- What Kinship Is—And Is Not by Marshall Sahlins
Marshall Sahlins is one of the great names of modern anthropology, but thus far he has not counted as one of the key figures in the study of kinship. This is despite his demolition of the pretensions of early socio-biology in The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976), which heavily focused on the then new discipline’s study of the allegedly genetic foundations of altruism between kin. Quite possibly Sahlins’ assault on sociobiology contributed to it reinventing itself under other names (Hewlett 2001), the most prominent of which, at the present time, being evolutionary psychology, though that hasn’t stopped the attacks (e.g., McKinnon 2005, Sussman 2002). But his earlier and the present text both show that Sahlins is knowledgeable about kinship and entirely capable of contributing something new to debates concerning it.
Like Use and Abuse, Sahlins’ new book is short, consisting of 89 pages plus a brief preface and bibliography. It is divided into two chapters of unequal length: the first entitled “What kinship is—culture,” the second and shorter entitled “What kinship is not—biology.” The first chapter is a revised and slightly expanded version of a two-part article already published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Sahlins 2011), which has already attracted a self-confessed extensionist reply from Warren Shapiro (2012). The second chapter is evidently new to this book.1
Right at the outset, Sahlins announces this book as an exercise in “uncontrolled comparison” in the manner of James Frazer. Sahlins modestly claims that the examples he cites exemplify rather than verify his arguments, which are focused throughout on the theme that kinship involves “mutuality of being,” essentially because those who count as kin in any society are typically implicated in one another not just in terms of joint or [End Page 293] mutual activities and behavior, but ontologically as well. A corollary of this is that kinship is not the post-birth cultural creation on the basis of biological facts that it is often taken to be, but that it pre-exists the birth, through, for example, notions of ancestry, the circulation of the substances of previously living kin, or the mere circumstance that the parents of a fetus are typically already related through their marriage, and possibly through the marriages of others (e.g., with prescriptive alliance). Sahlins’ manner of expression is often elliptical, and I, at least, found I needed extra concentration to follow all the ins and outs of the argument. Nonetheless, what comes through is an original synthesis of already published material (Sahlins only occasionally refers to his own fieldwork here), on which the equally original argument outlined above is based. He has clearly ransacked the most recent literature in the search for relevant ethnography, though he also finds support for his argument in some of the older literature, going back to Tylor in 1865, and even to Plato. The basic theme, therefore, is not new, though his treatment of it is. Sahlins has given this phenomenon a name—“mutuality of being”—and that in itself will compel us to take notice of it.
Sahlins first develops his theme by taking a critical look at orthodox constructivism, since it typically posits a natural birth subjected to cultural interpretation. Using Sahlins’ own expression, kinship is not “prediscursive” because it already exists prior to the birth in relation to the infant being born. In his conclusion, Sahlins modifies this view somewhat by bringing in considerations of descent. Thus the situation described above is mainly found with unilineal descent; cognatic descent, by contrast, he finds is more likely to be associated with constructivism of the sort he had earlier criticized. This is a surprising statement to crop up only in the conclusion, since it comes out of the blue without being foreshad-owed earlier in the text.
From our perspective, many of the expressions of mutuality of being that pre-exist a birth appear metaphorical, such as the infant’s ancestry being seen as the sharing of bodily or...