ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Kinship beyond biology

Contact Convenor: Marit Melhuus

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo
1091 Blindern
0317 Oslo

Tel: 47 22 85 6398 

Co-Convenor: Signe Howell 

Panel abstract

Recent technological developments enable the establishment of significant relatedness to transgress previous boundaries predicated in some way or other upon biological connectedness.

At the same time the practice of adoption (whether national or transnational) is steadily increasing in popularity in several European and north American countries thus challenging even further the biological link as a prerequisite for kinned relatedness. These parallel processes both reveal and create tensions between cultural and biological forms of belonging. While the possible paths available to create families and kin are increasing, to what extent are previous values concerning such relations being challenged? To what extent, and in what ways, can one talk of the changing roles of kinship? Do concepts like motherhood, fatherhood, siblingship, and child take on new meanings - either/or analytically and empirically? Do questions of race enter into consideration of planned kinned relations? We seek contributions that address these and related questions. Kinship has been the theoretical cornerstone of anthropology. We wish to take a fresh look at old questions in the light of the dramatic new possibilities that are available for creating and fixing persons in relationships made up of sets of finite others who, in a kin idiom, name and plot their inclusion.

Female reproduction and the new genetics: the uptake of the genetic information and its cultural mediation

Aglaia Chatjouli, University of Aegean, Greece

The aim of this presentation is to discuss the processes of cultural interpretation that take place within the context of reproduction in the age of the new genetics in the Greek ethnographic reality.

The interest of this undergoing research is to study the ways non-experts come to terms with, conceptualize, make familiar, and use the genetic information, which derives from genetic tests and is discussed within the practice of genetic counseling.

The uptake of the genetic information by the mother to be, or the couple or the family involved is a process which is culturally mediated and the interest is to try to understand the multiple mediation processes, and the roles of the key mediators, like the kinship system, kin relationships, the family structure, gender roles, the scientific discourse, doctor-patient relationships and others.

More specifically the discussion will focus on the experience of genetic testing, as felt by the non-expert, of the knowledge that something “runs in the family” and how this experience informs the notion of biological relatedness as the basis of kinship. The main question investigated is raised on two levels. On the one level the interest lies on the potential geneticization in process and the ways it might be adding value to the “biological” as the basis of relatedness, and/or the ways such a phenomenon may be informing the construction of new meanings for the “biological”. For instance the “biological” may be denaturalized, and scientific (biological) information may be the constructing material for relatedness. Also the knowledge of having a genetic illness could be leading to new forms of kin-relations, beyond the family/genealogy, for example between individuals that have the same genetic illness and group together within advocacy and/or support organizations.

On the other level the interest lies in the ways that genetic information is handled within the family, and the ways it might be informing the existing relationships between the couple and within the more extended family.

The paths of relatedness: conceptualising kinship in contemporary Lithuania

Auksuole Cepaitiene, Lithuanian Institute of History, Vilnius

In my paper I intend to discuss the aspect of kinship, which I see as socially and culturally situated, and biologically reasoned intellectual practises of grouping of people. The conceptual images of kinship, the genealogical schemes as well as the 'counting' systems of kin members are the results of such practises. The paper, based on Lithuanian case study, will deal with various ways of conceptualising of kinship in folk, legal, religious, individual contexts as well as in science (genetics). The main aspects discussed would refer to the practises of limitation and extension of kin relatedness. The factors and agencies that play a significant role in grouping, such as information and knowledge, rules, and persons, and the symbolic binding of kinsfolk through idioms of biological substances will be areas of discussion as well.

Kinship and New Genetics: the changing meaning of biogenetic substance

Joan Bestard, University of Barcelona

In kinship studies biogenetic substance has been analysed as a fact of nature as well as symbol of diffuse and enduring solidarity. In this paper I analyse how changes into the facts of biogenetics substances induced by research and application of genetics into the human reproduction implies also changes into their capacity to symbolise social solidarity of kinship. Is nature still a symbol of kinship? If so, what kind of human nature is a biotech nature? The ethnography is based on fieldwork in clinics of assisted reproduction, mainly, between eggs donors and receivers. I analyse their ideas of inheritance, identity and similarity between members of a family. What does it mean to share biogenetic substances in the context of assisted reproduction? How do eggs donors understand the genetic link with an unknown offspring? How do they understand the biogenetic substance made with their donated eggs? How receivers do understand the biogenetic substance made in the laboratory? How do they appropriate the biogenetic substance? How do they relate genetic links, biological links and descent links?

