach as much as anyone else?
Firth (in the preface to Leach 1954:v-vi) comments that the notion of a model has at times served as “an excuse for an evasion of reality, by emphasising the personal character of the construct”. (He’s probably aiming this at Radcliffe-Brown). He praises, of course, Leach’s model type.
37 Schneider 1965-68:56.
38 Cf. Ardener (1971:462): for whom empiricism acquires a new meaning: "The data of a structuralist approach are in fact all other systems" and "The bringing of one system into relation to another by transformational links is the nearest thing available to testing."
Cf. Saussure: the system having priority over its components, "whose meaning derive from the position within the system. The subject himself is one of the elements of the system and therefore he gets meaning from the system instead of giving meaning to it." (Rossi ib:31). I’m not that sure that my analogy is all that correct.
39 Leach 1945:30-31.
40 Leach 1961-71:304.
42 Leach 1945:30-31.
43 Leach 1951:53.
44 "The descent lines of Radcliffe-Brown were merely a diagrammatic device for displaying the categories of the kinship system in relation to a central individual called Ego" (Leach 1951:25).
45 Radcliffe-Brown said if he observed certain behaviour between MB and ZS a number of times he would abstract it as a norm. But the word for this relation, says Leach, may mean either a biological blood relation or a general category. To which did the behaviour refer? (Leach 1945-68:30-31)
46 Leach 1951:45.
47 Leach 1954.
48 Cf. Schneider 1965-68:110 and Fortes 1972.
49 Worsley 1956:52.
51 Cf. Southwold (1971:35). If a term shows that it is not to do with kinship (genealogy) then the roles and relations it refers to shouldn’t be either.
52 Worsley 1956:63.
Cf. Bloch (1973) for a defence of Fortes. (And the volume he wrote in was dedicated to the latter.)
53 Fortes 1972:220-221; cf. Leach 1961:305.
54 Strathern 1973:24.
55 Leach 1961-71:303.
56 The real difference between the two can be gauged by Fortes’ comment to Leach’s statement that Fortes should recognise the political and economic context before labelling a structural type. Fortes answers (Fortes 1972:195) that his political approach to kin groups and institutions is fruitful enough, eg, correlating lineage structure with ownership of prestige property.
57 Leach 1961-71:8.
59 Leach 1951:53.
60 Fortes (1953:315): "The main aim of social anthropology is to investigate the general tendencies, or laws, manifested in them". Needham (1971:xcvi-xcviii): "The nearest Fortes ever came to a law was the ‘Axiom of Amity’... This demonstrates high expectations given by search for laws and the resulting commonplace generalisations: Fortes’ one only means that kinship implies co-operation and that one must be on good terms with those with whom one co-operates."
61 Leach 1961-68:17-18.
62 Ibid: 6.
63 "I would now argue ... that in certain cases the essential key to understanding is to perceive that a particular relationship ‘p’ is the opposite of another relationship ‘q’." (Leach 1945-61:28).
64 La Fontaine 1973:35. Her defence of Fortes is, after all, understandable: she was his pupil. (In the spirit of, don’t bite the hand that gave you marks!)
65 Gellner 1957-73:158.
66 Besides intra-academic rivalries, qv. preface to Gellner (1973).
67 Beattie (1964:103): "Professor Gellner’s ideas, as always are provocative and stimulating. But I, for one, hope that he will now abandon his wild goose chase in pursuit of an ideal kinship language and apply his mind to some other aspect of our subject" – which he did.
68 Needham 1960:96, and worse, ibid:96-97, 100. To this Gellner retorted that Needham was all right when he stuck to descent but "It is only when he attempts explicit account of the concepts [ie, philosopher’s territory] he goes off the rails" (Gellner 1960:169-170). And, "The curious thing about some of Needham’s errors and conclusions is that they are not even mutually consistent" (ibid:177).
