Lecture 12: Kinship and Descent
What is kinship based on? Most of you, if pressed to answer that question, would
probably make reference to “shared blood.” Perhaps you would mention “genetic”
relatedness as well. In either case, you would base your answer on the idea that kinship is
somehow “biological,” or part of nature. Everywhere, we assume, people have relatives.
Everywhere, there are people called “cousin” or “aunt” or “uncle.”
The way we think about kinship is reminiscent of the way we think about race. We
naturalize it and essentialize it, because it is something we believe to be based ultimately
on something physical, on a shared substance in our bodies.
It is fairly easy, however, to prove that the way we think of relatives in the U.S. is not
based, in a literal or exclusive sense, on shared blood or genetic relatedness.
[Example: some relatives share ½ of their genes with you (mother, brother, father, sister,
son, daughter); others share ¼ of their genes with you (grandparents, grandchildren,
aunts, uncles); others share an eighth (cousins and great grandparents); and so on. Now,
do you consider your mother and brother kin of the same type? Are uncles and
grandmothers the same? No. This is because kinship is not based solely on degrees of
genetic relatedness. It is also based on gender, age, generation, and so on. These things
are much more important than genetic relatedness in determining what a cousin and a
great grandmother are.]
[The LOVE connection. Is kinship based on love? This is theory #2 for most Americans.]
So, if kinship is not simply a measure of genetic relatedness – or “love” -- what is it?
For us, it will signify three things: