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Australian Aboriginal Kinship

Laurent Dousset


The concept of relatedness

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1This handbook has described the foundations of kinship studies and explained their common vocabulary. You now know how to draw genealogies and label kin positions and categories, and how to understand social divisions used in everyday life by Aboriginal and other societies. Though formal in some of its aspects, this shared vocabulary is a necessary step to understanding on-the-ground practices, mechanisms and strategies that are still utilised as part of everyday life in many Australian Aboriginal communities. I have endeavoured throughout to keep the discussion centred around the essentials, the basic building blocks, and have avoided less ‘mechanical’ aspects of kinship. I have not entered into detailed discussion about some of the other dynamic characteristics and contexts in which kinship also operates. Notions such as relatedness, consubstantiality, proximity and distance, inclusion and exclusion, process and agency have been evoked here and there but have not been fully developed because interested readers can pursue these more complex issues as they wish. However, here in the concluding chapter I discuss a few lines of interrogation in these domains. This discussion will entail the extension of the notion of kinship to that of relatedness. This concluding chapter, which you should consider as ‘optional reading’, does not provide answers or present ethnographic examples. Instead, though, in somewhat theoretical language, it will point to some of the possibilities offered by modern kinship studies.

A critique of kinship studies

2Parallel to a general critique of the whole field of anthropology in the 1970s, which can be summarised as the demand that we turn away from models and focus instead on the investigation of process, practice and agency, the field of kinship studies was challenged by a leading American kinship scholar, David Schneider. His critique is still widely considered to be a turning point in the anthropology of kinship. In A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984), Schneider challenged kinship studies on three major points. First, he emphasised that kinship is not an independent social domain and cannot therefore be investigated without taking into account the social and cultural contexts in which it is embedded. This point is today generally accepted as a valid critique of the domain of kinship. Formerly, terminologies were studied as such, for their internal structure and coherence. Today, anthropologists adopt a much more embedded approach and attempt to understand kinship within other social processes. For example, understanding marriage rules and practices within ecological and economic conditions, as they have been discussed in this handbook, is a consequence of this critique and the necessity to take kinship beyond mere formalism. The fact that I have described kinship as being embedded in social structure and practice, rather than as being encompassing, is an example of the changes of conceptualisation that have occurred since the 1970s. The fact that Godelier (2004), for example, has turned his back to the idea of ‘kinship-based societies’ and that he instead underlines how kinship is a vehicle for social organisation, rather than an underlying structure as it was sometimes seen before, is yet another example of the important shifts that have occurred in anthropological theory.

3Schneider’s second critique concerned the universality of the idea of kinship. He challenged the view that everywhere kinship is an important socially recognised domain, and he questioned the very constituents of kinship itself. For example, he shows that the Western way of examining kinship, based on the distinction between consanguinity and affinity, is coherent with other Western social domains such as the notion of ‘nationality’ and thus is the product of a Euro-American cultural background (Schneider 1969). I have addressed this critique in various parts of this handbook to show that, indeed, kinship studies may be largely a product of the Western world, but this problem is eliminated as soon as one adopts a comparative point of view. I have mentioned the metric system: whether we use metres or feet to measure distances does not matter as long as we systematically use the same system when comparing distances.

4Schneider’s strong negation of kinship, however, gives rise to another problem: in Aboriginal communities, whether in the Western Desert or western Sydney, kinship is an indispensable social institution. It provides in many cases and contexts points of reference for individual and collective identification and, therefore, also for action. Kinship is, among others, an important means of creating similarity and difference and, therefore, a sense of the collective and a means for membership: similarity within kin-groups, difference between non-kin. How kinship is locally conceptualised, how similarity and difference is defined, is a matter of ethnography not theory and, therefore, does not invalidate kinship studies as such. Eliminating kinship from the anthropological agenda could have serious implications for considerations of Aboriginal culture generally.

