What is kinship?

Religion 358 Summer 2020 Module 2 Ro Rollings

Kinship is difficult to define.  Even experts disagree.  The dilemma is that an observer is limited by their own experience and training. “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are” is a suitable quote assigned to Anaïs Nin and Talmudic origin. Thus when Susan McKinnon critiques evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker, she is shaped by her training, her world view and experiences.  That Warren Shapiro would similarly counter her arguments from his completely different perspective is not surprising.  Even the middle path espoused by Robert Parkin has limitations, just as a referee can only see what is in their field of view and understanding.  Perhaps this is why Tibetan medical physicians quiet their minds and bodies prior to undertaking the examination of the patient. The topic of kinship in the context of bioethics is an intensely real and personal issue. As pointed out in the readings from Inhorn and Taragin-Zeller, the issues of kinship become paramount in the study of reproduction, particularly in light of the advances in medical technology.  These cultural considerations are critical to acquiring and processing the data as multiple disciplines must be coordinated in order to address the real needs of diverse populations undergoing constant dynamic change and transformation.  Assumptions can be blinding through any lens.  In each article for Module 2, the author’s experience and research is both enlightening and limiting.  The spectrum of humanity is tremendously complex and the reason there are so many different disciplines is because each context is multidimensional. In this diverse group of readings, kinship appears to be revealed as exceedingly personal.  No one article or point of view can ever entirely suffice, no more than it would in any other academic discipline.  As such, Susan Kahn does the best job of establishing the landscape and perspective for insight in her Introduction to her book in which she generously acknowledges her contributors, advisors and inspirations at the outset.

Addendum: “The art of medicine, is the mastery of chaos” was the leading quote to my 1984 handbook Facts and Formulas created for medical students and house-staff.  Each fact and formula was cited from the original scientific articles.  The final quote and warning was nested on the final page:  “To be ignorant of one’s ignorance, is the malady of the ignorant.”(Amos Bronson Alcott)

Image: As Jack Webb in Dragnet remarked, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

1. S?usan McKinnon, ?On Kinship and Marriage: A Critique?e of the Genetic and Gender Calcu?lu?s of Ev?ol?utionar?y Ps?ycholog?y,? In S. McKinnon and S. Sil?verman editors, Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture, 106-131 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). 

2.Warren Shapiro, ?What H?man Kinship is Primarily? Abo?ut: To?wards a Critiq?e of the Ne? Kinship St?dies.? Social Anthropology (2008) 16: 137-153. 

2. a. Robert Parkin, What Shapiro and McKinnon are all about, and why kinship still needs anthropologists. Social Anthropology/Anthropology Social (2009) 17, 2 158–170 

3. Marcia Inhorn, He Won?t Be M? Son: Middle Eastern Men?s Discourses of Gamete Donation.? Medical Anthropology? Q?uarterly? 20 (2006): 94-120. 

4. Lea Taragin-Zeller (2019) ?Conceiv?ing God?s Children?: Tow?ard a Flex?ible Model of Reproductive Decision-Making, Medical Anthropology, 38:4, 370-383.

5. Susan Martha Kahn, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel (Duke University Press, 2000). 

6. Anaïs Nin did employ this statement in her 1961 work “Seduction of the Minotaur”.

7. Robert Rollings, Facts and Formulas, 1984(self published)

8 replies on “What is kinship?”

Dr. Rollings, I really enjoyed your take on the readings for this module. I like how you explained their interrelation with each other by how they all discuss kinship, while also pointing out that even with this main theme, they were all very different. I think it’s essential that we all understand how kinship cannot totally and completely be defined because everyone interprets it differently based on their own personal experiences, as you depicted above.

I enjoyed reading your post and summary of the articles. I appreciated how you brought up that all these articles highlight how personal kinship is across all cultures and religions. While I would argue that the first two articles do attempt to define kinship, the authors still acknowledge that the spectrum of kinship is complex and variable in its relative contexts. The intimacy and complexity of kinship are most clear in Inhorn and Taragin-Zellers’ pieces as it relates to bioethics and assistive reproductive technology. The stories of those interviewed reflect deeply personal struggles to balance one’s religion/culture with one’s approach to family planning and reproduction.

