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Cultural and Social Anthropology

Chair for Social Anthropology – Professor Dr. Erdmute Alber

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Kinship and politics: Rethinking a conceptual split and its epistemic implications in the social sciences

Funding: ZIF (Center for Interdisciplinary Research, Bielefeld University)

Duration: 2016-2017

Project lead: Erdmute Alber, David Warren Sabean, Simon Teuscher, Tatjana Thelen

Research group assistant: Jennifer Rasell

Fellow: Jeannett Martin


Central to our Western self-understanding in the twenty-first century is that kinship has no place in politics. Any influence of kinship relations is regarded as the very opposite of a rational administrative system. According to this thinking, the importance attached to kinship in a society is what distinguishes a "modern" from a "traditional", and a "developed" from an "underdeveloped" society.

For a long time, there was little interest in the topic of kinship beyond the study of "traditional" societies in anthropological and historical research. While it was common to look at non-Western societies through the lens of "kinship", a different focus was usually chosen for Western society.

This split has a long history and enormous consequences for research and policy-making. Particularly in the domain of modern politics, the presence of kinship was (and is) seen as something to be exorcised in order to establish rational administrative systems, mobilise colonial populations, and even destroy terrorist infrastructures.

The aim of our research group is to revisit this conceptual division between kinship and the state. Our research begins with a re-examination of the categories of "politics", "kinship", and "family" as they have been used in historiography and social anthropology since the 19th century. Both disciplines have made a decisive contribution to the current distinction between state and society, change and (permanent) structures, and "the West and the Rest". Yet recently, both disciplines have been questioning the epistemological foundations of these oppositions, each in its own way. However, the results of this work have so far been largely unrecognized beyond the disciplines concerned.

In order to assess the scope of the conceptual and theoretical split of kinship and politics, interdisciplinary exchange and new interdisciplinary questions are needed. The group combines a critical examination of the history of theory with empirical findings on the continuing effects of such categorizations. Within this framework, it seeks to examine in what way the category of "kinship" can be utilized as an analytical tool in the current debates on belonging and (re-)constituting political orders.

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