Anti-Family Fantasies in “Cutting-Edge” Anthropological Kinship Studies

Warren Shapiro

Anthropology began as archeology—not just the archaeology of “prehistoric” human or quasi-human bones and stones, but also the study of other things presumably archaic. The most notable of these was the social life and thought of the world’s remaining peoples who could be taken as proxies for those who supplied these bones and used these stones as tools. Although the legitimacy of this surrogacy has been questioned in the history of the discipline, it remains strong today, even in popular discourse: witness the attraction of images of “cavemen,” people “from the Stone Age,” and, especially as part of “radical” feminist theory, “matriarchy.”

Anthropology, at least in America, also began as ideas about “primitive” kinship, mostly through the Herculean efforts of Victorian-era scholar Lewis Henry Morgan.1 Morgan’s main interest was once the most prestigious—and most seemingly arcane—area of anthropological research and theory, the study of systems of kin classification. He assigned special importance to Malay kin classification, which supposedly lacked “aunt,” “uncle,” and “cousin” terms and—again supposedly—labeled all kin by the local versions of “mother,” “father,” “brother,” “sister,” etc.

Morgan raised the entirely reasonable question, what is the social significance of there being so many “mothers,” “fathers,” and the rest? He gave an almost equally reasonable answer: early in “prehistory” people mated collectively, so that any man who had sexual access to one’s mother could be one’s father. Further, any such man had sexual access to one’s mother’s female kin, each of whom participated, in this sense, in one’s maternity.

Morgan was well aware that the Malays of his day did not practice what he quaintly dubbed “the community of husbands and wives,” but, he reasoned with perfect circularity, they must once have done so. So, he reasoned further, did the remote ancestors of the Anglo-Americans of his day. This was much further back in “prehistory” than its Malay counterpart, however, and it preceded the collapse of “community” and the establishment of the pair-bond, whose issue created the nuclear family—which, according to Morgan’s Progressivist scheme, was the final familial destiny of human kin reckoning.

Morgan’s scheme—which was much more extensive than what’s presented here and based on much more data, at least on kin classification—began to be demolished early in the twentieth century, when several scholars, buttressed with yet more data, observed that the vast majority of “archaic” peoples center their domestic lives on the nuclear family.2 Around midcentury, several other scholars showed that when considered in greater detail, the systems of kin classification of these peoples make much the same distinctions that English does.3

To take only the Malay example, the mother is called by the local “mother” term pure and simple, whereas other mothers are designated as in some sense “lesser mothers” by expressions translatable as “mother one degree removed,” “mother two degrees removed,” etc.4 This is entirely comparable with such English terms as “godmother,” “mother-in-law,” and “Mother Superior.” The “mothers” designated by these last three expressions are less than the real McCoy, who, it should be emphasized, and like her Malay counterpart, is designated “mother” without modification. These data on family modes and kin classification are supported by what is now a simply enormous amount of corroborating information in the ethnographic record. This usage is similar with “father,” “brother,” and other kin categories.

Although Morgan’s scheme cannot survive this record, there is an important sidenote to its history in social thought. This was supplied by Karl Marx’s patron, Frederick Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, first published in 1884 with the subtitle According to the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan.5 Engels accepted Morgan almost whole-hog: “the community of husbands and wives,” the “communal” (Morgan called it “classificatory”) system of kin classification, and the “late” appearance in human history of the nuclear family—though Engels did not tie this to a “prehistoric” “reformatory movement,” as Morgan did, but to the advent of capitalism, itself tied to “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”6

If kinship studies today were a serious empirical discipline, one advancing hypotheses and then modifying or discarding them according to accumulating evidence and more searching analytical methods, Morgan and even Engels would be acknowledged as pioneers while attention would be paid to what we now know, and how it too might be modified on the basis of new data, for example, from the marked decline of “the traditional family” in most of the Western world. Instead, the self-billed “new” or “cutting-edge” kinship studies—in what I believe is the most startling display of scholarly incompetence in evidence within the academy possibly excepting some of the emanations from women’s and African American studies—ignore (or are ignorant of) all the genuine advances in the study of human kinship since Morgan and Engels. The “new” kinship studies treat these two Victorian-era scholars as if they were the last and latest word, and when intervening and corrective scholarship is considered, it is done so cursorily and labeled a “reaction” (as in “reactionary”) to the True Faith.

Consider an article by Susan McKinnon, professor and chair of the University of Virginia anthropology department, purportedly meant to show that human kin distinctions contravene those posited in Darwinian theory (probably the chief bête noire of the academic “cutting edge”)7 and proffered to a symposium sponsored by the prestigious Wenner-Gren Foundation.8 The article relies heavily on the argument that Third and Fourth World kinship posits “a multiplicity of mothers,” in contrast to maternal singularity in the West. McKinnon calls attention to systems of kin classification, like that of Malays, in which the “mother” term is applied widely—in apparent ignorance of the sort of modifications noted above, and which are clear from her own ethnographic data from Indonesia. She further argues that the high frequency of adoption in such areas as Polynesia and the Arctic show the relative unimportance of biological kinship in these regions.

