Center for Interdisziplinary Research

ZiF Research Group

Kinship and Politics: Rethinking a Conceptual Split and its Epistemic Implications in the Social Sciences


Convenors: Erdmute Alber (Bayreuth, GER), David Warren Sabean (Los Angeles, USA),
Simon Teuscher (Zurich, SUI), Tatjana Thelen (Vienna, AUT)

For a long time the decline of kinship in the course of Western history seemed so certain that there was little interest in research on this topic outside the study of "traditional" societies in anthropology and history. Central to Western self-understanding in the twenty-first century is that kinship plays no role in politics. This separation has a long genealogy and enormous consequences for research and policy-making. Particularly in the domain of modern politics the presence of kinship was (and is) seen as something to be exorcised in order to establish rational administrative systems, mobilise colonial populations and even destroy terrorist infrastructures. It is behind distinctions between modern and traditional, between Western and "Other" societies.

The aim of our research group is to revisit this conceptual division between kinship and the state. Our research begins with a re-examination of the categories of "politics", "kinship" and "family" in anthropology and history. Both disciplines have contributed decisively to the opposition of state and kinship, change and structure, the West and the Rest. Yet recently both disciplines have been questioning the epistemological foundations of these oppositions, each in its own way. The results of their critiques have largely remained within the respective discipline, while a broader interdisciplinary setting is needed to develop their implications for the social sciences at large.

We wish to explore the implications of viewing non-Western societies through the lens of kinship, and of excluding kinship from the analysis of Western societies, as has been common since the nineteenth century. A critical examination of the epistemological history of disciplinary categories will be combined with empirical findings about the work that these categorisations still do today. Within this frame we intend to develop new approaches for using kinship as an analytical tool in the study of current questions of belonging and the making and remaking of political order.

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