Low-tech lesbian conceptions and their cultural consequences

Susannah Bowyer, University of Manchester

Lesbian and gay rights campaigners in Ireland are currently negotiating for adoption rights and access to fertility services. While these campaigns are in their early stages, lesbian women are raising children born as a result of more ow tech‚ reproductive processes (do-it-yourself donor insemination, or DIY DI). These families neither approximate nor replicate the Family founded upon marriage, which is enshrined in the Irish Constitution as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society‚. This paper offers ethnographic evidence of how significant relatedness‚ is negotiated amongst lesbians, donor fathers and the blood families of these, and questions the relationship between the lived understandings generated out of these circumstances, and the public discourse of cultural politics and recognition.

Non-biological families

Anne Cadoret

I would like to think about the contradictions between the fact that, firstly, nowadays, we can see different forms of family where the parents are not the genitors (as adoptive, reconstitued, homosexual families) and, secondly, our old and dramatic idea that the parents must be the child’s genitors, because the roots of kinhip must be natural, so biologic. And this, in spite of knowing the difference between birth and filiation, between physical reproduction of human body and social reproduction of a human group. 

I’ll do hypothesis that we have to look for the reason of this resistance in sex relations and patriarchal system (cf. Delaney). Once we have resolved this resistance, the challenge of the new family forms is to give life to “multi-kinship”, another maner to respect the basis of social link : that two or more people can constitute only one social unity or function in web. I will base my interpretation on E. Goody’s analysis of pro-parenthood.

Reconfiguring the culture of kinship in a South African shantytown

Andrew Spiegel, University of Cape Town

The vicissitudes of labour migration and urban settlement have led to extensive domestic fluidity for many South African working people.  They have consequently had, repeatedly, to create new social networks across the urban-rural social field.  They have made sense of those networks by reconfiguring their notions of kinship and clanship.  Based on research in a shantytown in Cape Town's largest African township, the paper shows how, using notions of clanship, kinship has been recursively reconstructed culturally in a context of systemic instability.  It uses that ethnography to argue that we need to understand kinship as a cultural resource, pragmatically used and reinvented over and over again, each time emerging anew.

Kinship beyond biology: NRT and transnational adoption

Marit Melhuus and Signe Howell, University of Oslo

There are two options available to the involuntary childless in Norway: IVF and associated treatments or transnational adoption. Although the significance of biological links is in no way denied, the meanings that such links contain are transformed and remade in the ongoing processes of family planning. Family matters are, however, not just a private concern. Public discourse as well as public policies inform and regulate possible alternatives in ways that are often at odds with the involuntary childless themselves, revealing tensions between cultural and biological forms of belonging. This paper seeks to explore these tensions. We will examine the way the involuntary childless weigh their options, with an aim to disclose the underlying values informing the decisions made. It is our contention that having children, being a family is the overriding concern and that this concern generates new forms of significant relatedness. It also makes choosing to remain childless a no-choice.

Biological kinship as symbolic language: a cultural analysis of ova donors’ narratives

Gemma Orobitg and Carles Salazar

In our paper we examine the ways in which ova donors from a private infertility clinic of Barcelona try to render their contradictory experience meaningful. Donors are striving to see their action as a contribution to the creation of a particular kinship bond, motherhood in another woman, by means of the abrogation of another bond that also looks very much like kinship: that which links them to the individuals that will be born thanks to their ova. It is the creation of a form of kinship by the destruction of another form of kinship. The specific meaning that ova donation has for each donor varies according to her particular circumstances: for some it is a form of symbolic compensation for previous abortions, for others it is simply a manifestation of solidarity with other women, etc. But the language that they construct in order to convey this meaning emerges from a creative articulation of several cultural paradoxes and dichotomies that constitute by themselves an original and highly significant cultural grammar.