Why does the study of kinship require an analysis of gender?
The study of kinship requires an analysis of gender for two prominent reasons. The first reason is that traditional kinship theories of descent and alliance have been built upon male hegemony, which has consequences for contemporary studies of kinship including how kinship has been assumed through heteronormative binaries. We therefore need an analysis of gender to try and deconstruct male dominating assumptions about kinship. The second reason regards how gender cannot be taken for granted and is not a given in the study of kinship. Gender is a transformative term that is not always bound to specific kinship categories.
But first, what is kinship? Kinship in its broadest sense is the way people relate to one another. This however is problematic considering the variance of ‘non-kin’ relations including ‘friend’, ‘acquaintance’, ‘enemy’, and so on. Descent and alliance theorists have tried to address this issue of definition, although in doing so have created a vision of what kinship should look like; a vision that strongly features a nuclear family and a ‘patriarchal man’ (Blackwood 2005). Contemporary understandings of kinship are however starting to break away from heteronormative assumptions and from kinship solely being about biology, descent and alliance ideologies. I use this contrast between traditional theory and feminist, contemporary understandings to argue that kinship is actually extremely culturally contingent and can be defined in many different ways. Traditional definitions however do not allow kinship to exist like this and have disclosed so much reality as a result of male hegemony being a dominating factor in understanding.
Kinship requires an analysis of gender because of the deep-rooted consequences of male hegemonies as the primary focus in traditional kinship theories. Consequences include firstly how many realities of gender within kinship have been overlooked and ignored. Carsten emphasises how descent theorists and anthropologists, Malinowski and Fortes, argued for the "nuclear family as a universal social institution, necessary to fulfill the functions of producing and rearing children" (Malinowski 1930, Fortes 1949 cited in Cartsen 2004, 10). For anthropology, the focus was on the variance of kinship institutions and structures not on its ‘universalities’ (Carsten 2004). This focus has implications on gender because anthropologists found that in many societies, women were predominantly responsible for child socialisation processes as well as domestic activities, which rendered the female ‘role’ as a ‘cultural universal’. Domestic arrangements and the role of women did not pique the interest of anthropologists meaning that women were massively excluded from anthropological discussions on kinship. Good argues, "the downplaying of household and family relationships has undesirable consequences…kinship theorists are ill-equipped to say much of value about those intimate contexts to which kinship in urban, large-scale societies is increasingly confined" (2010, 402). The female reality becomes assumed and ignored eradicating a prominent reality of kinship.
The second consequence of deep-rooted male hegemonies within kinship theory is that an affirmation of male agency forces non-heteronormative relations to be viewed as weaker. Levi-Strauss’ alliance theory discussed by theorists, Carsten and Good reveals the ramifications on gender in kinship studies. Levi-Strauss’ alliance theory emerged from descent theory as he argued that marriage alliance was more ephemeral than descent-lineages and exists as kinship’s structuring principle (Good 2010). However, the weight of marriage alliance theory rested on incest taboos and exchanges of women, as ”the prohibition of incest merely affirms, in a field vital to the group's survival, the pre-eminence of the social over the natural, the collective over the individual, organization over the arbitrary” (Levi-Strauss 1969, 45). Exogamous marriage was detrimental to both social cohesion and kinship, and women were considered the most precious category of goods. Women therefore become mere objects of exchange in formations of kinship. Alliance as a widely recognised theory of understanding kinship framed women and non-heteronormative relations as less significant than heteronormative kinship structures and masculine agency (Blackwood 2005). "Men's now culturally legitimised heterosexuality forms the basis of kinship and alliance. Kinship's originary masculinist tale situated men as the central actors in the drama not only of kinship but also of culture" (Blackwood 2005, 5). Blackwood affirms how Levi-Strauss’ theory naturalises male agency and heteronormative kinship structures regarding women’s sexuality as unnecessary and non-heteronormative relations as unequal. Female agency and perspective are removed from this study of kinship, which was so prevalent in how many theorists understood kinship. Kinship fundamentally requires an analysis of gender because without it, many realities are excluded and a male dominating perspective becomes the normative, unquestioned understanding. Marriage as an exchange of women and as fundamental to kinship structure can no longer be accepted as absolute truth.
This argument feeds into my second to demonstrate how kinship also requires an analysis of gender because it is so transformative and can no longer fit into heteronormative binaries. Gender cannot be taken for granted, as it is much more shifting than many studies of kinship have allowed it to be. Kinship categories are also often gendered, which means that categories within kinship become conflated with specific ‘genders’. However gender does not form an unambiguous line to its apparently ‘counter’ kinship title.
