KUV - Concepts, Methods and Sources of Data

Authors: Patrick Heady with Martine Guichard and Alexander Pashos

There are reasons for thinking that it might not be. You do not have to spend much time scanning through journals such as HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI), American Anthropologist or Current Anthropology to realise that experts disagree – sometimes implicitly and quietly, but often overtly and passionately – both about what kinship is, and about how it should be studied. The disagreements are of several kinds – and the differences which attract most attention are not necessarily the ones with the most significant implications for research. There are two which appear to raise fundamental difficulties.

Most famous is the dispute – ignited by Durkheim in a book review in 1897 but still generating books and special journal issues – as to whether kinship is ‘biological’ or a matter of social relationships and ‘culture’. Participants in this dispute do not always define their terms, but we can see what is involved by taking the example of scholars who do, and considering the implications for the claims that we made in our opening paragraph. When writing that paragraph, the idea of kinship that we had in mind was something like ‘a system of relationships, with its own vocabulary, that incorporates but goes beyond procreative connections’.

Strict sociobiologists would have problems with the final part of this definition – the words about ‘going beyond procreative connections’ – because for them kin relationships are simply those between people who are connected through biological procreation, and kin behaviour depends on indicators of the closeness of this procreative link. They therefore tend either to ignore, or to exclude, ‘classificatory’ relationships, as well as those that are based on adoption, genealogical fictions and symbolic elaborations. The field this defines is clear, but it leaves out a good deal of what we are interested in. The opposing position – originally set out by Durkheim and most recently reiterated by Sahlins (2013) – is that those relationships which are not ‘biological’ in the sense just given must be ‘cultural’ (in Durkheim’s terms “defined by Society”). However, the cultural meanings involved are not limited to the obviously non-biological examples – and so there is an important sense in which all kin relationships are culturally defined. But culture is the opposite of biology, and so kinship (or at least the part that truly matters) cannot be biological at all. QED!

If this sounds a little illogical, that is because it is. The question is badly posed – asking us to choose just one aspect of kinship (biological or non-biological) when empirically given kinship systems always include relationships of both kinds – and often have ways of distinguishing between them, for instance by qualifiers such as ‘birth-’, ‘step-’, ‘adoptive-’. This is the crucial point, because it means that in all societies the relationships covered by our somewhat clumsy definition – ‘a system of relationships, with its own vocabulary, that incorporates but goes beyond procreative connections’ – can be identified in practice, and that we therefore do have a clearly defined object of research. The composite structure of really existing kinship systems also casts doubt on a priori attempts to decide which kinds of theory will be relevant to any particular problem. This is just as true for sociobiologists, whose narrowly defined field of ‘biological’ relationships might nevertheless be influenced by cultural factors, as it is for the Durkheim-Sahlins party, whose ‘culturally’ defined relationships might also be influenced by ways of thinking and feeling that are biologically innate. Whether and when these cross-theoretical entanglements apply in fact, is a matter for empirical investigation.

Another serious controversy, associated with the ‘new kinship’, concerns the supposed need to choose between two kinds of research goals: the interpretation of meaningful behaviour and the construction of valid general theories. For reasons of space we will deal with this argument more briefly. As the title of our project suggests, we are committed to the second goal – but, as a method, we are equally committed to the first. Here again, but in a more subtle way, the choice – between understanding meanings and intentions, and formulating general theories – is badly posed. The need for choice would only arise if general theories could somehow ignore understandings and intentions, or if the psychology of cognition and motivation had nothing relevant to say about particular interactions.

Our final argument for a scientific approach is cruder: over the last few decades several groups of scholars have ignored the problems that we have just been discussing, and have simply got on with their research – often with notable success. We include in this list: the work of historical demographers on family systems; work by anthropologists and linguists on the logical structure, and likely historical evolution, of kinship terminologies; and the work done by sociobiologists within the framework of their clear, if narrow, definition of kin relationships. However, it is the very success of these approaches that defines the problems that now need to be tackled – and provide the context for our own work in KUV.

The problem with all these successful approaches is that each is based on a limited range of data sources, which themselves suggest the problems and theories that can be addressed. For instance, the population registers used by demographers focus particularly on household composition and lend themselves to questions about economic and fertility strategies – but say little about wider kinship links or the world of meanings within which these activities take place. Linguistic research on terminology emphasises the historical working out of cognitive patterns, but links this only loosely to the practical aspects of kinship which were outlined in our opening paragraph. Sociobiological data, which overlaps with that of demographers, provides evidence of cultural effects – which still need to be explained.

The need now is to integrate these approaches and to bring them more clearly to bear on the facts and meanings of kinship practice. To make the different approaches commensurable, we need integrated data sets that provide the information that all of them require. There is one data set that already does this – namely George P. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas – which is extremely valuable (Murdock 1967; Gray 1999). But the quality of the information is only as good as that of the ethnographies on which it is based – which limits the range of questions that can be tackled. There is a need for something more precise and flexible – which is where our own work comes in.


Gray, J. P. 1999. A corrected Ethnographic Atlas. World Cultures 10(1): 24–136.

Murdock, G. P. 1967. Ethnographic Atlas: a summary. Ethnology 6(2): 109–236.

Sahlins, M. 2013. What kinship is … and what it is not. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

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