Over at least the last 150 years, social theory concerning the evolution of civilization and the development of modern society has been shaped by an enduring meta-narrative that features kinship as a primary signifier. This meta-narrative differentiates between pre-state societies (characterized by kin groups, status and religious ceremony) and territorial state-based societies (featuring individuals, contract and secular law). It also differentiates the overall structure within societies: in pre-state societies, kinship is said to organize political, economic and religious relations; whereas in state-based societies kinship is understood to be relegated to the domestic domain—thus irrelevant to the workings of politics and economics—and to become, inevitably, more secularized. Across diverse theoretical orientations, these basic presuppositions about the development of modern society remain remarkably persistent.
We argue that, as anthropologists have turned their attention to so-called modern societies, they have, on the whole, unquestioningly accepted these assumptions about the place of kinship. Indeed, kinship makes virtually no appearance in the various revisions of this meta-narrative that have played out recently—including theories of development, modernization, globalization, and secularization. The enduring power of this model in both academic and popular circles has rendered kinship invisible and made it virtually impossible to ask questions about the significance of kinship in contemporary politics and economics or to reassess its relation to religion in a supposedly secular age.
In the context of a School of Advanced Research Advanced Seminar (“The Difference Kinship Makes: Rethinking the Ideologies of Modernity,” March 2010) and its resulting conference volume (in press), we have gathered together work that challenges the underlying presuppositions of this meta-narrative of modernity and have begun to re-theorize the place of kinship in contemporary societies. Here, we attempt, all too briefly, to indicate the import of this work as it relates to economic, political and religious formations and processes.
Kinship, Economy and Corporation
Explorations of the relation between kinship and economy have tended to focus on those societies deemed “backward” (where economic relations are presumed to remain embedded in kinship relations) or on the history of pre-capitalist economic relations. However, this work has not disrupted the developmental narrative that places kinship and contract in distinct historical moments or social domains. While it is evident that historical changes in legal and financial instruments and institutions have separated certain aspects of family and finance, we follow Sylvia Yanagisako in noting that we should not therefore automatically imagine their separation complete.
In our forthcoming book, Sylvia Yanagisako, Elana Shever, Laura Bear and Janet Carsten join earlier efforts (eg, by Antónia Pedroso de Lima; George Marcus and Peter Dobkin Hall) to investigate the continued entanglements of kinship and economy in contemporary corporations and capitalism. Yanagisako demonstrates that family sentiments are critical to the formation, continuity and transnational extension of productive forces within global capitalism. Shever extends the analysis to both state-owned and privatized companies in the Argentine oil industry, where kinship, economic and nationalist relations were densely intertwined, and where oil itself became the very substance of kinship. With regard to labor, Bear explores the ways Indian shipyard workers (enmeshed in transnational corporate structures) understand the conditions of productive labor through religious conceptions of life force, reproduction and long-term kinship relations, while Carsten shows how high-tech workplaces, like medical labs, are thoroughly domesticated by kinship relations. Taken together, such works not only critique the presumed separation of kinship and economy in modern societies but also challenge accepted ideas about the developmental stages of capitalism.
Kinship, Nation and the State
With the advent of territorial-based nation-states, kinship is no longer presumed to be the organizing framework for the political order. Consequently, scholars of the nation- state—including those who characterize the nation-state in terms of territorial boundedness, possessive individualism, and secular legalism and those who query these characteristics—have rarely deemed kinship relevant. By contrast, we argue that there are significant ways in which kinship continues to be central to the political order of the nation-state and transnational movements and organizations.
We build on the recent work of scholars who have, for instance, explored the differential generative qualities of paternity and maternity as they inform notions of nation and state (eg, Carol Delaney) or traced the uses of kinship, marriage and genealogy to mark the inclusions and exclusions, purity and hybridity, shared essence and essential difference of the ethnic and racial dimensions of national citizenship and diasporic identities in colonial empires and post-colonial nation-states (eg, Catherine Nash, Laura Bear). Authors in our own volume open further lines of inquiry. Yanagisako and Shever consider the importance of kinship to the definition of national brands and the organization of national industries. Barbara Bodenhorn explores the centrality of kinship and marriage to the boundary-making and boundary-crossings that characterize global migrations and immigration. Danilyn Rutherford probes the importance of kinship to the imagination of national futures threatened by climatic collapse. And Michael Lambek argues that, in asserting its right to define, control, legitimate, and authorize acts and forms of kinship, the state inextricably binds itself to, rather than separates itself from, kinship. Thus, in revisiting the political order of the nation-state, we find kinship critical to the conceptualization, organization and dynamics of this quintessentially modern institution and its historical and contemporary global transformations.
Kinship, Religion and the Secular
A third major theme of our argument relates to the much-debated role of religion in modernity and the relation between kinship, religion and the state. Assertions that modernity is characterized by processes of secularization have a long history; and, although second-generation theorists of the secular such as José Casanova and Charles Taylor have eroded the most teleological claims and advanced our understanding, they have not systematically considered the relationship of the secular to kinship, or vice versa. Indeed, most writers on secularization either do not discuss kinship, or else use terms such as “family” and “domestic” that already presuppose the place of kinship in modernity.
Our volume bridges this gap by re-examining particular contexts in which the construct of secular kinship is asserted in order to unravel its multiple assumptions. Bear, Cannell, Lambek and Rutherford demonstrate the widespread persistence of “unsecular” kinship practice in various settings, including contemporary Mormonism. Gillian Feeley-Harnik considers a historical moment in America when the ideological status of genealogy hovers between science and religion. Cannell argues that anthropological theories of kinship have inadvertently limited themselves to an object of study already tacitly deemed to be secular—for example in NRT studies, where physical-social analysis prevails over an understanding of kinship as often co-extensive with the sacred in contemporary Western life.
We also note the contradictions that result from the place of kinship within the domaining theories of modernity. From one perspective, kinship and religion are classed together as the “also-rans” of modernity; from another perspective, kinship may be treated as superior to and distinct from religion, when it is asserted, for instance, that kinship has a basis in actual material reality (such as DNA) while religion is imaginary and immaterial. With Lambek, we argue, instead, that contrasts between the place of kinship in pre-modern and modern constitutions have been exaggerated, that kinship is both immodern and immoderate in its potential for meaningful constructions of persons and temporal relations, and that this renders it inherently difficult to cordon off kinship from other aspects of human social life.
In daily life, we often come to believe—and thus to act upon—our own myths about modernity. Both those who fear complete secularity and those who consider it essential have sometimes acted as though it were an attainable project; the same could be said of the myth of the pure market, with well-known and often disastrous results. By re-examining the actual and conceptual place of kinship, we hope both to begin inter-disciplinary conversations and to contribute to a less deterministic view of contemporary social formations.
Susan McKinnon is professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia and is currently exploring transformations in nineteenth-century American kinship and marriage. Her books include From a Shattered Sun: Hierarchy, Gender, and Alliance in the Tanimbar Islands (1991) and Neo-liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology (2005).
Fenella Cannell is reader in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her books include Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines (1999), for which she was awarded the Benda Prize 2001, and The Anthropology of Christianity (2006). Recent research focuses on secularism, English genealogies, and American Latter-day Saints.