Global Kinships


A common feature of human societies is the enforcement of rules that determine social relations, particularly regarding kinship: With whom may one be sexual? Whom may a person marry? Which children are “legitimate”? To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close in some societies, but marriage across great differences—such as age, race, culture, or class—can also be problematic. Social rules govern the acceptance or rejection of children in particular social groups, depending on factors such as the marital status of their parents or the enactment of appropriate rituals. During the colonial era, European observers imagined that “primitive” societies had sparse social regulation, as they reported cases of “marriage by capture,” “primitive promiscuity,” and “paternity uncertainty.” In the postcolonial world, anthropologists and everyone else are deeply engaged in questions about kinship that, in fact, strongly echo 19th-century concerns. Now we frame the topics as queer families, gay marriage, unmarried mothers, interracial families, the absence of fathers, transcultural adoption, and new reproductive technologies. In this yearlong seminar, we will draw upon a variety of sources, including ethnography, historical accounts, memoir, literature, archival documents, and film. Case studies will include transnational adoption, polygamy in East and West Africa, cross-class marriage in Victorian England, American kinship systems, incest regulation cross-culturally, and same-sex marriage in Southern Africa. To make sense of such topics, we will draw upon a number of different conceptual approaches, including those from classical kinship studies, theories of evolution, cognitive anthropology, feminist theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory.