Marilyn Strathern on the facts of English kinship
A cultural account
In her study of English kinship, After Nature, Marilyn Strathern does not present us with kinship diagrams and an account of how the English trace kin. Instead she provides what she refers to as a cultural account of modern English kinship.
By a cultural account of modern English kinship, what she seems to have in mind is an account of some very basic propositions which people within modern English culture represented themselves as committed to when they talked about family relationships. These propositions were typically not articulated. Rather the views that were articulated presuppose that these propositions are true.
In anthropological terms, Strathern is engaged in worldview description. In philosophical terms, she is doing descriptive metaphysics.
The term ‘modern’
Strathern refers to the propositions she draws attention to as facts specifically of modern English kinship discourse. By ‘modern’, she does not mean contemporary. The period she has in mind is roughly the 1860s to the 1960s, which she also refers to as the plural epoch.
Strathern claims that the propositions she identifies are now no longer taken for granted as true. Rather, in light of technological developments, it has come to seem that, if they are still true, they may well not continue to be true. See the section below on a change in Western culture.
The term ‘fact’
Strathern refers to the commitments she identifies as the facts of modern English kinship. By saying fact, she does not wish to imply that these actually are facts, an issue she is neutral on. Rather the propositions she uncovers were assumed to be true by English kinship discourse. They were presupposed to be facts, whether or not they are facts.
The term ‘English’
For remarks on this, see the later sections on the object of study and a change in Western culture.
Strathern articulates what she takes to be the three facts modern English kinship as follows:
“Indeed we might consider the individuality of persons as the first fact of modern kinship.” (1992: 14)
“...I take diversity as a second fact of modern English kinship.” (1992: 22)
“...individuals reproduce individuals. This was the third fact of modern kinship.” (1992: 53)
The commitments of English kinship discourse that she has in mind are these:
1. Each person has individuality.
2. There is diversity.
3. Individuals reproduce individuals.
An interpretation of the three commitments
Each person has individuality – Strathern does not clarify the meaning of individuality, but I read the first commitment as combining a metaphysical and a psychological thesis.
The metaphysical thesis is that each person is a distinct entity. Even if a person is a part of something else, such as a family, they not to be conceived of primarily as a part of larger whole but as an entity in their own right. To identify a kin relationship between one person and another, e.g. they are siblings, is to identify a relationship between two distinct entities.
The psychological thesis is that each person has a unique character. There is no other person who has the same character nor has there been another person with the same character.
There is diversity – according to this commitment, there is more than one person currently existing and, if one takes all the persons that exist, they do not all have the same physical traits. Strathern says that diversity was presupposed when two people were represented as having reproduced together. It was presupposed that the two parents have different physical traits from one another (1992: 22). The commitment that there is diversity should probably be understood as going beyond saying that not everyone has the same physical traits. It also says that there is significant variation in physical traits.
Individuals reproduce individuals – this can be understood as saying that if two persons successfully reproduce, the offspring has different physical traits from both parents and has individuality as understood above: they are a distinct entity in their own right and have a character unique to them.
The object of study
Officially, Strathern aims to describe commitments of modern English kinship thinking. She limits her claims to the English middle class, while acknowledging the likelihood that they apply beyond it. But she does not give a very clear account of what it is to belong to this group.
If the three propositions were once assumed to be true, they were probably assumed to be true by many who cannot, on any plausible understanding, be called English middle class or even English. As much as or more than English middle class culture, Strathern is interested in very widely-held commitments – ‘commitments that are commonplace within Western culture’ is the most convenient way of formulating the object of interest (1992: 23). But it is difficult for her to directly pursue this interest, owing to scepticism among anthropologists about cultural description at such a broad level.
A change in Western culture
Strathern claims that, once upon a time, the three propositions were generally taken for granted as true – views were expressed that assumed the truth of these propositions – but new reproductive technologies have led to fears about whether they will continue to be true and a world in which they are true has come to be explicitly valued (1992: 39-40).
To many, it is desirable if the individuality of persons, the diversity of persons and the fact that individuals reproduce individuals are preserved. Correspondingly, it has become an aim of some people to preserve the kind of world that was previously taken for granted. Strathern regards aims that fit this description as typical of the group which are her official focus (1992: 35).
Strathern, M. 1992. After nature: English kinship in the late twentieth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.