Mayblin’s ethnography on ‘suffering’ in Santa Lucia, Brazil, brings this argument to life by discussing assumptions that exist around the kinship category, ‘mother’. Mayblin demonstrates how Santa Lucians look at motherhood not as an achievement of 'womanhood' but of moral personhood. In Santa Lucia, ‘elaborated suffering’ is part of “Orthodox and Catholic cultures, in which suffering is publicly elaborated, performed and expressed" (Mayblin 2010, 68) to demonstrate the moral achievement of motherhood. However, Mayblin describes that dominant perspectives view female ‘suffering’ as constitutive of female identity and femininity (Careveli 1980 1986, Dubisch 1995, Seremetakis 1991 cited in Mayblin 2010). Mayblin counters these theorists by arguing that in Santa Lucia, "the question of whether and to what extent elaborated suffering is an exclusively feminine practice has not been addressed” (2010, 87) instead suggesting “elaborated suffering is not concerned with the construction of femininity in opposition to masculinity so much as with morality in opposition to immorality" (2010, 87). Being a mother in Brazil is not a passive, feminine, 'suffering' role, but a sacrifice of the self for the benefit of others, specifically children. This highlights how women are not mothers because that is their gendered ‘role’, but also because there is a much more intense spiritual and moral element to their creation of kinship. Previous theories have established ‘suffering’ through a warped image of motherhood as an affirmation of womanhood, assuming the gender category, ‘woman’ as foundational to the kinship category, ‘mother’. However, when analysing gender alongside kinship, it becomes apparent that mother as a kinship category is much more of a moral journey than a gendered one revealing the prevalence of gender’s existence within kinship structures.
Shange also brings to life the transformative nature of gender and kinship categories by affirming the importance of analysing gender alongside kinship. Shange is an educator at Robeson High School who takes on a queer, maternal function of the black femme auntie for her students, La’Nea and Kairo (2019). Shange describes her role as a femme auntie in that "beyond socialisation, there was a reproductive capacity embedded in our kinship, in which I trained each of the young people up in the Black queer common sense of stud-femme sociality.”(2019, 47). Shange argues that aunties take on a maternal role in the socialisation of queerness and also act as bolsters for the image of queer futures. As an auntie, Shange creates kinship by helping navigate her younger kin’s struggles of survival, romantic disappointments, teenage angsts, as well as any other challenges they may face. Shange’s work emphasis how kinship and gender are nested in complications and cannot assume one another. Shange takes on a kinship role, but not in the heteronormative sense that a woman would ‘normally’ take on in a maternal role. Blackwood argues that the "fixity on the dominant heterosexual man has led anthropologists to misrecognise other forms of relatedness as less than or weaker than heteronormative marriage, family and kinship" (2005, 3), which comes to light here. Shange’s kinship role is ‘non-normative’ according to traditional theories, however contemporary understandings and feminist theories challenge this in a drive to denaturalise kinship and gender though the variance of gender-kinship relations (Blackwood 2005).
This essay has argued that the study of kinship requires an analysis of gender. Traditional kinship theories have been built upon male hegemonies forcing other gendered realities to become ignored and assumed under these conditions. If a broader reality of kinship is to be presented, it must analyse gender in its transformative and culturally contingent form, instead of alongside heteronormative ideals held within descent and alliance theories. This argument fed into the emphasis on gender as a non-neutral term. Gender’s transformative nature means it cannot be assumed in the study of kinship and requires analysis to prevent forced conflations between kinship and gender categories. Kinship and gender cannot be studied in isolation as a result of their perpetual relationship of re-informing and transcending each other.
Blackwood, E. 2005. Wedding bell blues: Marriage, missing men, and matrifocal follies. American Ethnologist 32: 3-19.
Carsten, Janet. 2004. After Kinship, Introduction.
Good, Anthony. 2010. Kinship [especially sections on descent theory and alliance theory]. In Anthony Good and Jonathan Spencer, eds., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural anthropology. 2nd ed. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 396–404.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The elementary structures of kinship. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mayblin, Maya. 2010. The Bearing of Burdens: Suffering, Containment and Healing In Gender, Catholicism and Morality in Brazil: Virtuous Husbands, Powerful Wives. Pp 67-93. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shange, S. 2019. Play Aunties and Dyke Bitches: Gender, Generation, and the Ethics of Black Queer Kinship. The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research. 49(1):40-54.