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Curtain Hug

children symbolise the future of the national collectivity, and who has children, with whom, and who raises them have long been matters of state concern

Why are kinship and politics frequently intertwined?

It has often been assumed that politics and kinship exist as widely separate entities. This has traditionally been characterised by kinship’s apparent apolitical and intimate nature, however I will argue through ethnography that kinship and politics are actually not as separate as they appear. Kinship and politics are frequently intertwined because kinship can often become both controlled by the state and placed under scrutiny if it counters the state’s political interests. I will suggest that politics has the power to regulate what kinds of kinship structures are able to happen and under what circumstances.


But what is meant by kinship? Kinship in its widest form is the way people relate to one another. Kinship is also extremely culturally contingent and therefore can be about blood relations, but for other societies such as the Mayotte, kinship is "not a matter of shared substance or code, but a set of commitments, played out in practice and publicly articulated" (Lambek 2011, 3). However, despite cultural contingencies in defining kinship, and despite emergence towards contemporary, queer forms of kinship, it will become clear that in the eyes of politics reproduction exists as kinship’s core. I will use four ethnographies to demonstrate how nation-making and children, as well as the prevalence of heteronormativity makes reproduction an inherent part of kinship and it is on this basis that politics becomes involved in kinship formations.


In this essay, I will discuss two key points to demonstrate why kinship and politics become frequently intertwined. The first will argue that kinship and politics become intertwined because the state is often able to control kinship to further its own interests; whether it be preserving national honour, controlling reproduction or keeping certain groups racialised. This argument will begin with theorist, Carsten and applied to ethnographies by Das and Sufrin. My second point will reveal what happens to kinship structures that do not conform to state ideals, using Blackwood’s ideas of heteronormativity exemplified by Garth and Killias. These ethnographies will highlight how even when kinship structures do not conform, the politics of stigmatisation and the prevalence of normativity and patriarchalism become heavily involved in kinship ideals. It must however also be acknowledged that these ethnographies are all moments of state intervention in kinship, which does not aim to argue that politics and kinship are always intertwined. It does instead reveal the large extent to which kinship and politics are intertwined but suggests no universal relationship between them. 


Kinship and politics are interwoven because the state has often been able to control kinship and therefore further both its interests and uphold political ideals. Carsten highlights the “direct linkage between the enclosed, private world of the family, and the outside world of the state's legislative apparatus and the project of nation-making" (2004, 6) to argue that kinship is not simply a pre-given or biological fact - as former theory may have suggested - but is something that can be culturally, socially and politically constructed. Furthermore, the project of ‘nation-making’ can be argued as having much to do with the control of reproduction because "children symbolise the future of the national collectivity, and who has children, with whom, and who raises them have long been matters of state concern” (Stoler 1992 cited in Killias 2013, 886). It is precisely reproduction itself that is so desirable yet so threatening to a state, because who actually reproduces is extremely important. This argument will come to light in ethnographies by Das and Sufrin to emphasis how the state becomes involved in controlling reproduction to thereby create a nation that follows political ideals. In Das’ case this comes to the fore in the manipulation of women’s sexuality to ensure national purity and in Sufrin’s case how reproductive control ensures normative ideologies and inherently also continues to racialise certain communities.


Das’ ethnography on Indian and Pakistan’s partition describes how during times of mass conflict it was incredibly important for the state to maintain ideals of national honour and purity. During partition many women were sexually violated, which threatened ideas of honour and purity, as many children were born from sexual violence and therefore the ‘wrong’ sexual unions. Several questions are raised in light of this; "what happens when women are impregnated by 'other' men and give birth to the 'wrong' children? How is the notion of a national response evoked in the face of personal tragedy?" (Das 1995, 56). Das answers these questions by advocating that the state works to reinstall ideas of honour and purity by ensuring that "women's rights were taken away by the state in the putative interest of national purity" (Ibid, 71). The state defines children from the ‘wrong’ sexual unions as a Muslim man impregnating a Hindu woman or a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. It is in state interest to keep ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ separate, referring to the religious divide of Hindu and Muslims (Ibid). Women are not involved in their relationship with these ‘wrong’ children as the state has more legitimacy than independent claims over what kinship structures exist in society. 


