“I can’t see the forest for the trees!”
If social/cultural anthropology is the study of people’s everyday life, wherever they live-which anyone can do-why then, should one need to take a course? Yes, anybody can observe everyday life, but mere description provides little insight. Anthropology, as scientific approach, is useful for uncovering emic blind spots that natives experience while participating in everyday social life. The inhabitants cannot see the proverbial forest because of all the trees, but by using abstract concepts, the anthropologist, as the participant observer, can step out of the society and analyze objectively what the natives are doing and why they are doing it. This is imminently more useful for understanding the workings of society and its social structures. Furthermore, the anthropological method, as a practical approach, enables societal powers to predict human behaviour and develop social structures to manage human agency.
This paper defends why anthropology, like other disciplines, needs a set of core concepts to push human knowledge forward and understand the everyday world. By using the anthropological concept of “kinship”, I will show how social institutions employ kin cues to facilitate social cohesiveness and influence human agency for the fulfillment of specific institutional goals. To make a case for this thesis I will first show how kinship functions. Second, I will define kinship cues and their efficacy, and lastly, cite two examples of how social institutions use kin cues to affect human agency for particular purposes.
Many anthropologists consider kinship the most important social institution-the building block of society. Kinship can be defined as a tangible and cohesive network of human relationships that are interconnected with interpersonal roles. Kinship or “relatedness” has been typically associated with genealogical or biological descent. However, in modern industrial societies, metaphoric kin relations develop in communities that are imagined or socially constructed. Nationalism is an example of a metaphoric kin relation whereby relatedness to the state or nation becomes one’s kin group. (Eriksen 2010:129).
Kinship socialization is vital for the establishment of one’s identity and sense of belonging through the dynamic interplay between the individual and their kin group. Furthermore, kinship is important for protection, livelihood, and as a way of organizing sexual relations, marriage, reproduction, division of labour and inheritance (Eriksen 2010:100). As a social institution, kinship plays a fundamental role in socializing its members into fully competent societal participants (Eriksen 2010:64). Consequently, there is a strong impetus to conform because kinship socialization is a critical conduit for cultural values and modes of thoughts to be successfully transferred from one generation to the next, thus insuring cultural continuity (Eriksen 2010:65). Members who fail to be conventional run the risk of being labeled deviants and ostracized for their behaviour, thus losing the support of their kin and drifting into anomie (Eriksen 2010:66). Politics and management of everyday affairs that require the support of consanguineal kin and affines is another important element of kinship. The group is bonded by mutual kin loyalty; related kin groups can function together as a corporation for economic advantage or protect one another in situations of conflict and war. With kinship, “blood is thicker than water”, meaning the bonds of one’s family relations are generally stronger than the ties between nonkin-meaning we trust our own kind. Kin group norms denote how individuals act in relation to different categories of kin, thus reinforcing group cohesion and ensuring members loyally perform their responsibilities (Eriksen 2010:103).
Kin cues are a means by which individuals identify kin. These cues are not directly related to kinship, but are environmental cues that are correlated indirectly with kinship (Qirko 2002:323). These indirect cues include the use of kin terms, association and phenotypic similarity. An examination of the incest taboo is a useful example. All human societies have incest taboos that are categorized as adjoining blood kin, such as father-child, mother-child and brother-sister relationships (Eriksen 2010:101). Anthropologist Edward Westermarck argues that individuals, such as brother and sister (kin term cue) who have been reared together (association cue and phenotypical similarity cue) will feel little or no mutual sexual attraction. Other anthropologists indicate there is an instinctual response to feel little erotic attraction to close kin (Eriksen 2010:101). Kin cues, because they are indirect, are subject to errors and manipulation. A study of Israeli kibbutzim showed that nonkin children that were reared together (association and phenotypic similarity cue) would sexually avoid one another. Another study of Taiwanese arranged marriages revealed that non-related children reared together and then forced into endogamous arranged marriages reported sexual dissatisfaction (Qirko 2002:323). Humans also use kin recognition cues that are embedded in language and symbolic referents to categorize relationships. For example, all societies display ego-centered kinship terminology rooted in parent-child relationships and discriminate genders, generations and proximity of relatedness. The ubiquity of fictive kinship terminology used by many social institutions would indicate that kin languaging in conjunction with other kin cues, such as association and phenotypic similarities can be used metaphorically for evocative and propagandistic purposes (Qirko 2002:323). Moreover, the process of manipulating kin recognition to weaken biological bonds and replace with metaphoric bonds can be enhanced in individuals during development-related sensitive periods, such as childhood and adolescence. Furthermore, research reveals another factor for manipulating kinship, known as “attachment behaviour”, whereby nonkin relationships are easily formed when kin relations have been restricted or severed (Qirko 2002:323). The manipulation of kin-cue recognition to influence agency and achieve institutional aims can be summarized in five strategies: 1) The promotion of intimate association with nonkin members that duplicates typical kin contexts, such as parent/child or brother-sister relationships; 2) The use of faux phenotypic equivalents, such as uniforms, emblems, hairstyles, jargon and mannerisms between nonkin members; 3) Between nonkin members, the use of linguistic and symbolic referents; 4) The recruitment of adolescent or young children; and 5) Severing contact with one’s natural kin (Qirko 2002:323-324).
