Hello fellow Open Anthropologists,

This a trial launch of a project to reclaim terminology from the depths of jargon.

Why? I often use this site:  http://dictionary.reference.com/ and I really enjoy one of their features, "word of the day". The day's word is on the homepage, or you can have it sent to you (don't, because it's a daily e-mail). I wonder if we could have something similar here on the OAC? A lot of anthropological terms may be seen as jargon, but arguably sometimes they can help writing to be more precise and accurate. Using  academic terminology can be the most eloquent way to write.

I suggest using this thread to post terms with a definition, example of usage and ideally a reference or two where possible. I would be able to update this perhaps once a week, but I hope anyone will feel free to add, comment or post a term. It doesn't to be one you like and one term may trigger another in someone's mind. We can also take requests for enlightenment!

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A keyword search in EBSCO Academic Search Elite for "kinship and anthropology" 2000-2013 yielded 4,044 hits, and for "relatedness and anthropology" 999. Interestingly the latter had a large subset of studies of genetic markers, so the term relatedness clearly is part of a "venn diagram" with different intersects - ethnicity, primatology, archeology and epidemiology - than kinship. Still, studies of kinship outnumber relatedness to the present day. Of course if we broke this out by journal rank and author age we'd probably get a different picture.

Data, data, we love data. Thanks, Mott.

and certainly the links between Strathern and Carsten's work is the move away from biology as the matter of kinship- if kinship is no longer about people of the same "biolgical" kind then perhaps we do need a new, or at least extra, term?

Don't we encounter here a fundamental contradiction at the heart of anthropological thinking? On the one hand, to support what is now politically correct, at least on the left, in the West, we insist that kinship is socially constructed, thus infinitely fluid, and perhaps the term should be retired altogether in favor of "relatedness," a totally abstract, thus inoffensive, but, ipso facto, utterly uninformative term. On the other hand, we proclaim our determination to take seriously what the people whose lives we study say about themselves to the point of imagining that they can live in worlds with totally different ontologies (fundamental categories of being) different from our own — but choose to ignore the fact that in many, indeed the great majority of cases, biological notions, usually having to do with blood, inform the categories they use to distinguish kin from non-kin. Oh, yes, we will take them seriously — only not here in what they may take to be the most fundamental of all relationships. 

Anyone who would discuss what is happening to kinship in anthropology has to tango with the ghost of Meyer Fortes. He was fascinated by how social order was at all possible when society consists of the essentially chaotic processes of human life -- , birth, copulation and death. He believed that this was at heart a political process of making responsible members of society out of these haphazard biological encounters. He drew on the maverick geneticist, Darcy Thompson's Growth and Form. Thompson said that Darwin accounted for evolution as the outcome of many micro-variations between organisms of a given type, but how do we account for the persistence of form, for why all oak leaves are recognizably similar? Fortes came up with the idea of a development cycle of domestic groups whose raw material is shaped by society at key ritual moments like  marriage, birth, attaining adulthood, funerals etc. This is how society continues as a form of order despite the chaos of all of us getting run over, falling sick or leaving our loved ones in the lurch.

The point of this is that a kinship approach could embrace novel ways that citizens and their memory are formed out of biological contingency. For example, think of the phenomenon of the disappeared in savage civil wars, the mothers in Argentina, the complex negotiations in Cyprus and so on. This is surely the intersection of politics and biology in social reproduction. What matters imo is to draw on the kinship classics to address new circumstances in our social and historical experience, as well as some of the old ones. I don't have much time for efforts to change the vocabulary. Maybe the questions are different. But Fortes's concerns were fundamental to any social anthropology worth the name.

Elaine Forde said:


Where it appears, as Matthew points out, that Barnes thinks kinship hasn't "disappeared", just migrated, Carsten indicates that she thinks it has, if her book title "After Kinship" (which must surely be a nod to Strathern's After Nature??) is anything to go by. Another issue which emerges from this, and certainly the links between Strathern and Carsten's work is the move away from biology as the matter of kinship- if kinship is no longer about people of the same "biolgical" kind then perhaps we do need a new, or at least extra, term?