I appreciated how you connected the readings to outside sources (such as Anais Nin and the mention of Tibetan physicians) in support of this claim, which in my opinion greatly summarizes your post: “Assumptions can be blinding through any lens.” This is something we all should keep in mind throughout the course, both as Anthropology students but also as humans generally.

As a sociology student, I am constantly reminded of the relativity of social constructions; they vary over time and space, and are defined by individuals and groups with motives. My biggest takeaway from this group of readings was the applicability of that truth to the concept of “kinship”. Warren Shapiro presents a coherent argument against Susan McKinnon’s article, demonstrating the variability of kinship runs much deeper than Western and non-Western.

I agree with you that kinship is difficult to define. I appreciate you detailing how the readings for this module show the complicated intersections of how our experiences whether personal or what we have observed can shape our perspectives. McKinnon for example takes a more cultural relativist approach when describing kinship. This could be influenced from the many instances she gives of her research done of different cultures. I think one concept that makes defining anything difficult is the language used surrounding it. Briefly in class, we discussed one of the main distinctions between McKinnon and Shapiro is their perspective of how language is used to describe kinship and the terminology given, compared to the behavior and real actions of people within a culture. I also agree with you and think you made an important note that the readings for this module show how personal kinship is as a topic.

Dr. Rollings,
I appreciate how you brought up the point that all of the narratives on kinship are both “enlightening and limiting.” I completely agree with you: ideas on any topic are limited by the author’s perspectives, no matter how much an author tries to consider all aspects. There is never a completely objective statement on any topic. Building on this idea that all arguments we read have its limitations, I think it’s fair to argue that this week’s reading, especially Mckinnon’s and Shapiro’s, are complementary to each other. Together, Mckinnonn’s and Shapiro’s arguments make up a more conclusive view on kinship: kinship is defined by both genetic ties and cultural values. Different cultures might value one over another, but the critical role kinship play across cultures remain equivalent, revealing the commonality of humankind.

Another takeaway point I got from reading your blog is that always stay critical and open-minded to different opinions because every opinion must have its limitations. When it comes to practices that we discuss in anthropology across cultures, it’s more important to keep that in mind because the culture is relative, there is no defining line. This idea of culture is relative is especially important right now – when modern assisted reproductive technology became more advanced, and different cultures and religions cope with this new technology differently.


Hi Dr. Rollings!
I enjoyed reading your posting and appreciate your focus on the personal nature of kinship patterns, and the inability to sufficiently define or capture the essence of kinship through any particular discipline. You mention here the need to invoke multiple disciplines of study in order to more adequately understand the complexity of this concept, and the ramifications following the almost infinite possibilities of personal interpretation. I am reminded of the tension that anthropology struggles under: the desire to place an overwhelming amount of connections into a working theory, and the extreme difficulty in adding a focal point without reducing the overall complexity of each topic. Looking back at the first reading, I think it is appropriate to say that the anthropological analysis of these topics serves to “enlarge the universe of human discourse,” and it’s through our nuanced understanding that we are better able to create frames with which we study this given concept of kinship.

Dr. Rollings, you said it best: ” In each article for Module 2, the author’s experience and research is both enlightening and limiting.” While I found each article was able to contribute to my understanding of kinship, I also found some explanations to be limited to the author’s spectrum of understanding. For example, Marcia Inhorn talks about adoption in sunni Islam. Her understanding is that because children do not take on the name of the family, the system in place is merely a fostering one. This is concluded without understanding the role of last names in Arab culture. From my understanding, in sunni islam, women don’t take on their husband’s last name either. Your name is your identity and you keep it regardless of any union you may enter. While just a name, historically this name was your sense of viability so no one really messes around with it. This may, however, contrast to the western tendency to take on your husbands last name or to change your child’s last name when adopting. Because of this difference in a mere nomenclature process, suddenly adoption is one thing here but another thing there, but if we go back to shapiro’s point, they are the same thing in practice and essence.

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