"Frustrated by the fact that most texts on women treated 'the man's world' as the given and then simply asked where and how women fitted in," Stephanie Coontz writes, "I decided to undertake a survey of American gender roles: that was the starting point of the present book" — The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600–1900, published by Verso in 1988.
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, c. 1863-65. via Wikimedia Commons.
As the focus of her research shifted from "woman's private sphere" to the family as a larger arena in which the public and private intersect, Coontz became more attentive to the diversity of household arrangements across time and space. "Stimulated by the burgeoning research into family history," she writes, "I began to look at the family as a culture's way of coordinating personal reproduction with social reproduction — as the socially sanctioned place where male and female reproductive activities condition and are conditioned by the other activities into which human beings enter as they perpetuate a particular kind of society, or try to construct a new one."
Continued from part I.
Detail from Francis William Edmonds' The New Bonnet (1858).
The Limits of Structural and Demographic Analysis
Although it is important to compare demographic trends and household structures and seek their economic correlates, such procedures yield only limited information about the history of families. Olga Linares points out: “Qualitative changes in the meaning of interpersonal obligations may be as important in distinguishing among household types as more easily measured changes in size and form.” Indeed, as Barrington Moore Jr has commented, tabulating structural differences “necessarily involves ignoring all differences except the one being measured.” Changes in social relations and patterns are not “reducible to any quantitative differences; they are incommensurable. Yet it is precisely such differences that matter most to human beings.”47
Nic Ulmi's interview with Maurice Godelier was first published in Le Temps, Switzerland. Translated by David Broder.
Godelier in 2014, via YouTube.
"They called me Maurice the Red. Not for political reasons, but because of the sunburn." Maurice Godelier recalls thusly his stay among the Baruyas of Papua New Guinea. A great deconstructor of received wisdom, the anthropologist — today in his eighties — passed through Geneva for a conference organised by the University and the Latsis Foundation. There he reasserted the need to recognise the invariants at work in human societies, as well as the need to observe the way in which the imaginary transforms into social facts.
Demolition of "The Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, October 2016.
In late October 2016, I packed my bags for a short trip abroad, leaving a region raw with struggle over the racial and colonial violence of infrastructure. In places like Standing Rock, Flint, Muskrat Falls, Toronto, and Baltimore, conflicts raged over the targeted violence of energy, water, border, and policing systems. Movements for Black lives, for migrants’ rights, for indigenous sovereignty, and for economic and environmental justice were increasingly mapping violent infrastructure systems with their direct actions and analyses. The water protectors’ camps at Standing Rock were large and growing, animated by spirit, ceremony, and unprecedented gathering as they halted the Dakota Access Pipeline. The largest prison strike in history, 45 years after the Attica uprising, was calling out the inhumanity of American carceral infrastructure. Black organizers were denouncing infrastructure crises like the one poisoning Flint, Michigan, suggesting these would be the defining struggles for Black communities to come. More than 50 Indigenous Nations from across Turtle Island had just signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, with the goal of protecting Indigenous lands and waters from all proposed pipeline, tanker, and rail projects. In my hometown of Toronto, Black Lives Matter members were making claims for the protection of “Black Infrastructure.” Blockades of damns, ports, highways, and rail infrastructure had become frequent news virtually everywhere, except for in the reporting of the mainstream media.
On the occasion of the first anniversary of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in France, the anthropologist Maurice Godelier deconstructs the a priori idea that kinship is the fundament of society.
Where is the family, one year on from the signing into law of marriage for all on 23 April 2013? Opponents of gay marriage have not ceased to deplore the debasement of the family, the new government no longer devotes a ministry to it, and the partisans of medically assisted procreation (PMA) and surrogate pregnancy (GPA) are still waiting.
A report on parentage co-signed by the sociologist Irène Théry and the jurist Anne-Marie Leroyer was published this week (see Libération, 9 April). At all of 80 years of age, Maurice Godelier – one of the greatest French anthropologists – has seen worse: from Oceania to Africa, he has studied all sorts of forms of kinship bonds, always starting from the situation on the ground in order to challenge myths and a priori assumptions. He tells us not to expect the family to fulfil impossible missions like the restoration of society. An ex-Marxist and still a materialist, he has not ceased to ‘keep his own thinking independent of the ruling opinions and ideas’.