Kinship studies are certainly a hallmark for anthropology as a discipline. Yet, it has been more than a decade since Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale has published a paper on kinship (except for a review article by Giovanna Bacchiddu  on two books about international adoption and the reconfiguration of the American family model). We have to go back as far as the late 2000’s to read one, when Warren Shapiro wrote a peremptory critique of Susan McKinnon's book in which the latter had strongly argued against “neo-Darwinian biological assumptions” underpinning the kinship theories developed by evolutionary psychology. The long absence of kinship from issues of this journal elicits an obvious comment: it was about time Social Anthropology / Anthropology Sociale devotes a full issue to this topic and engages with recent ethnographic theory on kinship and kinship matters. While we don't believe that it is our role as new editorial team to ponder the reasons for the omission of this topic, let us simply notice the major turn in kinship studies as a beginning for explanation. At the turn of the century, kinship as a topic has evolved from theoretical discussions about “systems” and social organization to a urge for describing and understanding new patterns of relatedness, transnational families, parenting, and adopting. Entire journals were created out of the need to explore ignored and emerging universes of relatedness and reimagine family studies. Despite the seismic shift from concerns about terminologies, ways and varieties of affiliation, and primary forms of structuring human lives to questions of care, parenting, and having kin, kinship studies have not been the hotspot of anthropological debate for years. However, they have consistently been addressed by books reviewed for this journal.
From this perspective, considering the last kinship controversy published by Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale is interesting if not reinvigorating. In a nutshell, the controversy unfolded around the various meanings of the term “mother” in western and non-western societies, with Susan MacKinnon promoting a category embracing “multiple mothers” in contexts where mother's sisters act like mothers. Contrarily, Warren Shapiro dismissed part of her analysis on the ground that she has been confusing the way people behave in matter of kinship with “kinship's constructs” (Shapiro, 2008; McKinnon, 2005). The controversy is far more articulate than this summary gives away, but what interests us here are some of the outcomes. Indeed, the debate reignited in this Journal a year later after Robert Parkin published a sharp discussion on both authors’ approaches and arguments, arguing that both were misled when they assumed that resources are what is at stake in any discussion of kinship and status, and with them a conceptual priority given to agency over social obligations (Parkin, 2009). The article builds on aforementioned debate to ask whether the dwindling interest in formalism espoused previously by kinship theorists and the growing fascination for constructivist approaches meant the ultimate devaluation of the term kinship itself. In some regards, the special issue we are publishing picks up where Parkin had left off to show that kinship is still relevant to anthropologists. Further, it responds to Chris Hann who advocated, equally in 2008, for a reengagement with the topic of inheritance. In short, an issue on kinship is overdue.
Yet, the concern voiced in this issue by our guest editors, Simon Abrams and Marianne Lien, is not so much to engage anew with the traditional question of value change across generations as a reproduction of economic relations and political domination than to “focus on the link between kinship and property relations” after a generation of anthropologists had considered “the issue of relationality through the lenses of procreation.” In their detailed study of inheritance in England, Janet Finch and Jennifer Mason have tackled the topic from a similar perspective, noting that “in the process of handling the transmission of property, the character and qualities of those relationships is revealed, understood and remade by participants.” They invite us to see inheritance as “a process that constitutes families, not simply reflects them” (Finch & Mason, 2000: 2). Kinship is about relationality, family ties, and the hopes, fears, strategies and reasoning in relation to material assets, property, or objects that people pass on during or after their lifetime for others to appropriate. As the articles gathered in the volume illustrates in multiple ways, succession often results as much in conflict than connection, in de-kinning instead of kinning.
Popularized by S. Howell (2006), through her study of transnational adoption, “kinning” has become the analytical concept to consider and account for the fluidity of kinship relations over time. Kinning processes are the results of individual and family choices. They are also the result of institutional policies about families. The newer term “de-kinning” stems from anthropological investigations of adoption and “ARTs”- Assisted Reproductive Technologies – and has been first used to analyse situations where the presence of the procreative other(s) is symbolically cancelled or obscured with efforts to disconnect formally and socially from them (Fonseca, 2011; Högbacka, 2016). In a panel presented at the EASA conference of 2016, young anthropologists put the concept to work, refining the kinning / de-kinning nexus based on specific ethnographic cases of re-kinning, a-kinning, or never-kinning. As such, they demonstrated the heuristic as well as analytical advantage of focusing on processes. They also underscored the analytical relevance of studying transnational kinships, ARTs and new family models, and the relations between families and states (Guerzoni & Sarcinelli, 2019).
The present issue raises the concepts of kinning and de-kinning from their topical cradle to consider the material dimensions which mold the practice and experience of kinship – its nuances, potentialities, incorporations and dissimulations, its selectiveness, temporality, and intergenerational dimension. From the holiday home in Norway to the atoll of Tokelau, from western Kenyan to traditional households in Beijing, from Denmark to the UK, the articles of this special issue brilliantly revisit matters of individual or collective ownership, distribution of wealth, death practices, and the non-universal notion of inheritance. A fascinating journey with ethnographic accounts at their best.
Bacchiddu, G. 2015. ‘Living at the margins of difference’: transnational and transracial adoption and the re-formulation of the American family and of its members’ assumptions. Social Anthropology 23 (4): 510–514.
Fonseca, C. 2011. The de-kinning of birthmothers: reflections on maternity and being human? Vibrant. Virtual Brazilian Anthropology 8 (2): 307–339.
Högbacka, R. 2016. Global families, inequality and transnational adoption. The dekinning of first mother. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
McKinnon, S. 2005. On kinship and marriage: a critique of the genetic and gender calculus of evolutionary psychology in S. McKinnon and S. Silverman (eds.), Complexities: beyond nature and nurture, 106–131. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Parker, R. 2009. What Shapiro and McKinnon are all about and what kinship still needs anthropologists. Social Anthropology 17 (2), 158–170.
Shapiro, W. 2008. What human kinship is primarily about: toward a critique of the new kinship studies, Social Anthropology 16 (2), 137–153.