To illustrate how social institutions manipulate kin cues to recruit and influence the agency of its members for specific outcomes, let us look at two examples. First, the military uses kin terms, association and phenotypic similarities to establish strong kinship ties with its nonkin members. How does the military evoke intense camaraderie whereby recruits will risk their lives to save the lives of their comrades, or sacrifice their own lives in combat for their country? The military, by using kinship evoking language and symbolism, such as “fatherland”, “mother country”, brothers -in-arms”, creates and reinforces strong symbolic kin references (Qirko 2002:323). Moreover, recruits are initiated into “boot camp”, a training process that is similar to a “rite of passage”. Young men are separated from their families and placed into a liminal phase where they are neither civilians nor soldiers. Grouped in close physical association, these recruits are phenotypically made to resemble one another with identical haircuts and uniforms; then situated into a powerful common experience that unites them through a rigorous trial of endurance and survival, and then reintegrated as soldiers-as a “band of brothers”. Studies show that these liminal phase experiences during rites of passage create life-long ties of solidarity, whether these ties are institutionalized or based on a lineage organization (Eriksen 2010:147).
A second example illustrates how various monastic orders maintain voluntary celibacy and manipulate members, as part of their duties, into donating or accumulating resources for the organization. The Apostle Paul understood organizational loyalty and how to curtail the individual tendency to help the family reproductively and materially: “The unmarried man is busy with the Lord’s affairs, concerned with pleasing the Lord; but the married man is busy with this world’s demands and occupied with pleasing his wife” (Cor. 7:32-33). Monastic orders usually recruit unmarried adolescents and even younger children. Renunciation, both physically and symbolically, of kinship ties is required, including complete separation from blood relatives and an obligation to live and interact only with nonkin members is essential. Furthermore, members are required to wear uniform dress, abandon family names and use kin terms, such as “brother” or “sister” with each other and “father” or “mother” with institutional leaders. The application of these kin cues work to weaken or sever natural kin ties and establish new metaphoric ones (Qirko 2002:324).
In conclusion, anthropology goes beyond mere description of social behaviour. Using concepts such as kinship as a societal lens, enables anthropologists to objectively explain and predict why people do what they do in particular social situations. Anthropology, as a methodology, can explain how kinship determines vital individual needs like identity, protection, livelihood, sexual relations, marriage, reproduction and inheritance. Furthermore, anthropology, as a science, illustrates how social institutions employ kin-cues (kin terms, association and phenotypic similarities) on nonkin members to trigger and manipulate kin behaviour towards specific institutional aims, such as sacrificing one’s life for one’s country or practicing life-long celibacy. Thus, society can use anthropological concepts, such as kinship, to create social structures, and by exploiting kin cues, facilitate specific societal goals. Hence, thanks to anthropology, I can now see and understand the forest because of all the trees!
Eriksen, Thomas Hyllland.
2010. Small Places, Large Issues. Pluto Press. p. 329
2002. The Insitutional Maintenance of Celibacy. Current Anthropology. Vol. 43, No. 2. pp. 321-329.