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 (Zürich, SUI), Tatjana Thelen (Wien, AUT)
ZiF Research Group Closing Conference

The Politics of Making Kinship

Historical and Anthropological Perspectives

1 March - 2 March 2018

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

An end is at the same time the starting point for something new and it is exactly in this sense that the closing conference of the research group Kinship and Politics on 1–2 March 2018 was envisaged to be. On the one hand, a moment of bringing a long process to an end – a process that started in 2012 with some shared thoughts between Tatjana Thelen and Erdmute Alber that led to the application of the research group at ZiF together with Simon Teuscher and David Sabean. But more than marking the end of this process, the closing conference was also the starting point for something new – a book project that will hopefully end with an edited volume on The Politics of Making Kinship. This book should become something really new in the sense that it does not repeat our initial idea about a re-thinking of the epistemological split between "kinship and politics" in the social sciences. Rather, our re-thinking of the many ways how this split and the attempts of dealing and transgressing it brought us to ask about the multiple processes of making kinship.

The 14 papers discussed at the closing conference look at a wide range of processes of making kinship. They examine how kinship – as a concept (Julia Heinemann and Jon Mathieu), a way of knowing (Caroline Arni), a scientific topic (David Sabean), a means of classifying belonging and relatedness (Staffan Müller-Wille and Simon Teuscher), and a shared assumption of ordinary people as well as of scientists about the very existence of social relations (Tatjana Thelen and Ludolf Kuchenbuch) – has been brought about, conceptualised and naturalised in different periods, places, and social contexts.

A sense of historicity runs through most of the papers. That might not be a surprise for the historical papers, but it is surprising that all the anthropological papers also deal quite pronouncedly with processes of change and transformations. These are often not primarily changes of concrete actions, but changing notions and historical makings in specific times. Erdmute Alber traces the locally new concept of la famille that was brought by colonial officers to Dahomey/Benin and can today be found in the local languages. Tatjana Thelen writes about the political developments causing change in the perceptions of kinship, relatedness and familial gift-giving over the German-German border, while Jeannett Martin explores the coming into existence of a new category of kinship: the Kuckucks father. Thus, all the chapters, being historical or anthropological, are related by ways of thinking through change and temporal processes.

Different temporalities are explored in the papers such as David Sabean's reading of Hegel, who offered a critique of kinship practices of reiterated alliance through close marriage, which were only just getting started during his lifetime, but whose construction of the "family" fits nicely to the "nuclear family" model of Talcott Parsons, formulated almost a century and a half later. The papers by Susan McKinnon, David Sabean and Julia Heinemann show a shift from a parochial male encompassing idea of the household in the 16th century to a more egalitarian friendship model of husband and wife in the 19th century, while at the same time echoing ideas of mutuality from the 15th century. Caroline Arni emphasised that we need to always make a distinction between practice and how it is modelled.

Another dimension that links many of the papers is the concept of translation. This is most obvious in Claudia Derichs' paper, who looks at the ways how family and kinship are expressed in Japanese. But almost all the papers consider processes of translations when talking about change. Kinship is politically made and re-made, but also constantly translated into new languages, new social relations or new and changing times. In these processes the 'translated' is always changing, but also the translators as well.

Most narratives about the decline of kinship in the course of history built on the idea that kinship had been there since the dawn of time. In contrast, historians of the European Middle Ages and of the early modern period have argued that the formation of states and the formalisation of kin relationships went hand in hand. In this conference, we went a step further by reflecting how the very concept of kinship itself has been made. It is in this sense that Ludolf Kuchenbuch demonstrates the importance of processes of liberating slaves in the early Middle Ages for re-framing relatedness and creating a sense of kinship as being owned by all mankind. Simon Teuscher argues that one should not underestimate the role of Peter Damian (1007 – 1072) and his reflections on measurable grades of kinship through the counting of generations for a gradual coming into being of an understanding that sees kinship as a testable 'truth' that would, in the end, open the way for a 'modern' testing of kinship as DNA based. This connected to Jeannett Martin's paper on the construction of the category of Kuckuckskinder, which could be seen as one endpoint of this development that started with Damian.

As historians have found, studying states and their emergence necessitates a constant reappraisal of kinship. Anthropologists concerned with contemporary politics and emergent states have insisted that kinship is woven throughout so-called modern societies and political action. Thomas Zitelmann reminds us of the production of kinship, family, lineage, and corporate units in African Studies and their relatedness to political processes in Europe during the 20th century. Susan McKinnon's paper, in a quite complementary way but closely related to the history of the United States, opens our view to marriage and relations of affection in America.

The incredible importance of the 19th century not only for making and shaping kinship, but also for making it a topic to be researched in the social sciences is highlighted in the papers by Staffan Müller-Wille, Susan McKinnon, Caroline Arni and Michaela Hohkamp, who are all trying to explain what happened in a seemingly genealogical century – a "century of kinship", as Hohkamp argues. They indicate how the politics of making kinship was, at the same time, the politics of making class and new distinctions and boundaries.

With this conference we showcased the profoundly political character of processes of making kinship as well as the centrality of kinship to an understanding of politics in the broad sense of the word. And Hegel is, of course, an excellent example of this if one re-reads Hegel with David Sabean's eyes. But as Caroline Arni reminds us, by looking at the re-making of the maternal-fetal relationship in the 19th century, we should also be aware not only of the bodily character of kinship, but also of the relatedness of the "political making of kinship" with the political making of the body.

This rich and fruitful "final conference" has given us the courage to start with it something new and while the 2016/2017 research group bids adieu to ZiF it is very definitely an "Aufwiedersehen".

Conference Programme