One think I believe that is going on is that Western folk models of kinship are primarily conceived of as being about blood relationship. (Primarily, I say, because ask an American if s/he is related to her/his spouse and you will receive answers of both “That’s disgusting!” and “Of course!”) It is hard to break away from that in studying other kinship systems. Morgan was very insightful and open-minded in being able to see that non-Western kinship systems were every bit as logical as his own, but he still took for granted the Victorian legal distinction between lineal and collateral relatives in the creation of his terminology.

John McCreery said:


On the other hand, we proclaim our determination to take seriously what the people whose lives we study say about themselves to the point of imagining that they can live in worlds with totally different ontologies (fundamental categories of being) different from our own — but choose to ignore the fact that in many, indeed the great majority of cases, biological notions, usually having to do with blood, inform the categories they use to distinguish kin from non-kin.


I believe it was in his Critique of a Study of Kinship that David Schneider said that one should expect that a group’s folk model of biology should be expected to inform that group’s model of kinship. I thought of that recently while watching Man of Steel during a scene in which Clark/Kal returns to Smallville and says proudly to Martha, “Mom, I found my mother and my father!”

Elaine asked for a breakdown of the citation data. Here it is.

Boolean search "kinship AND anthropology"

articles in peer reviewed scholarly journals all disciplines

1952-1971  44 items

1972-1991 521 items

1992-2011 9475 items

of the last 20 year interval

2042 are 1992-2001

7,464 are 2002-2011

the breakout totals do not quite match (common in such searches) but they are ballpark

Boolean search "relatedness AND anthropology"

1952-1971 4 items 

1972-1991 76 items

1992-2011 2832 items

of the last 20 year interval

1992-2002 367 items

2002-2011 2390 items

The latter term (relatedness) appears to cause a lot of false drops if one is looking for social relations because so much of the relatedness means blood ties through DNA screening.

With regard to Keith's point about a new generation wanting to cut themselves off from a deeper intellectual history, it is an old trick in natural sciences to rename something already well known under another name. This truncates the citation cascade and gives the appearance of novelty, and increases the citation count for the author. The unusual thing here, with kinship and relatedness is that the "undoing of science" appears to be missing. That is, usually you have to attack and kill the old term to substitute a new one, you have to make an argument, as when economists substituted "core rate of inflation" for 'inflation" so COLAs would not have to include food and energy price increases ( on the grounds that the latter were too volatile). 

The thing about searching for terms like this is that the bibliography is included in part of the text, so if an article is about fishing, but cites a text entitled kinship, that would show up. Of course the same applies to relatedness so it is still a useful comparison and while we don't see kinship decline at all, we see a peak in mentions of relatedness during the last decade.

certainly this is something of a fashion.

of course, this is the crudest of passes over disparate data, but clearly in last ten years where there is anthropology and relatedness there is more of it both absolutely and proportionately through time esp in the last decade.

Meyer Fortes model of the developmental cycle ofthedomestic group inspired Arthur Wolf, who spent much of his career studying historical demography in China using household registration records. The complications of Chinese household development were more than the model could handle. It was one of those useful simplifications by which science progresses, which crumble in the face of reality, requiring further research.

Re Schneider's remark. A great deal of confusion has been caused by people who assume that the one and only biological explanation is that provided by modern biology. In the folk model prevalent in southern China, the male contribution is semen which becomes bone, thefemalecontribution blood that becomes flesh. Secondary burials practiced. The first, temporary burial,lasts until the flesh rots away. The bones are then dug up, cleaned, and buried in the permanent grave, becoming the resting place of a patrilineal ancestor. Fengshui, the art of aligning the grave to enhance the descendant's good fortune is a thriving ritual business.

