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  • Global Kinship:Anthropology and the Politics of Knowing
  • Michael Herzfeld

Kinship has cast such a long shadow over anthropological analysis that students who have never confronted its more technical aspects still profess boredom with the topic and relief that they do not have to deal with it. But deal with it, surprisingly, they do—in a technically less demanding guise, to be sure—through the more fashionable medium of other topics that have become considerably more central to the discipline: nationalism, gender, warfare, bio-ethics, the ethnography of science, transnational mobility, memory and the uses of history. The technical virtuosity of kinship analysis has largely passed from the scene; what remains is a cluster of basic principles—the importance of the nuclear family, the use of nuclear family terms in nationalistic rhetoric, correlations of inheritance rules with kinship structure, and the expectation that kinship should ideally be a major source of affect and cooperation—that barely seem to need analysis and that seem, to a very large extent, immediately comprehensible even to those who are only familiar with West European models of the relationships thus grouped together.

But are these principles really so transparent? Kinship—rather than kinship systems—has become a global phenomenon, in which surface homogeneity and an apparent reduction in complexity may nonetheless mask considerable [End Page 313] differences in use and interpretation. We can see the implications of this expansion especially well in the subtly contrasted but mutually complementary models of world diplomacy that Eleana Kim and Monica Konrad offer here in their respective essays on international adoption and the negotiation of biomedical knowledge; Konrad offers an especially subtle linkage between ideologies of shared (and exclusive) substance that characterize local kin groups on the one hand and the ethical and "diplomatic" aspects of transporting biomedical knowledge across the borders of nation-states on the other.

The papers grouped together in this issue of Anthropological Quarterly indeed collectively illustrate both the persistence of kinship as a strong organizing principle of ramified relationships extending far beyond the face-to-face communities of anthropological yore and beyond the strongly Eurocentric bias, the latter being especially evident in the almost exclusive emphasis on the nuclear family and a rhetoric of parity between matrilateral and patrilateral kin that masks a continuing agnatic emphasis. This Eurocentrism now informs the extended (some would say metaphorical or at least metonymic) elaborations of local "moral communities" (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Campbell 1964) or, more conceptually, "moral worlds" (Kleinman 2006: 219) that we encounter in the rhetoric of most nation-states today. Imperceptibly, it seems, kinship, routed from the scenes of its computational glories, has insidiously slipped back everywhere, and its channels are numerous: from transnational migrations (Ho 2006; Watson 2005) to artificial insemination and the nation-state (Kahn 2000), kinship-in-general has clearly morphed into something still vital and important.

Truth to tell, the capacity for such metaphorization (or metonymic extension) was always present; its lack of visibility is a direct consequence of a very unfortunate loss of vision, in which the relevance of older ethnographies to current concerns appears to have largely vanished. Yet we do not have to look far in order to recuperate the loss. The patrilineal idiom of the Bosnian and Kosovo wars builds on earlier models of patrilineal clan identity (see Herzfeld 1997; cf. Hammel 1968), anthropologically foreshadowed in Evans-Pritchard's (1940: 237-238) insistence that patriliny among the Nuer was as much a political idiom as a literal statement of genealogy; he subsequently extended this insight directly to the historical emergence of statehood in Libya, showing how it shaped the response to external pressure and particularly the impact of colonialism (Evans-Pritchard 1949). Loizos (1975: 254) had earlier shown us how ordinary people (in other words, electorates) conceptualized the interaction of politicians from different ethnic enclaves in terms of kinship and affinity, [End Page 314] sometimes seeming to take the most absurd claims at face value in defense of ultra-nationalistic, exclusionary positions. Kinship's importance in the self-representation of most nationalisms remains unabated.

That association, which embarrasses anthropology by reminding it of the roots it shares with much (especially European) nationalism, may indeed explain why the...


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