“people are strange”

the two anthropologists that i quoted at length in my recent posts about kinship in greece made some interesting confessions in the introductions to their respective publications — they both admitted that, at the outset of their research, they didn’t want to have anything at all to do with kinship studies. they thought either that kinship was an out-dated area of research or just simply irrelevant. it was only after they plunked themselves down in the middle of greek society that they realized how important kinship is to greeks. (kudos to them both for acknowledging so and not letting some silly preconceived notion or paradigm mislead their research.)

here is what roger just had to say (i quoted him in this post) [pgs. 114-15]:

“If I may start with an autobiographical note: When, in 1977, I began field work in Spartohori, one of three villages on the tiny island of Meganisi (administratively attached to the Ionian island of Lefkada), I had little enthusiasm for the study of kinship and family. Doubtless prejudice played a greater part than reason, but inasmuch as my reluctance had basis, it involved the following (not entirely consistent) reflections. First, in the 1970s there was a widespread feeling that kinship, for so long anthropology’s sacred cow, might well be ready for poleaxing and that its centrality was perhaps no more than the fetishized product of the discipline’s own history. Second, even supposing the importance of kinship studies could be defended, the very structure of Mediterranean (and European) kinship — or perhaps one should say its lack of structure — seemd to preclude the sort of interest aroused by the study of the formal intricacies of more ‘exotic’ systems. Last, and for me most cogent, had not the whole subject of Greek kinship been more than ably dealt with by those who had gone before? The prospect of making any significant addition to the work of Peristiany, Campbell, du Boulay, and others seemed depressingly remote. In sum, I thought it advisable to leave kinship and family alone and, as contemporary wisdom then enjoined, to explore the more ‘relevant’ issues of politics, economics, and, of course, class.

“It did not, however, take long to discover that my mentors’ interests had not been misplaced. It was impossible to understand anything about the village without first understanding something about kinship. The values of kinship seemed to permeate almost every aspect of village life — from where one shopped to whom one voted for, from the forms of local economic cooperation to the adventures of overseas migration. Moreover, it was impossible to avoid the rhetoric of kinship: ‘My uncle in Lefkada who will help you’; ‘My brother-in-law, the best man in the village.’ Certainly if there were any one thing around which an ethnography of the village could be centered, any one thing that would provide a constant point of reference, a continual series of links between one aspect of village life and another, then it was the Spartohoriots’ concern with kinship and family.”

and here is hamish forbes (quoted in this post) [pg. 117]:

“As later chapters of this book demonstrate, much of the way in which Methanites have experienced their landscape, its history, the patterns of ownerships, especially of their houses and plots of land — and those adjacent to their own — and the locations which they visit within the landscape, has been set within a kinship idiom. However, rather like Just [the author quoted above], my original intention when embarking on ethnographic fieldwork was to have as little as possible to do with studying kinship. My undergraduate degree was technically in Archaeology and Anthropology, but the formal complexities, and (to my mind at the time) irrelevancies of the anthropological study of kinship persuaded me to concentrate on archaeology. Likewise, as a graduate student taking a compulsory taught course on kinship, I felt that kinship studies preferred to categorise and typologise abstract concepts rather than to understand the essentials of peoples’ everyday lives. Cultural ecology, which allowed me to study other societies with my feet and research topic firmly on the ground, persuaded me that ethnographic fieldwork was a viable option. Choosing a European fieldwork location also seemed ideal for minimising time spent on establishing how the kinship system worked: European kinship did not excite the complexitites of anthropological interest that kinship among more ‘exotic’ societies did.

“This brief foray into autobiography is more than an anecdotal digression. Given the centrality of the study of kinship in cultural anthropology, the reader might be excused for believing that the centrality of kinship in explaining Methana landscapes derives from the core beliefs of the researcher rather than the realities of Methanites’ own lives. However, in my Ph.D. thesis, kinship was largely subsumed within discussion of property transfer — inheritance and dowry — and to an appendix specifically requested by a member of my thesis committee. It was only as I came to explore the deeper meanings of their landscapes for Methanites and to consider issues of identity and belonging that I was forced to conclude that my teachers had been wiser than I thought: kinship was indeed a crucial feature in Methanites’ lives.

that both of these guys initially thought that kinship wasn’t so important in studying greek people might’ve simply had to do with the thinking of the times in anthropology — i.e. all that stuff that the old boys did in anthropology, well, that’s just so out-of-date. (neither of these researchers seems to know anything about inclusive fitness and mating patterns and kinship, but that’s ok.)

i think, tho, that their willful ignorance of the importance of kinship — especially to greeks! — might also have had to do with how difficult it is to understand other people. it’s hard enough to understand where another individual is “coming from” — never mind trying to get what whole groups of other people are about.

most northern europeans (and their decendants in the u.s.) — and just and forbes fit that bill, i think — probably really don’t get the importance of kinship and extended families because kinship and extended families are not really important in their lives. it’s hard to imagine what these things might mean to other peoples and how strongly they affect other peoples’ lives. northern europeans are not inbred, so those powerful inclusive fitness drives to help near kin are just not there — or, at least, they’re not as powerful. it’s hard for not-so-inbred people to know how inbred people feel towards their relatives.

this wouldn’t matter so much if we were just talking about a couple of anthropologists in some ivory towers somewhere. but we’re not. the problem is we’re also talking about people who want to “bring democracy” to the iraqis and afghanis — something most iraqis and afghanis probably couldn’t care less about. (not to mention all the people who want greeks to “just say no” to corruption. heh!)

previously: ελλάδα and more on greece

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