In all known cases, however, there are specialized “adoptive parent”/“adopted child” terms modeled on the “parent” and “child” terms (much like our “foster mother,” “foster father,” “foster child”), though these derived terms in all areas are usually elided in social relations so as not to emphasize the fabricated nature of adoptive ties. In Polynesia and the Arctic, adopters are usually close biological kin of the natal parents, particularly mothers’ sisters and mothers’ mothers. Natal parents express reluctance at the prospect of having others adopt their child, regret once the adoption is effected, and do not sever ties with the child upon adoption; and—here more evidence is needed—there is indication that adopted children are not treated as well as natal children.

However ineptly, McKinnon at least pays attention to systems of kin classification. This is not true of other “cutting-edge” kinship studies: even given the foundational nature of the study of such systems in anthropology as already noted, such rigorous, intellectually demanding scholarship is no longer deemed fashionable. Probably the most acclaimed example of “cutting-edge” kinship studies is carried out—among Malays no less!—by Janet Carsten, professor of anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.9 Carsten’s considerable ethnographic corpus contains virtually no data on kin classification. She focuses instead on the role of food-sharing and co-residence in creating kinship, utterly oblivious to the consideration that food-sharers and co-residents are normally close kin and thus provide models for the extension of kinship to others (compare “mother” and “foster mother,” “stepmother,” etc.).

Sharers of meals and abode, Carsten tells us, are said to come to share bodily substance, but it is plain from the reports of other anthropologists in the Malay area, which she virtually ignores, that the strongest substantial ties are between parents and children and between siblings. Thus Carsten writes of “undivided kinship” (read, communal kinship) among Malays, unaware that the data on kin classification show that Malay kinship is decidedly divided. Carsten also places great weight on the proposition that Malays live in communal houses, but none at all on the fact that these houses are divided into nuclear family compartments.

It gets worse. Malay families within a house are usually related through female ties, like mother-daughter and sister-sister. From this fact alone Carsten evokes what is perhaps the central fantasy of “radical” feminism—one derived obliquely from Morgan, Engels, and other scholars of their day—the all-female collective. And because Malay communities are usually composed of single houses, Carsten concludes that Malay women are “central to the political process.”10

But what of the men? Carsten also notes, without any acknowledgment of the implications of these findings, that while women are behaviorally and symbolically associated with the house’s central hearth, men’s comparable zones are the house’s periphery, where they receive visitors, and the wider society of mosque, café, and fishing boat. Thus, there is a male:female::public:domestic linkage—something familiar to us, but whose supposed absence in noncapitalist communities is a crucial part of the Marxist canon. Carsten’s naiveté is so profound that in her book The Heat of the Hearth she includes a photograph with the caption, “Men Vote at a Village Meeting.” This, at least, is accurate enough: not a single woman can be seen.

Not all of the “cutting-edge” kinship “experts” are women, but most are, and in their numerous self-congratulatory essays they call attention to the connections among their (hopelessly mistaken) analyses, “radical” feminism, and the all-female collective. An example of this linkage is an essay with the challenging title, “Is There a Family? New Anthropological Views,” by anthropology professor Jane Collier and two of her Stanford colleagues, included in a volume with the “cutting-edge,” faux profound title, Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions.11

One ethnographic case they invoke is the Mundurucú of the Brazilian Amazon, studied not by this Stanford trio but by two very fine old-school anthropologists, the late Robert Murphy and his wife Yolanda.12 Collier and colleagues argue that because Mundurucú men spend most of their time in a special men’s house from which women are excluded, and because the women’s quarters appear to be uncompartmentalized (what else?), there is perforce no nuclear family.

I think we need to rethink this “rethinking.” We need to ask, for example, why Mundurucú men spend so much time away from women. Part of the Murphys’ answer is what is now dubbed “male bonding,” which makes the men’s house akin to British gentlemen’s clubs. But there is a darker side to this bonding, one incompatible with the Marxist-feminist paradise that the Stanford trio would locate in Indigenous Brazil: men play special musical instruments in the men’s house that are held to be the embodiments of mythical beings who are said to enable success in hunting but are angered by the presence of women.

The entailed notion that women are inimical to male enterprise is hardly confined to Amazonia: witness the Western seafarer’s idea that a woman’s presence onboard angers the sea and perforce ruins the catch. But the Mundurucú go a step further and subject any woman who sees the instruments to gang rape. Moreover, although they crave sex, Mundurucú men are remarkably ambivalent about intimate contact with women and, related, they are given to an extraordinary degree of phallic sadism. Here are the Murphys on the matter:

Mundurucú men frequently make joking reference to sex as a means of subduing women. “We tame them with the banana,” one man said … [There is] reference to the vagina as “the alligator’s mouth.” Or a man may see a woman sitting with her legs a bit apart [—something considered extremely improper —] and will call out to one of his fellows that his mouth is open. To the men, the attraction of the vagina is tempered by its dangers. The vagina, too, has power, but it must be controlled by men. (p. 120)

This is not all. The marriages of Mundurucú women are arranged. They are forbidden to hunt—the most prestigious and quintessentially male activity—and their own labors are so denigrated that men who happen to perform them are ridiculed by the other men. All formal political leadership is in male hands, as is all spiritual authority. Finally, as the Murphys observe: “the physical layout…of the Mundurucú village tells us something about their social system. Women are supposed to belong in the home, in a private sector; men [by contrast] are public figures….Village life is…dominated by the men and is under their purview” (83).

