New Book: Restarting Kinship

Murray Leaf and Dwight Read have just published Introduction to the Science of Kinship, Lexington Press.  It is a sequel to their Human Thought and Social Organization: Anthropology on a New Plane (2012), but should be much more accessible. It is focused exclusively on kinship and provides much more ethnographic detail on exactly what it is and why, in both practical and social psychological senses.

They describe this as anthropology on a new plane and as a new science.  It involves a level of descriptive precision that previous ethnologists have said is only possible in the physical sciences.  To do this, they describe kinship organizations as socially constructed using kinship maps.

Kinship maps are a type of social idea system.  They are the systematically interrelated ideas that make up the definitions of what anthropologists have long struggled with as “kinship terminologies.”  The reason these ideas are systematically interrelated is that each is part of the definition of others.  The interrelations give them a definite logical structure.

Kinship maps can be elicited with cultural frame elicitation.  This is the use of a key set of ideas in a system of ideas to elicit the other ideas in the system. For kinship, the frame is the “direct” kin arrayed around a self, or ego. Once the initial positions are obtained, all additional positions can be obtained by asking what each of their direct kin is to the original self and repeating this  process out to system boundaries. Every such an elicitation is an experiment that can succeed or fail. It succeeds if it yields a map that is observably complete and coherent and that indigenous users recognize as their own.  It fails if it does not do so.

The elicitation process shows that the map has a generative structure.  So it must have generative premises and procedures. But the cultural frame elicitation does not show what these are.  This requires further analysis.  Read has shown how to do this both algebraically and diagrammatically.  The diagrammatic analysis is called the kin term map.  The algebra, in turn, was the basis of a computer program that could do the same analysis semi-automatically.  This uses only the kin term map and the computerization, which should be much easier for anthropologists without strong backgrounds in formal methods to follow.

The increased precision leads to new questions and answers. It permits clear connections between the kinship map and the more encompassing world-views that frame the behaviors that people in kinship organizations engage in. It shows how the logical coherences of the kinship map provides perceived and actionable coherence to kinship organizations and behavior.  It resolves the 150 year old problem of  explaining Morgan’s distinction between “descriptive” and “classificatory” terminologies.  It lets us predict which features of terminologies will be more or less readily changed by their users in response to different kinds of perceived collective pressures. It also lets us see that kinship maps fall into just five major types according to their generative premises, perhaps reflecting the historical development of language families but also clearly reflecting the operation of the principle of limited possibilities. And most fundamentally, it shows how to avoid the trap of ethnocentric imposition.  It makes indigenous concepts objective for scientific analysis by showing how that they become objective their users in exactly the same ways that the concepts of the physical sciences become objective for physical sciences.