5The third critique addressed by Schneider involved what he calls the three assumptions made by kinship specialists, in particular Goodenough, Scheffler and Lounsbury, researchers whose materials I have quoted from in this handbook. These assumptions are that kinship is a building block of society, that kinship is the consequence of biological facts, and that every society recognises genealogies. Of these three assumptions, only the first can be considered unproblematic. Indeed, considering kinship as the building block of society becomes difficult because we accept the idea that kinship is not an independent domain; it is embedded in other social processes that may involve economic, political and religious considerations. The notion of ‘kin-based society’ has indeed been heavily criticised, as I have already explained.

6The critique of the other two assumptions however needs to be taken seriously. At least some of the biological facts of procreation are universal, even if interpretations differ: women give birth to new human beings, and every such woman is identifiable, whether we call her ‘mother’ or something else. Cultures and languages have names, descriptions, and interpretations for this elementary biological fact, which is integrated into every society’s world view. Kinship begins with this fundamental truth which can have many cultural and semantic consequences. The other assumption criticised by Schneider concerns the recognition of genealogy which he believes is not universal but ethnocentric. Some societies, including those of the Western Desert, favour a lack of emphasis on genealogical depth. As a result of this element of their world view, only two or three generations are remembered. Taboos on saying the names of dead people are a strong indication of this preference. Beyond the very recent generations, ancestors are no longer individually named, being grouped within sets of brothers and sisters. However, even when genealogical memory is shallow, it of course exists as people remember their deceased close relatives. Emphasising, as Schneider did, that genealogy is not an important aspect of people’s lives would result in stating that people are unwilling or unable to distinguish their actual mothers from classificatory mothers or their actual grandparents from the distant grandparents. Whether it is emphasised (as in many Polynesian societies) or not (as in Western Desert societies), genealogy constitutes, at some stage at least, an underlying and recognised grid.

7So not all of Schneider’s critique of kinship studies is valid but, as a result of the many questions he raised, researchers have become more careful about the words and concepts they use and have had to rethink some of their vocabulary and methodologies. After Schneider’s criticisms, formal kinship studies were broadened to include research about relatedness in general. Kinship is not simply a grid of relationships but is concerned with the meanings underlying relationships.

From consanguinity to consubstantiality

8One important step in this endeavour was to broaden the notion of ‘consanguinity’. It is obvious that this word, which literally means ‘sharing blood’, cannot be applied to every cultural context. The notion of ‘sharing’ is less problematic than the word ‘blood’, so why should blood be the substance that defines a group, a family, descent or whatever? In many cultures, blood has a completely different meaning and historical background than that of Euro-American societies, in which ‘consanguinity’ is evoked frequently and in various contexts. Recognising the problem, Julian Pitt-Rivers (1973) proposed an alternative: the idea of consubstantiality. Used as an investigative concept, it prepared the way for an alternative mode of thinking about relationships, including those based on kinship.

9There are traces of consubstantiality as an elucidatory mechanism in the early anthropological literature (see Jones 1986). The objective in much of this literature is to explain religious phenomena as mechanisms or products of consubstantial conceptions: people consider themselves to be sharing some sort of substance with religious forces and this sharing constitutes their essence and person. Totemism, for example, was sometimes explained as a mechanism in which consubstantiality is involved. Lévi-Bruhl spoke of ‘the mystic consubstantiality in which the individual, the ancestral being living again in him and the animal or plant species that forms his totem are all mingled’ (see Bullock 1931:185). Yet this usage has not evolved from an understanding of consubstantiality as a mythical and religious concept, and it does not address the question of relatedness as an interaction among human beings.

10An alternative and more constructive use of the notion was proposed by Pitt-Rivers (1973:92) when he defined it as ‘the prime nexus between individuals for the extension of self’. Consubstantiality, which literally means ‘sharing of substance’ (in general and not just blood) is thus a way through which individuals can place and extend themselves within their social environment. Sharing something, be it a substance, a language, an idea or an emotion, is the basis for social being and interaction. In the Western Desert, people who have been living together in the same camp for extended periods, who have eaten the same food and shared their campfire, are considered to have become closely related — too close to be marriage partners. Since they are unmarriageable, they cannot be affines either so are considered as consanguineal kin. Expressed in more neutral terms, they are consubstantial. They share so much experience, substance and memory that they have become close kin or are regarded in the same way as close kin.

