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1This chronologically organized set of studies by Enric Porqueres I Gené ranges over a wide variety of fields and approaches. Its coherence lies in the power and resonance of the research problem that runs through the various chapters. From patristics to bioethics, from marriage practices of the Xuetes of Majorca (descendants of converted Jews, a group Porqueres has studied in depth) to Basque nationalism, this is a fascinating peregrination. We are readily convinced of the validity of his overarching thesis: structuralist rigidities on one hand and on the other the common understanding that contemporary societies are characterized by “individualization” do not mean that we are through with anthropology of kinship – the question now is how kinship should be understood today – let alone with kinship itself.

2Jack Goody, often cited here, warned against evolutionist, ethnocentric interpretations of changes in the areas of family, conjugality and fertility. Understanding the “individualization process” – a variant of “the civilizing process” – as a shift from the absolute predominance of collective organization and logic to the autonomous individual understood to be constitutive of modernity (and the definitively “nuclear” family), the prelude to a postmodern subject with absolute control over his destiny and accountable to himself alone, is simplistic. According to Porqueres, we need to surrender those broad historical categories, along with materialist reductionist concepts such as Bourdieu’s “marriage strategy,” to concentrate on a finer-grained dialectic involving tension between two “ideologies.” Porqueres explains that Saint Paul (whose thinking was manipulated by the Church Fathers, hostile to Roman and Jewish notions of marriage) constructed a figure of the human individual as detached from community memberships by baptism, which brought him instead into the universal community of believers. The cornerstone of the Christian earthly city was love, a value supposedly brought to the fore and transmitted to society as a whole by affection-based marriage founded on shared sexual affinity. In response to this model, studied by French historians from Flandrin to Burguière, a type of vertical, lineage-centred thinking developed in the Middle Ages which instead emphasized blood ties, understood to guarantee the stability and perpetuation of families, inter-family balances and, ultimately, existing hierarchies and the social order. This second type of logic implies meticulous collective control over marital unions.

3While the Pauline schema, associated with the una caro doctrine (man and woman become “one flesh” through sexual union), constitutes the foundation of Western, exogamous and cognatic kinship and a significant part of the legal-social order of European states (access to citizenship, naturalization conditions, etc.), it was in continual conflict with the genealogical approach, which received increasing support from the temporal powers. And in the early modern period “genealogical reasoning” and “blood rhetoric” came to the fore, as attested by the limpieza de sangre statutes (a person whose blood was tainted by Jewish ancestors, for example, had to be segregated from others), resulting in the emergence of racial exclusion policies, Napoleon’s Civil Code, and the development of “ethnic nationalisms.” From the fixation on blood ties came an intense preoccupation with reproductive sexuality and its future effects – we know how this kind of thinking impacted the fields of medicine, biology, eugenics. Porqueres draws on social history to demonstrate the power that kinship thinking had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, extensively citing the major (though not flawless, as François-Joseph Ruggiu has shown) research studies of David Sabean, Simon Teuscher and Gérard Delille: before various discourses (including genetics) discredited consanguinity, marriage between first cousins was on the rise.

4And yet as Porqueres shows in connection with intra-family conflicts, even in places where the normative perspective on family and kinship was much stronger than individual choice, outcomes were unpredictable. Persons wishing to marry found ways of instrumentalizing church or civil dispositions and consensual rhetoric, including confessing to sexual relations to obtain a speedy marriage ceremony from the religious authorities or eloping to escape an unwanted match and finding a priest willing to perform the ceremony. Like any institution, the church could, paradoxically, befriend subversion.

5The last chapter, on the contemporary situation, is more complex than the others; the reasoning seems to break down at certain points and the reader may get somewhat lost in the twists and turns. Is it true that visualizing the foetus with ultrasound (to which could be added promoting the “foetus” in “pro-life” grammar), the development of new reproductive technologies, and “geneticization” have brought about a new conception of the person, as a biologically defined monad rather than a fundamentally relational entity? The current debates on gamete donor anonymity, the risk of consanguinity and even incest that is supposedly involved in donor insemination, and reproductive cloning prove that individual identity is still understood as the inheritance of a bodily “substance” from two different-sex parents, be it blood or, today, “genetic information,” the latter often thought of in quite substantialist terms. In this connection the author might also have mentioned American sperm “banks,” where donors are chosen from a catalogue (now available online) on the basis of a full set of health-related, genetic, socio-economic and psychological-moral criteria – a phenomenon that clearly indicates the persistence of an area resistant to thought and not so different from the mystique of “blood.” As shown by a recent book on donor insemination for lesbian couples in the United States, [1] the quest for normality dovetails with market logic, leading individuals to maximize their child’s supposed biological potential. But how are we to interpret this set of observations in light of Porqueres’ research problematic? How can we disentangle individual matters from matters of kinship, or determine where bodily substance ends and social “relation” begins?

6What does seem clear is that individual autonomy and the hold or sway of the group are two sides of a single reality, one that anthropology of kinship, once freed of its classificatory, logic-obsessed tropism, can apprehend, specifically through historicized study of taboos and prohibitions that both change and are negotiable. To capture kinship relations, we need to go beyond exogenous determinations pertaining to culture or economic relations; individual and bodily concerns and experiences – love, procreation, sexuality – are essential. Does this render obsolete an approach in terms of strategies? It could be argued that given the wide range of contexts considered in this book and the variety of matters potentially at stake (material assets, honour, cultural and educational capital, identities, etc.), sweeping refutations are not in order, especially since Bourdieu’s work offers other useful analytic resources (the notion of marriage market, not to mention his thinking, albeit marginal, on love and affection). It would also be interesting to see where the author stands on more “constructionist” sociological approaches such as Florence Weber’s notion of “practical kinship.” It is regrettable that the shift in perspective that Porqueres claims to have achieved does not more fully integrate gender, as it might have by raising the question of how the conflictual play of individualizing mechanisms and more holistic forces differentially affects men and women. Despite these criticisms, the work is to be welcomed and is likely to be of interest to demographers and historians of population. The originality of Porqueres’ studies lies not in his attempt to rehabilitate agency or individuals’ status-related positions but rather in his description of the tensions, power balances, negotiations and compromises through which the different interests (of individuals, families, relatives, the state, society, etc.) ultimately adjust to one another.


  • [1]
    L. Mamo, 2007, Queering Reproduction: Achieving Pregnancy in the Age of Technoscience, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 300 p.
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