The history of kinship, as a concept, is a history of debate over its scope and limits. Debates across the British, French, and American academies from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century oscillated between kinship as lineage (as an inherent relation) and kinship as alliance or affinity (as a socially cultivated one). In the latter half of the twentieth century, as social movements shaped academic conversation around relation, ideas of lineage and descent continued to inform part of the scholarship on kinship studies. Yet, postcolonial transformations and global decolonization movements put pressure on the idea of kinship as something “natural” in character.
This critique opened a window onto a new era in the study of kinship. This loose area of inquiry began to highlight the idea of relatedness as a fluid understanding of care and accountability in human social bonds. This essay examines anthropological and philosophical notions of connection, relatedness, and accountability as they have shaped late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century notions of kinship. Drawing from work on fraternization and friendship, I show that anthropological ideas of kinship have been forged through theological and political community-fashioning. Weaving through this intellectual genealogy, kinship unfolds as intersubjective being in the way people “live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths” (Sahlins 2013). Ultimately, I gesture toward how new readings of kinship can help us understand more critically the ways in which Christian relatedness is mediated by empire.
Structure and Specificity
From its beginnings, anthropological study on kinship systems has oscillated between biological and social forms of relatedness. The debate between biology and culture (structure and specificity) focused on the degree to which descent and lineage inform social and cultural behavior, and conversely, how social and cultural practice shapes kinship ties through and beyond biology. Most studies of kinship prior to the rise of postcolonial, feminist, and Marxist scholarship in the 1960s and 70s centered on non-Western cultures and indigenous peoples. Early kinship studies, beginning with Lewis Henry Morgan in the nineteenth century, generally focused on kinship as related to biological relationships deriving from marriage, particularly among the Iroquois. Yet, even then, Morgan’s idea of kinship as lineage was challenged by other scholars who stressed the social aspects of kinship structures.
Much of this early work assumed that kinship was a far less significant social institution in the West, since Euro-American society had “evolved” to the patriarchal monogamous family form of civilization. It also assumed that kinship was separable from political, economic, and religious life. In this way, kinship can be understood as a racialized designator denoting who is modern and who is civilizationally deficient. Under such assumptions, anthropology and sociology of the Western Euro-American family instead concentrated on its instrumental aspects, such as property and inheritance. Its social and cultural qualities were not centered in anthropological studies of kinship until the latter half of the twentieth century.
While British anthropologists had begun researching kinship in England in the 1950s, American anthropologist David Schneider’s American Kinship (1968) examined kinship in the United States as a cultural system that is based in shared symbols and meanings, specifically focusing on blood as a core symbol of American kin ties—understood as bonds between nature and the order of the law. Yet, Schneider’s path-breaking work drew criticism from anthropologists, arguing that it homogenized different, often marginalized experiences of “American” kinship. Schneider later refined his thinking and furthered a critique of kinship, arguing that sexual procreation as a core symbol of kinship in European and Euro-American culture underlay most anthropological studies of kinship in non-Western cultures.
Emerging feminist and queer anthropological approaches critiqued the role of reproduction in the naturalization of gender inequalities, and over several decades, they developed a range of more dynamic theoretical tools to examine local idioms, categories, and intentional practices of kinship (Franklin and McKinnon 2001). Even in this development, though, descent and lineage continue to figure prominently into anthropological discussions of kinship, in that descent forms the ground in determining how people relate to, care for, and affect one another. Gillian Feeley-Harnik has argued for a broader understanding of kinship and descent, taking into consideration relations with other organic beings (1999). These broader relations of kin beyond the human allow for a multi-layered and multi-scalar approach to how kinship is mediated by lineage, blood, land, and spirit (see Goodgame 2002).
Over the past 30 years, the field of kinship studies has been transformed by Janet Carsten’s idea of relatedness — what she defines as the lived experience of being related as conveyed in terms of local statements and practices, particularly of sentiment, substance, and nurturance (2003).In this way, kin relations can be formed through material structures such as land and houses, as well as “processes of doing” such as care and exchange (Carsten 1995; as cited in Wellman 2021, 5). Queer studies of kinship have also reimagined relatedness beyond biological links through subtle processes of symbolic expansion and kin-making in choosing family and other affective formations (Weston 1991; Eng 2010).
More recently, emerging literature on spiritual kinship has opened up forms of relatedness as connected to both family and nation. In the context of Shi’i Iran, Rose Wellman considers kinship as a persistent power in modern nation-making, especially as connected to blood. Blood has been powerfully involved in notions of kinship — care and violence, and inclusion and exclusion (Carsten 2013). It also has a special capacity to conceptually flow among various fields, connecting studies of kinship to economics and politics, as well as religion (Anidjar 2014; Weston 2013). Until recently, kinship has usually been considered within largely secular terms, without incorporating how religious traditions and spirituality form kinship bonds in and beyond the material world. Taking seriously spiritual forms of kin-making requires a redirection toward important aspects of relatedness as connected to “ongoing (pious) action, affect, and context” (Wellman 2021, 6).