But how did politics dictate kinship formations in reality? The Constituent Assembly was essentially able to use the law enforced by social workers to coerce and force women back into their pure, natal kinships. The Constituent Assembly’s interest in returning women “was not premised upon their definition as citizens, but as sexual and reproductive beings" (Ibid, 68), as it was essential for the state to return women in their prime reproductive years. Honour of the nation was at stake with women forcibly held on the other side and therefore "national honour was strongly tied to the regaining of control over the sexual and reproductive functions of women" (Ibid, 69). The Constituent Assembly mentions no expression of women’s wants and desires and focuses purely on the reconfiguration of kinship formations to help the state regain national purity. This became legitimised through the new legal category, abducted person, which was described as a woman who had been converted to the religion of their male abductors, forcibly married to them and/or had children with them or were pregnant when recovered. Once a woman becomes recognised by the law as abducted, the state is able to intervene and return these women to their natal kin therefore reconfiguring kinship formations despite any concern for the women involved. This made official kinship norms of purity and honour rigid, as they now became part of the law and concerns of the state. Even if women did not want to return to their natal kin or had created attachments with their children and new husbands, it was not in state interest to support these kinds of kinship formations. Women were essentially transformed into an abstract category where the regulation of their sexuality and reproduction was a matter of the state, with no concern for personal desires in the formation of their kinships. 


Sufrin’s ethnography, ‘Making Mothers in Jail’ in the US similarly demonstrates how politics often becomes intertwined with kinship. Sufrin argues that mass incarceration becomes a reproductive technology as a result of women’s reproduction becoming predominantly managed by carceral institutions. Foucault furthers this suggesting that "technologies can also come in the form of social and political projects that seek to regulate individual and group behaviour to cultivate particular social orders, especially through the regulation of sexuality and reproduction” (Foucault 1978 cited in Sufrin 2018, 59). In this ethnography, the reproductive technology of mass incarceration is used to promote an idealised, neoliberal version of kinship, but regulates individual and group behaviour by making normative forms of reproduction practically impossible to achieve. Incarcerated women are unable to achieve normative reproduction because they are often jailed during prime reproductive years, do not have access to abortion and if they do have families, they are separated. This demonstrates how incarceration does not allow normative reproduction and forces women to not be able to achieve an idealised version of kinship that is extremely politically enforced. Motherhood is therefore ironically promoted and foreclosed for women behind bars. 


Sufrin stresses how "reproductive justice is a framework – as well as a movement and vision for social change – for understanding the rights of all people to have children, to not have children, and to parent their children with dignity and in safety" (2018, 56), revealing how incarcerated women are not included in this kind of justice. Reproductive injustice then occurs through lack of abortion rights, access to contraceptives during custody and familial separation, providing the means for incarceration to be able to control kinship. “Mass incarceration, then, disrupts conventional modes of reproduction and threatens reproductive justice” (Ibid, 55) by controlling who, when and how reproduction is allowed for incarcerated women. Furthermore, "the over-reliance on incarceration in the USA is a racialised phenomenon which has affected millions of families – disproportionately people of colour – reconfiguring kinship around the criminal legal system” (Ibid, 55). Because incarceration disproportionately impacts people of colour it continues to racialise these communities and holds legacies of colonialism in contemporary times. Politics is therefore involved in the realm of kinship not only because women are unable to meet advocated, idealised standards but also because people of colour are to a larger degree impacted by this inherent reproductive injustice. Kinship is consequentially not a personal decision but one massively controlled and influenced by political ideologies and state institutions such as jail.


From using ideologies of national honour in controlling kinship formations during partition, to institutions becoming reproductive technologies that dictate normative kinship ideals, a stark correlation between kinship and politics is revealed. A correlation that exposes how kinship is not a private, apolitical phenomenon that exists outside politics but one that can become encapsulated within it. What happens then to the kinship structures that break state interest? What happens when kinship takes on non-normative forms prescribed by the political standards of a society? What is it about normative kinship structures that make them so dominant? 


