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reflections on some lineages of the human condition




Point Defiance Zoo, 1986: Family in Family

Teaching as I do in a university department that includes both sociologists and anthropologists, I have often been asked by my students about the differences between the two disciplines and their practitioners. While “some of my best friends” –  including my husband – are sociologists, I have always felt most at home in the latter discipline, which, as I explain in my answer to students, is full of creative misfits.

The ability to experience, and even enjoy experiencing marginality, is of course not limited to anthropology. But the ever-dynamic tension between belonging and not belonging, observing as an outsider while jumping in to participate, perhaps even with zest, is certainly characteristic of all the anthropologists I have known over the three decades I have been one myself.

Here is a field of study in which everything is relevant: monkey dentition patterns, fossilized garbage dumps, pilgrimage sites, websites, Basque shepherds’ recipes for cheese, little-known languages spoken by only a few remaining elderly bilinguals. There are no “don’t go there” boundaries limiting what anthropologists might decide to study, in terms of either time (going back to the era of our pre-hominoid ancestors) or space (spanning the globe to investigate humanity living in its most remote regions).

In the course of the discipline’s history as a distinctly named social science, one of the first topics that gained importance in the eyes of its practitioners was the study of kinship relationships, because in areas where the language, customs, and beliefs of people studied was so different from that of the anthropologists studying them, mapping out who was related to whom, and how, provided a basic orienting grid, using a readily elicited native vocabulary, for beginning to figure out “what is going on here”.

So “kinship studies”, in the literal sense of the term, has always been a sine qua non of anthropology. But in another sense, “kinship studies” can be a far more nebulous, even metaphorical term, connoting much more than simply the study of how, in any given sociocultural setting, relatives are constituted and how they should behave toward each other because of “blood “or “marriage”.

In this larger sense, “lineages” may be comprised not only of people and their human genealogical ancestors, descendants and collateral relatives, but also of the metaphysical ties that bind people to collective entities such as ethnic groups, with their shared memories, hopes, and history; lands called “home”; as well as all those joyful as well as painful aspects of the human condition that challenge the notion that a construct labeled “the individual” actually exists independently and autonomously.

My personal attempts, over the years, to explore the concatenation of these themes and issues has provided the inspiration for this website.





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