Black studies on kinship and post-slavery subjects have also focused on the severance of kinship (especially maternal biological kinship). For scholars of Black studies and slavery’s afterlives, such as Saidiya Hartman (2008), alienation, estrangement, and severance from genealogy and lineage under slavery have configured kinship as a form of searching through the ruins and remnants of violence and brutality. In the context of Black evangelical sociality, Todne Thomas has developed the idea of “kincraft” which refers to a family beyond “the family,” and invites scholars to the study of spiritually grounded notions of family that are liberated from a “narrower, dominant heteropatriarchal definition of kinship” (2021, 7). In this way, kin-crafting is conveyed as an embodied, sacred, and ethical process. Thomas also argues that kinship is not only a formation of similarity between members of a “family.” Rather, the idea of kin can be used to narrate difference from threatening groups, traditions, and politics (105). Such geopolitical religious identities can also demarcate lines of belonging and exclusion.
Reconsidering Friendship and Fraternity
Anthropological debate on kinship has operated on a paradox between broader social and structural conditions of kinship and local, culturally specific forms of kin-making (as through the idea of relatedness). Jacques Derrida has considered the tension between unconditional and conditional forms of relationality, specifically as it pertains to political emancipation and contemporary conditions of exclusion. A (re)consideration of kinship through notions of fraternity and friend/enemy dissymmetry (Schmitt 1932) may prove useful to better consider this broader conception of kin-making in a new age of mediatization (Derrida 2002).
For Derrida, friendship operates along a tension, oscillating between unconditional recognition and the rights and duties that are the conditions of that recognition (1994). Much like Sahlins’ understanding of kinship as participation and accountability, Derrida extends friendship beyond death as a kind of lineage. In the promise of remembering in the future after death, friendship is secured and trusted (29). Friendship is contained within this promise, but it is also intimately connected to the oppositional figure of the enemy to define itself (85).
In the essay “In Human Language, Fraternity…”, Derrida touches on the difference fraternity (vis-à-vis his more democratic idea of friendship) has made in thinking about the political. Derrida cites (via Jules Michelet) the capacity of movements (“Christian or revolutionary ones for example”) of challenging “the limits of natural, literal, genetic, sexually determined (etc.) fraternity” (237). Fraternity, in this sense, extends beyond all juridical, legislative, and political determinations of the law, opening up to a broader frame of affective connection. Such a connection, while in the realm of the fraternal, can be determined in terms of the binary friend/enemy distinction. Derrida settles friendship into the gaps of this binary without going beyond it.
In thinking about friendship as contained through friend/enemy dissymmetry, Derrida offers a renewed consideration of relational paradoxes, much of which has been studied by anthropologists of kinship for years (Strathern 2014). Nurturing kinship ties do not necessarily lend themselves solely to local, interpersonal relations or even national imaginaries, but can also be forged through moral imaginaries that are both global and imperial in kind.
Kinship as Imperial
Recent anthropological studies of kinship have turned toward the spiritual (Thomas, Malik, Wellman 2017). Yet, this turn has mainly been considered within national and local practices of kinship, having eschewed a broader focus on geopolitical forces that shape structural conditions of theologico-political relatedness. While Euro-American anthropological kinship studies have predominantly focused on a dialectic between inherited descent and chosen character, theological understandings of kinship have always exceeded these two secular understandings of relatedness. While the Muslim umma is a rich example to expand upon (Piscatori and Saikal 2019), the Body of Christ and its contemporary enmeshments with empire and power has been an understudied figure in thinking about kinship and relatedness.
While much can be said on the shaping of transnational Christian kinships between homelands of the non-West and their many diasporas (Ikeuchi 2019; Thomas 2019), a more recent phenomenon of imperial (Western) Christian kinship has relied on the bloody persecution and martyrdom of Eastern Christians of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. The American evangelical idea of the Persecuted Church, for example, has emerged alongside the increasing power of U.S. empire in the mid-twentieth century, flourishing in the 1990s around the emerging U.S. focus on Islam and terrorism (McAlister 2018). The blood of the persecuted has connected this geopolitical Body of Christ through empire-building and embattlement. Thus, the Persecuted Church has positioned the strengthening of Western Christianity on the death of Eastern Christians who purify the faith and strengthen the claims of besiegement. Kin labor within this imperial economy of Christian relatedness is not equal, with Eastern Christian bodies and their suffering on display and transvalued for Western religio-political interests (Lukasik 2021).
Acts of Christian kinship around martyrdom and blood piety are nothing new to either Western Christian or Eastern traditions (Bynum 2007; Heo 2018). Yet, in the contemporary moment, these genealogies intersect to form an economy in the service of imperial interests, providing new ways of thinking about kinship beyond “real” and “fictive” kinship. In focusing on geopolitical and imperial forms of kinship—through Christ or even global capitalism (Agamben 2019)—the concept of kinship takes on a new salience in an age of mediatized politics of truth.
While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology. Moreover, new migrations and affective relations shaped by these mediatized politics have reconfigured forms of religious belonging and ultimately renewed imperial formations between East/West traditions. Exploring new kinds of kin relations in these broader theo-geopolitical formations would be a worthy space of inquiry.
Janet Carsten. After Kinship. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Discussion of the history of kinship as a concept in anthropology, with a focus on future pathways of research in reproductive technologies, gender, and the social construction of science in the West.
Marshall Sahlins. What kinship is-and is not. (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Rethinks kinship as “mutuality of being.”
David Schneider. American kinship: A cultural account. (University of Chicago Press, 1968).
The first attempt to deal systematically with kinship as a system of symbols and meanings, and not simply as a network of functionally interrelated familial roles.