69 Qv. ‘Winch’s idea of a social science’ (1960) in Gellner (1973). Also lecture 25 Feb 1983 ‘The overcoming of relativism’.
Fortes — in a less philosophical tone — bemoans Leach’s suggestion that anthropology abandon universal definitions (and discriminations, eg, between filiation, affinity and descent, etc), (Fortes 1966:5).
70 Harris 1968:580.
71 Barnes 1973:62, Encyclopedia of Anthropology 1976.
Both Richards (1967 "African Systems of Thought: an Anglo-French Dialogue") and Barnes (1973:63) warn that the emic-etic distinction does not really hold nowadays when the ‘natives’ adopt the analyst’s categories, explanations and tendency to systematisation.
If what Barnes says is correct (ibid: 62) the use of these concepts in anthropology is a prime example of how meanings change according to interest when taken out of original contexts and put to use elsewhere. Pike’s original formulation (195??? "Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behaviour" Vol. I) constituted an "unashamedly positivistic contrast. The scientific linguist observer, with his objective categories is contrasted with the speaking actor who use subjective categories... Inter-language comparison is implicit in Pike’s scheme".
72 Needham 1960:96-97.
74 Ibid: 98.
75 Ibid: 99.
76 Leach 1971:75.
77 Strathern 1973:21.
Fortes (1972?:212): "...the irreducible facts of parenthood and marriage".
78 Gellner 1960:170.
79 Barnes 1961:15. Barnes carefully sat on the fence during the debate and proposed "neither to examine where they have misunderstood each other" (ie, Needham and Gellner). Later he carefully puts a foot over each side of the chasm when he suggests that motherhood could be considered in terms of its physical-physical relationship, but fatherhood (since it could not be seen in action, as it were) could only be focussed on in its social-physical manifestations (1973). He seems to oscillate uneasily between etic and emic categorisation here.
80 Beattie 1964:102.
81 Harris 1968:579.
82 Beattie 1964:101.
83 Strathern 1973:24.
84 Componential analysis aimed to reveal the implicit knowledge people had about cognitive (semantic) domains and, with respect to kinship, consider the ‘meaning’ of the terms only after an analysis of the full range of relatives (Encyc. Anthrop. 1976).
85 Schneider is criticising this apriori demarcation of who or who were not kin relations, since it ignored the meaning hidden in the ambiguities, eg, calling the (biological) aunt’s husband uncle or not.
85 Schneider 1975 AK.
86 Schneider 1972:58.
87 Barnes 1973:61.
88 Southwold 1971:35.
89 Southwold 1978:152, 164-165. The point was not that understanding resulted from a good definition, but that it was the other way round.
90 Needham 1971:cvi.
91 Ibid: lxxvii-xc, xxxciii.
92 Ibid: cvi. (There seems to be some connection here with the notion of meaning and logical order, contrary to Schneider’s use of the term?)
93 Needham 1974:40-42.
94 Hocart 1937:551.
95 Needham 1971: cv & cviii-cix.
96 Ibid: cviii, & 1974:40-42.
97 Needham 1971: cvi-cvii.
98 Needham has described his aim as that of detecting order in social phenomena (1971: xxxvii). This rose out of his work among the Purum where the social organisation was, according to Needham, "‘ideologically a part of a cosmological order and governed identically by its ruling ideas’" (Needham 1962:95 in Schneider 1965-68:36). The exchange system acts as a model for the whole Cosmos, eg, the dualistic division of the social world into wife-givers and wife-takers and male and female projected onto it (1972 & 1973, in Keesing 1975:127). Not so far from Fortes after all (see last line).
99 Is Needham’s logical procedure derived from the typological procedure used in phonological analysis? Ie, enumeration of all "‘logically possible’ combinations of values on different dimensions, then a language (or whatever) can be classified on whatever combinations they possess." (The terms ‘value’ and ‘dimension’ here refer to phonological factors.) (Greenberg 1980:16)
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