John McCreery said:


Re Schneider's remark. A great deal of confusion has been caused by people who assume that the one and only biological explanation is that provided by modern biology. In the folk model prevalent in southern China, the male contribution is semen which becomes bone, thefemalecontribution blood that becomes flesh. Secondary burials practiced. The first, temporary burial,lasts until the flesh rots away. The bones are then dug up, cleaned, and buried in the permanent grave, becoming the resting place of a patrilineal ancestor. Fengshui, the art of aligning the grave to enhance the descendant's good fortune is a thriving ritual business.
The Western folk model of biology would seem to me to be complicated by its relation to the discipline of biology, which it is not. (I assume there is literature out there on this?) There’s maybe something to be said about this vis-a-vis Descola’s naturalism.

Hi Matthew, about the relation of biological idioms to actual biology, there is a good piece by M. Strathern (will have to look up the title) where she explains that a placenta is genetically identical to the child it supports. Whereas there are many documented examples where placentas are treated in special ways, sometimes even considered the "twin" of the infant, in western societies we generally do not treat the placenta as anything other than hazardous waste (certainly our medical professionals do) in spite of our having a biological model of personhood, and the biological description of the placenta as identical to the infant. This at least is a divergence in the category "biological".


John McCreery said:

Mott, what can I say? I cannot deny that what you point out about Taleb may be true. Where I to defend him, I could only make up possible excuses: The family history, growing up in Lebanon when it seemed like a miracle of ethnic harmony in the Middle East and experiencing it fall into chaos would, I suspect, leave a mark on anyone. A bit of old-fashioned stereotyping might add that people from that part of the world often seem narcissistically wounded, angry that, as Don Rickles used to put it, "I can't get no respect," which leads to raw pushiness and self-promotion forgivable in a comedian, but nothing you'd want to live with.

But, I don't want to defend him. I observe that when I read The Black Swan, I was blown away. It struck me as the most original and thought-provoking book I had read in a long time. I wasn't put off by the style or the self-promotion: I work with people in advertising and read enough business books by Don Draper wannabes that the style is like polluted air. Live with it long enough and you get used to it. But looking beyond the style and self-promotion, I didn't, and still don't, know anything about Edward Lorenz's work or the equations developed by Barry Saltzman. If what you say is true, my education has a large hole in it. Could you tell us a bit more and point me in the right directions to fill this gap?

John,

I've been thinking over how best to explain why I think the Lorenz result concerning "deterministic nonperiodic flow" is one of the most important mathematical discoveries of the last century.

First. This result applies to systems which are hydrodynamic in character. This means that it applies to things that flow. So this would mean water, air, but also money, and information. The revolution in stock and derivative trading in the early 70s brought in by the migration of physicists to the financial world (there were about 1000 physicists graduated from PhD programs in 1970 and about 50 jobs for them in physics) was based on the actual applicability of hydrodynamic equations to flows of money and information.

Second. The result applies to systems which are "nonconservative" or "dissipative" meaning that there are no sharp boundaries between the system being considered and the rest of the world. This applies in the ocean and the atmosphere, but also applies in the world of banking and money (money leaves the system) and the world of information (information gets lost).

Third. The systems investigated by Lorenz have the following characteristics of importance:

1. The system's behavior is "sensitively dependent on initial conditions." This means, for instance that two nearly identical systems of flows with infinitesimally different initial conditions will, sometimes a remarkably short period of time, begin to exhibit highly divergent behaviors.

2. These systems also exhibit "stability far from equilibrium," meaning that they may behave in the same way or nearly the same way for a long time while not being in equilibrium. It cannot go without saying that almost all of the natural world is not in equilibrium, because equilibrium generally equals death, meaning that all chemistry that can happen in the system has gone to the end. The Earth's atmosphere in its composition of about 21 percent oxygen is stable far from equilibrium. Mars atmosphere has a very small percentage of oxygen in it, and is in nearly full equilibrium. Its chemistry is over. If all the animals and plants on the earth were to die, our atmosphere would progress chemically until it was like that of Mars.

