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.
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.
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’.