11Despite Pitt-Rivers’ progressive definition of the use of the notion of consubstantiality, he did not actually apply it. To further develop the concept of consubstantiality, we need to link it to other notions, such as those developed by Kenneth Burke (1969a, 1969b) who proposed an existential signification of consubstantiality (also see Dousset 2005). Burke explains that substance is used to define what a thing is but that it derives from something that this thing is not, as the decomposition of the word into sub (below) and stance (stand) makes clear. ‘The word, in its etymological origins would refer to an attribute of the thing’s context’ (Burke 1969a: 23). This gives us some clues as to how an existential understanding of consubstantiality takes form: it is an identity of things based on a common context but not necessarily on a common substance. If we translate this into the context of kinship, we may theorise that kinship is as much the actual relationships between people and the way these relationships are formally calculated as the context in which these relationships take on a particular meaning. For example, a woman does not always have and express the same relationship to her mother. It will adapt and change depending on the context in which she interacts with her mother: in the company of her siblings, eating with in-laws, attending the family’s Christmas celebration and so on. The context will invest the word or idea ‘mother’ with particular meanings. The interaction is as much produced by the kinship relationship (mother-daughter) as by the context in which this relationship is expressed.

12Moreover, the contexts that produce these meanings or in which actions have a meaning may not be limited to kinship but are conveyed through other social institutions. I may have a similar relationship with my boss and with my father in certain contexts, and the definition of ‘father’ not only changes according to context but is also conveyed through other institutions such as the employment relationship. This seeming complexity really boils down to an acceptance of the idea that relationships similar to those produced in kinship can be found in domains other than what we traditionally conceive of as being kinship. These domains go beyond genealogy and category. They are about relatedness: people share certain things in a particular context and these things, the substance, create bonds: people are related not just kin.

From model to process

13Through the complex aspects of consubstantiality as a vehicle for the construction of relatedness, we have also moved from a model-based approach to kinship towards kinship conceived as a process of interaction with others in particular contexts. What we have called the ‘mechanical aspects’ of kinship (and indeed most elements of this book, which have detailed the formalism and algebra underpinning kinship and social categories in Aboriginal Australia, particularly the Western Desert) now need some reframing.

14The general concepts defined allowed for the establishment of typologies of kinship systems and the comparative study of kinship. Questions such as ‘Are there relationships between particular kinship systems and economic or technological systems?’ could be asked because a common vocabulary had been developed and more or less accepted. These questions were mainly addressed by Marxist anthropologists, such as Godelier (e.g. 1977), but were later dropped by them: there is no simple relation between mode of production (economics), for example, and kinship system types. Compare the Inuit people, hunter-gatherers of the polar region, with the capitalist system of central Europe. Their economies and technologies are completely different yet their kinship system is very similar, both terminologies being of the Eskimo type.

15One important task has been to reintegrate kinship into other social domains, such as political organisation and religion, and to understand how relatedness as a sharing of substances (read ‘contexts’ following Burke) creates kinship-like structures. In my own work, the notion of individual and collective strategies has become essential. Understanding marriage patterns and practices, and even marriage rules, in terms of their integration in traditional as well as contemporary economic networks of exchange and reciprocity led me to consider promises of marriages as identical to marriages themselves, if what is understood by marriage is a process of relatedness-construction. There is no rational reason to distinguish the simple promise of a wife via initiation from the actual marriage when the strategies in which the two processes are involved have similar if not identical aims and when the meaning of the relationships established with the initiator is of a similar, if not identical, nature to the meaning of the relationship with an actual father-in-law.

16Hence, what kinship studies do today is analyse processes, meanings and local concepts that flow from kinship-like relationships or that produce kinship-like relationships. The inclusion of the context of practice and discourse in the analysis has become prevalent. I have defined the sociological and the egological contexts which I believe are relevant for Western Desert society, but there are many more that need to be identified and described. Kinship is not just algebra; it is not just triangles and circles linked through lines, complex equation rules, systemic typologies and so on. It is also real people practising these rules and typologies, bending and adapting them to their conditions and changing world views. However, understanding the common vocabulary that is the foundation stone for these exciting new studies is essential, and this is what this handbook has tried to convey to the reader.

© pacific-credo Publications, 2011

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