3. Such systems are unstable with respect to modifications of small amplitude. They may exhibit either periodic or irregular behavior when there is no obviously related periodicity or irregularity in the "forcing process", where "forcing process" is any mechanical or thermal activity within the flow. The thermal activity in an information or money flow would be the velocity of transactions.

4. The equations representing these systems are extremely simple differential equations. A differential equation is some quantity that changes infinitesimally over some infinitesimal interval of time, and is usually written in some form like dx/dt, for variable x. These equations have three constants: a, b, c, and three variables: x, y, and z. The problem in solving such equations is that they are nonlinear, meaning that in some of the equations the solution can only be obtained by multiplying two variables together (these are so-called "rectangular terms"). In a linear system, the relations of variables imply the causes and effects are proportional so that two times the cause will produce two times the effect. Systems like this are exponential growth, exponential decay, oscillation. In such linear systems it doesn't matter how many variables you have the graphical solution will always look the same, a curving line going up, a curving line going down, or a wavy line when plotting some variable X again sometime T.

In nonlinear problems, all bets are off. There are no simple graphical solutions. This sort of nonlinear behavior is very common in natural systems and is one of the distinguishing features of turbulent flow. In most of physics, because the instantaneous turbulent flow patterns are so irregular, we look at the statistics of turbulence over a long period in contrast to the details of turbulence and find that the long-term turbulence behaves in a regular and well organized manner.

This matters because in problems like weather forecasting, stock trading, derivative trading, electricity use on a grid, an information flow on a computer network, we are interested in the details of turbulence. It doesn't help us to know when forecasting the weather that sometimes it will rain and sometimes it will not, and it doesn't help us when we are trying to make money on the stock market to know that sometimes prices go up and prices go down: we want to know exactly when this will happen.

What Lorenz demonstrated is that because of the four characteristics of such dynamical systems listed above, we can never know this beyond a very short time horizon,"defined for any system as a prediction limit," which is the time in the operation of the system from any time zero to the appearance of the first unstable equilibrium divergence.

In global atmospheric circulation, both in modeling and in the actual atmosphere this unstable equilibrium divergence happens somewhere between three and seven days. Lorenz proved, or actually did not prove but demonstrated empirically with his computer models ( given the shift of mathematical proof to computer-generated computational solutions this is not as big a deal as it used to be) that the prediction of the sufficiently distant future is impossible by any method, unless the present conditions are known exactly. As he said "in view of the inevitable in accuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very long range forecasting would seem to be nonexistent."

So, a more colloquial way to describe what he showed was that when we are analyzing a system that has both signal and noise, with the signal being the general tendency of the system and the noise being the fluctuations, we can plan for the future by looking at the average amount of noise. This is how electrical grids plan generating capacity based on their estimation of peak demand averaged over a long time interval, and it's the difference between our knowledge of the Earth's climate, which we understand quite well, and the Earth's weather. It's the difference between the behavior of the S&P 500 over 20 years and the S&P 500 over 20 minutes. So when the signal that we are looking for is actually the noise (the momentary up-and-down fluctuations of stock prices, derivatives, and local weather) the time horizon for such predictions is very short, and moreover these systems can be thrown into entirely new stable states far from equilibrium by inputs which are no larger or more remarkable than any infinitesimal input which preceded or followed them. This is, parenthetically, why I think the question of black swans, important in its own way, is not a red thread out of the labyrinth.

I would say in conclusion that the reaction of weather forecasters and financial predictors to this result was over a period of many decades simply denial. A couple of histories have been written of the attempts to get around this result over the 25 years after it was achieved in 1963. I read periodically about people trying to model parts of ocean circulation, in which what they are clearly trying to model is a hydrodynamic system with diffusion, which can be described by the Lorenz equations, and they keep hoping that there is some way around the limits of prediction specified by his equations. There is no more of a way around Lorenz then there is a way around Gödel, and it makes for some interesting anthropology when a community that has worked for a common goal for a long time discovers that this goal has been demonstrated to be unreachable.

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