Life in Possum Holler

Saline County, Arkansas, United States
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07 June 2004

Review: The Cultural Analysis of Kinship

Review for the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society . . .

The Cultural Analysis of Kinship: The Legacy of David M. Schneider. Edited by Richard Feinberg and Martin Ottenheimer. (Urbana, and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, c. 2001. Pp. x, 235. Illustrations, list of contributors, index. $39.95.)

“This collection is a critical appraisal of [David M.] Schneider’s work: his contribution to symbolic anthropology, and to the study of kinship,” Richard Feinberg writes in his introductory essay to this volume (1). But who is Schneider and why does he merit a book of analytic essays by ten prominent anthropologists?

David M. Schneider (1918–1995) published his seminal book American Kinship: A Cultural Account in 1968. This book and his other works reinvigorated the field of anthropological kinship by announcing that there was no such thing as “kinship”—at least not as a set of biological relationships. Rather, he argued, kinship was best understood as a set of semiotically oriented symbols rooted in culture; in other words, kinship is socially constructed by each culture to serve that particular society’s needs and desires. And, thus, he posited, we should abandon the study of kinship because it is culturally relative.

The essays in The Cultural Analysis of Kinship make it quite clear that Schneider was the progenitor of many provocative theories, as well as being an “infuriating” individual, who was sometimes “vindictive, mean-spirited, destructive and self-destructive,” when he wasn’t being “generous, . . . supportive,” and charming (161, and 217, first quotation, and 33, second and third quotation). And despite the many disagreements with Schneider’s ideas, it is evident that he touched off a firestorm of innovation in kinship studies.

In the “Introduction,” Feinberg recapitulates the history of kinship’s key role in anthropological studies and the oft-contested position of cultural relativism in kinship studies. He goes on to summarize Schneider’s life and his controversial contributions to academia, as well as setting the stage for the nine essays that follow, each a discussion and critique of Schneider’s theories. As Feinberg puts it:

[Schneider] helped revolutionize the way in which we think of kinship, family, gender, and culture itself. This book reflects the paradox, ambivalence, and irony experienced by most of those who dealt with David Schneider and whose careers were shaped by his thought. It explores the many paths he charted, posts warning signs at several dead-end intersections, and suggests directions for productive research in the years to come (25).

This book will be of interest mostly to anthropologists and kinship theorists. Despite the interesting title, readers or genealogists looking for a straightforward narrative of family and kinship will probably be disappointed by the highly theoretical discussions. Nevertheless, this is an important and nicely compiled work touching on the most up-to-date aspects of modern anthropological kinship studies.

Carolyn Earle Billingsley is an independent historian, living in Saline County, Arkansas. She is currently revising her dissertation, “Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families on the Cotton Frontier,” for publication by the University of Georgia Press in 2003.