Blackwood refers to this by asking what causes the vilification of women-centred households to begin her gendered critique on the centrality of heteronormative marriage and family in anthropology. Blackwood argues that it is because anthropologists have created the trope of the dominant heterosexual, 'patriarchal man' as an explanation for systems of marriage and family. Patriarchalism becomes extremely normative, which Blackwood challenges by re-exploring debates on matrifocal societies. Blackwood suggests that in presentations and definitions of matrifocality, focus is pinned onto the failed heterosexual couple and the missing man. Afro-Carribean households for example, are generally not organised around a heterosexual man, even though they may have heterosexual couples for certain periods of time. These matrifocal households have been presented as non-normative and problematic "rather than as viable forms of household constituted through women" (Smith cited in Blackwood 2005, 10). The consequences of 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" (Blackwood 2005, 3). Levi-Strauss implies this in his work by suggesting that marriage and the social exchange of women is fundamental to kinship, which turns women into mere transferable objects. This view has been heavily critiqued and feminist anthropologists have argued Levi-Strauss grouping women into commodities does not reflect the reality of female experience and problematically objectifies women (Carsten 2004). However, “despite the ongoing critique of marriage and family, the concept of 'marriage' continues to operate as a discourse to devalue, denormalise and negate other forms of relatedness in which men are absent or ancillary" (Blackwood 2005, 5) revealing how much marriage and family are continuously politically gendered institutions. I will bring this argument to life through ethnographies by Garth and Killias to show that the prevalence and advocation for normative kinship structures makes kinship so political. These two ethnographies will show how in reality actual kinship structures often do not align with normative ideologues, which makes the normative ‘fronts’ they hold up so fundamental. It is this ‘front’ that families feel that need to conform with political ideologies that makes politics heavily involved in how kinship structures exist; or how they appear to exist.


Garth demonstrates how a political ideal of heteronormative, neoliberal, nuclear families are massively idealised, which allows politics to become interwoven into the kinship structures that do not follow this ideal. Garth discusses how Fidel Castro implemented a socialist movement that worked towards gender parity, adopting the Marxist idea that "true sexual equality can be established only through a socialist revolution" (2010, 9). Following this movement, the Cuban government enacted many programs that would support women’s rights and promote a female workforce to therefore create a social space for gender equality. However, alongside this movement also came with a government emphasis on normative ideologies of the nuclear family. Garth explores how this created intergenerational tensions surrounding values of mothering, as older generations did not grow up with such an emphasis on gender parity. Older generations instead grew up at a time where mothering was the sole aim of a woman, which is complicated by contemporary drives for independent, working women. Although even amidst this drive to become independent, being ‘complete woman’ means you are still expected to uphold a nuclear family, which entails certain gender expectations of domestication and the inherent male ‘breadwinner’ status.


Furthermore, despite state ideals of nuclear, heteronormative kinship formations, they take on quite a different form in reality. Since young mothers are so heavily encouraged to work, it means that grandmothers and aunts often look after their children during the day. "Although the state has upheld the nuclear family as normative… Cuban families tend to consist of extended kin, and include fictive kin and multiple generations within one household” (Garth 2010, 11), which demonstrates how despite state intentions the reality of kinship formations are not actually so nuclear. These extended kinship formations ironically become essential for young women to become ‘complete women’. It is not the gender equal, independent, working woman that helps reach this status, but the reliance on traditional notions of domesticated motherhood. The nuclear family is therefore held up as a predominant ‘front’ to line up with normative, social ideology. It is this normative ‘front’ that Cuban society feel they must possess that intertwines kinship with politics of stigmatisation and normativity.