There is much more of relevance here, but what’s been presented shows that Engels’s remark that among “archaic” peoples “the position of women is not only free but honorable” badly needs revision, as does the notion that here the male:female::public:domestic analogy does not exist.13 But attention to the facts isn’t something to expect from scholars bent on misrepresenting what used to be called the “primitive world” as the Marxist Word Made Flesh.

These scholars maintain that the existence of the men’s house among the Mundurucú means that there is no nuclear family, but instead an all-female collective. This is not true either. Although a woman with an infant sometimes delegates care to co-resident kinswomen, she is without question the primary caregiver. Moreover, the Murphys tell us, “mothers are much more affectionate to their own babies than to those they happen to be tending, and the baby is quick to recognize the difference” (167–70). And while a notion of generosity exists, when food is scarce people favor their spouses and children.

The Murphys note that although a Mundurucú man “spends a good deal of time in the men’s house,” he “is attached to the house of his wife,” to which he is a “constant” visitor (144). And when there, he associates entirely with his wife and children to the exclusion of the “collective”: when ill, he spends all his time with them so that his wife can care for him, and even in his absence there is a special place that they inhabit that is reserved for his personal property. He brings his catch from the hunt or from fishing to his wife, to whom, the Murphys write, he shows “open affection” (155). He is especially affectionate with his toddlers and older children. Small boys sometimes wander into the men’s house, and when they do they seek out their fathers.

All of this is to say that there is favored treatment among the Mundurucú toward what anthropologists call “primary kin”—parents, children, husband, wife—the constituents of the nuclear family. The fact that these kin are not always together, which for the Stanford trio is crucial, is immaterial; where on earth can that be said to apply? Furthermore, there is the same favored treatment in kin classification: the Mundurucú, like the Malays, have a “classificatory” system, but when they use kin terms they single out the closest biological kin by employing special modifiers translatable as “true” or “real” (i.e., “my real mother”). This is a remarkably common characteristic of systems of kin classification throughout the world, and as such it demolishes the fantasies of Morgan, Engels, and the “cutting-edge” kinship experts.

But the most telling data we have on the Mundurucú have to do with the recent incorporation of most of the population into the Brazilian rubber trade. Although men do the rubber-tapping, it is their wives who have instigated the change, which gives them access to a variety of utilitarian and luxury items heretofore unavailable. The women, the Murphys plainly state, prefer residence with their husbands to the former female “collective,” with the result that the nuclear family is now an even more unequivocal social unit, and the “collective” houses have disappeared (182–83, 189, 201). So too has the men’s house, and the blatant sexism associated with it.

Far from supporting the claims of “cutting-edge” kinship experts, the case of the Mundurucú is among the most decisive arguments against it.

The Mundurucú materials highlight that it is not in the “archaic” world but in the modern capitalist world that the position of women is most nearly equal to that of men. Where, after all, has an earnest feminism taken root? In the Arab Middle East? In Amazonia? Whatever else it is, and quite contrary to the claims about “the patriarchy” in “radical” feminism, Western civilization gives the best evidence of a relatively gradual extension of notions of full human dignity to women. Morgan noted this as far back as 1877, and here at least he was right as rain.

There’s a lot of solid feminist scholarship in the academy, but “cutting-edge” kinship studies are not part of it.14 Such studies are closer to the “radical” pronouncements of Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem, wherein emotionally appealing “conclusions” are reached with little if any evidence, dogma masquerades as argument, hopelessly atavistic scholarship is treated as the latest word, and opposing views are usually ignored or, at best, treated as “reactionary.”

There is a considerable literature, some but by no means all of it authored by myself, disputing one or another “finding” of the “cutting-edge” kinship experts, but almost none of it do they ever address.15 The reasons for this are partly dogmatic, but also a product of a remarkably limited scholarship that would have shocked the meticulous Morgan. For example, subclassification in systems of kin classification (“mother one degree removed,” “real mother,” etc.) is virtually ignored, despite being evident in the relevant literature since the advent of this foundational subdiscipline of anthropology.

There is real scholarly sloppiness here. The grand claim of “cutting-edge” kinship studies is that they get at “the native’s point of view,” in contrast to earlier scholarship, which is dismissed as sexist and Eurocentric. As I hope to have shown even with this abbreviated essay, the claim is utter nonsense. Presented instead is the “radical” feminist point of view, with no real regard for the peoples of the Third and Fourth Worlds.

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