Redefining Kinship: A Theoretical Critique of Ego-centered Kinship Studies

Presentation Date: 

Friday, November 18, 2016


Harvard Yenching Institute


My research will present a theoretical critique of Ego-centered kinship studies and reject the dichotomy of typical and fictive kinship while demonstrating that all kinship relations are socially rather than biologically constructed. Following the controversial work of David Murray Schneider (1918-1995), who deconstructed the concept of kinship and rejected both biologically-based “real” kindship and socially-based “fictive,” a new wave of scholarship emerged in defense of the fictive kinship studies. These studies attempted to demonstrate the existence of socially-based kinship networks based alone on reciprocal choice, such as homosexual - transsexual families and parenthood, reproductive cloning, surrogate mothers, and international kinship through adoption. This binary understanding of kinship in terms of “typical” kinship based on consanguinity and affinity and “fictive” kinship based on reciprocal social choice, I suggest, has emerged by placing the Ego in the center of kinship studies. According to this definition, a kinship relationship is defined as typical or fictive based on how members of the kinship network are related to the Ego.

In kinship studies, the Ego can be understood as an individual from whom the kinship network is traced and defined. As a consequence of the reproduction of this dichotomy of typical kinship and fictive kinship, a simplistic understanding of Ego as an individual has become solidified as the center of discussions and understandings of kinship. I aim to re-conceptualize this understanding of the Ego in kinship studies to recognize diverse forms of kinship in non-Western societies, including Vietnam. First, I will redefine the central factor of “typical” kinship, consanguinity and affinity, as a concept that is itself socially constituted and understood to deconstruct the dichotomy separating “typical” and “fictive” kinship studies. Then, based on diverse ethnographic data and my own fieldwork data from Vietnamese society, I will demonstrate that the Ego can be a person, a set of individuals, or an abstract collectivity, such as a group, social class, organization, ethnic group, nation, or even a non-human entity. I conclude with a concrete presentation of this concept of kinship in practice by describing ethnographically conceptions of consanguinity and kinship in contemporary Vietnam.