Killias’ ethnography on the ambiguities of belonging in the transnational migration of Indonesian domestic workers to Malaysia also reveals how non-normative kinship formations are politically tackled. Killias argues that there are deep political concerns in Malaysia regarding reproduction and child socialisation. This is because of transnational complications that come with the Malaysian-Indonesian political divide and the fact that Indonesian domestic workers occupy such an intimate space in the home. Indonesia and Malaysia were once part of a ‘blood brotherhood’ (serumpun), which was incredibly important during anti-colonial struggle. However, recently there has been a widening between the two countries with Malaysian emphasis on Indonesians as 'foreign aliens’ (Killias 2013). There is a contemporary drive in Malaysia towards national sovereignty with a mission to keep Malaysian sense of belonging clear and to make sure that Indonesians are unable to claim Malaysian citizenship and belonging. However, Malaysian’s massive dependence on Indonesian domestic work makes this ironic because they are othered and needed simultaneously. 


Killias emphasises how Indonesian domestic workers start becoming attached to the children they are raising and feel a sense of belonging to Malaysia - though there will never be any political recognition to validate this feeling. Domestic workers are consequentially othered as Malaysian ideology fears that they will otherwise threaten the child’s belonging to the nation-state. Domestic workers are constantly reminded that their duty is to serve families back ‘home’, however their kin obligations and ‘love’ for these families they hardly see are complicated by their close relationship with these Malaysian children. Employers work to “keep the boundaries between their own ‘permanent motherhood’ and the maid’s temporary ‘substitute motherhood’ by emphasising the maid’s temporary presence” (Killias 2013, 893). The state feels responsible for kinship and uses political ideology of Malaysian sovereignty as well as national laws to ensure Malaysian kinship remains Malaysian. Malaysian law affirms that Indonesian domestic workers cannot get married, have children or claim Malaysian citizenship, which then translates into the domestic sphere in a drive to maintain a strict employer-employee relationship (Ibid). It is not politically accepted to have Indonesian domestic workers become so attached and feel like they are kin to the children they look after. Malaysian families are therefore reminded, “as to the proper distance [they]… should keep with their carers, and contribute to establish certain norms of conduct in the regulation of the domestic sphere" (Ibid, 893). There is an ideal of nationhood promoted and anything outside of this is deemed non-normative, which becomes problematic when maids become so attached and so intimately close to the families that they work with. It is the home itself that complicates notions of work and family, which makes politics involved in keeping these domains separate. 


Garth and Killias have both demonstrated how societies ironically depend on non-normative kinship structures even though they are not promoted. This was seen through the normative ‘front’ that Cuban households adopt, and the Malaysian citizen ‘front’ to maintain a divide between Malaysian and Indonesian to further national belonging. Normative structures view those outside of them as weaker and non-normative, and it is also the fact that non-normative structures still exist at all that makes politics so contributory to kinship (Blackwood 2005). 


I have argued that kinship and politics are frequently intertwined for two prominent reasons. The first discussed through Das and Sufrin how the state often controls kinship in order to further its interests and uphold political ideals. I then questioned what happens when kinship structures do not align with normative structures through ethnographies by Garth and Killias. These ethnographies revealed that politics of stigmatisation in non-normative forms of kinship encourage normative ‘fronts' that adhere to the kinds of kinships that are allowed and acknowledged. There inherently exist political standards for kinship, which is what makes it an extremely politicised phenomenon.



Works Cited

Carsten, Janet. 2004. After Kinship, Introduction.


Blackwood, E. 2005. Wedding bell blues: Marriage, missing men, and matrifocal follies. American Ethnologist 32: 3-19.


Das Veena. 1995 ‘National honour and practical kinship: unwanted women and children.’ In Das.V Critical events. An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Ch.3.


Garth, Hannah. 2010 Towards being a complete woman: Reflections on Mothering in Santiago de Cuba. CSW update. 9-14


Killias, O. 2013. Intimate Encounters: the ambiguities of belonging in the transnational migration of Indonesian domestic worker to Malaysia. Citizenship Studies 18(8): 885-899.


Lambek, M. 2011. Kinship as Gift and Theft: Acts of Succession in Mayotte and Israel. American Ethnologist 38, 1: 2–16. 


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The elementary structures of kinship. Boston: Beacon Press.


Sufrin, C. 2018. Making mothers in Jail: carceral reproduction. Reproductive Biomedicine and Society. Vol. 7 pp. 55-65.

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