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The Metamorphoses of Kinship

A masterwork of the anthropology of kinship by the heir to Levi-Strauss.

With marriage in decline, divorce on the rise, the demise of the nuclear family, and the increase in marriages and adoptions among same-sex partners, it is clear that the structures of kinship in the modern West are in a state of flux.

In The Metamorphoses of Kinship, the world-renowned anthropologist Maurice Godelier contextualizes these developments, surveying the accumulated experience of humanity with regard to such phenomena as the organization of lines of descent, sexuality and sexual prohibitions. In parallel, Godelier studies the evolution of Western conjugal and familial traditions from their roots in the nineteenth century to the present. The conclusion he draws is that it is never the case that a man and a woman are sufficient on their own to raise a child, and nowhere are relations of kinship or the family the keystone of society.

Godelier argues that the changes of the last thirty years do not herald the disappearance or death agony of kinship, but rather its remarkable metamorphosis—one that, ironically, is bringing us closer to the “traditional” societies studied by ethnologists.

Reviews

  • “This is a blockbuster of a book. Nothing like it has been written since Levi-Strauss’s Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949) or Meyer Fortes’s Kinship and the Social Order (1969). Yet in the sweep of its evidence and argument, Godelier's summa is more ambitious and far-reaching than either of these. It is at once a major intervention in the discipline of anthropology, and a work of the widest human interest ... The book is both a monument of scholarship and a gripping set of reflections on universal experience. It is certain to be read and discussed for years to come.””
  • “Godelier has reasserted the value of our rich tradition of discussions of kinship matters. He has also shown how the category has metamorphosed as it has drawn in new issues of pressing current importance in modern life and made his case that, far from being genuinely in decline, the study of kinship is central to our understanding of what it means to be human.”

Blog

  • ‘Don’t count on the family to fulfil impossible missions’: An Interview with Maurice Godelier

    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’.

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  • "We are all bisexual"—Maurice Godelier discusses changing forms of kinship on Thinking Allowed

    Maurice Godelier discusses his new book, The Metamorphoses of Kinship, on a special episode of Radio 4's Thinking Allowed, with host Laurie Taylor and distinguished British anthropologists Adam Kuper and Henrietta Moore. 

    Discussing why kinship is so fundamental to anthropology, Godelier takes issue with the idea of more 'kinship-based' societies, or the idea that 'primitive' societies are much more driven by kinship, whereas more developed societies are shaped more by other structures. This is simply wrong, says Godelier. 

    They go on to discuss 'new forms' of kinship, such as same sex parenting, whether we should be more concerned with universal kinship norms (such as the incest taboo)  or cultural differences. Asked by Laurie Taylor whether, for example, acceptance of gay marriage, can be made universal. Godelier replies that 'exporting' kinship norms is impossible—such changes only come about internally.

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Other books by Maurice Godelier Translated by Nora Scott