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Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 747-770

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A Note on Transnational Consanguinity, or, Kinship in the Age of Terrorism

Johns Hopkins University


There is no need to remind my readers that recent studies of kinship in anthropology have turned a number of interesting corners. The self-interrogatory that British social anthropology initiated in the wake of Asian and African decolonization, involving scholars such as Gellner, Beattie, Needham, and others—and a bitter bickering among them—reached a high point with Schneider's now classic, A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984) and more importantly, the feminist intervention through a series of significant contributions, and also the intervention of the French structural Marxism.1 Through much debate over past practice on over-privileging kinship relations as a social relation in dominance in the primitive societies, the assumption that kinship provided a "base" of society and the taken-for-granted, or in Marilyn Strathern's words, "unthinking" manner (1992b: 5) by which anthropologists approached kinship came to be not only openly criticized, but also, so to speak, publicly executed.

Major universities stopped offering undergraduate courses such as kinship 1, kinship 2, and advanced kinship, leading to the current constitution of graduate population that has never heard of agnatic or cognatic, let alone avunculate. [End Page 747] Things such as the Nuer ghost marriage, Nayar tali— ritual, Yapese tabinau, Iban bilek, levirate, and parallel or cross cousins, are somewhat relegated to the museum showcase.

In the recent decade or so, however, following the momentary demise, kinship studies in anthropology appears to have been revitalized. Feminist anthropology—unlike the Structural Marxism that disappeared along with Louis Althusser—contributed enormously to this effect, but also the intervention of science studies that set focus on new technologies of reproduction and pronatalism joined in the journey for critique of kinship studies as its fellow-traveler.2 Indeed, their contribution to recent revival or transformation of kinship studies into the area of exciting inquiry that can successfully bridge science and nature, gender and power, has been remarkable.

This transformation is accompanied by a number of shifts. First, there is the shift of location of the studies of kinship from the non-west to the west. The second is the shift of expertise required for kinship studies, from multiple-role generalist (as in the case of classical anthropology) to a division of labor and hence, collaboration among highly specialized experts (Strathern 2001, e.g.). The third is recognized in the shift of emphasis from the encoding of "systems" to the micro documentation of individually oriented strategies, interpretations, and experiences.

One powerful, yet under-estimated effect of the recent impact of science studies is that it reminds us that there is a strong continuity between the findings of the traditional kinship studies and the cutting-edge technologies of kinship. For example, in Charis Thompson's fascinating report on a Californian infertility clinic, clients craft their own ways of interpreting closeness of relation by selectively deploying categories such as genes and ethnicity; surrogacy involving brother-sister pregnancy (a man's sperm and his wife's egg delivered through the pregnancy of his sister) is carefully distanced by the implication of incest, yet relative closeness or blood tie between the donor and the receiver (or the surrogate) always appears to be a deeply significant factor for all the parties involved (Thompson 2001; see also Cussins 1998).

Incest, no. Blood, yes. This, we may note, is also the fundamental and age-old principle of Korean kinship. Besides, this is no secret that surrogacy was practiced for centuries in the form of concubinage when a man wanted to have the heir that his wife could not produce. Or indeed, when a woman could not have a child—as in the Nuer ghost marriage (Evans-Pritchard 1940)—surrogacy was practiced. Widow inheritance or sister marriage [End Page 748] comes to a close analogy to the idea of soliciting a surrogacy or egg-donation from the wife's sister. Marriage systems that stood on the non-monogamous principle of men'...


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