Reviewed by Jason Tebbe (Department of History, Stephen F. Austin State University)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Ties That Bind
Modern science's ability to prompt questions about human nature and the limits of knowledge is at least as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), and endures to this day. Presently, scientific breakthroughs in the fields of genetics and reproduction have created a great deal of anxiety over their implications. Take, for instance, the widespread protests against genetically modified foods, concerns over the possibility of human cloning, and public fascination with and revulsion towards the "octo-mom." In a new volume of collected essays, Jeanette Edwards and Carles Salazar gather a wide range of scholarship on the intersection of biotechnology and ideas of kinship in Europe. These essays came out of a project funded by the European Commission that sought to compare ideas of kinship across the continent. The contributors are mostly anthropologists, and they consider a wide range of European societies from Catalonia to Lithuania. Throughout, the editors and contributors seek to show that kinship is defined and understood socially, rather than being a biological given. Secondarily, they question the conflation of "biology" and "genealogy" that they claim has marred prior research on kinship. Although scholars of kinship and the family might not find these points terribly controversial, the essays do a good job of exploring the implications of genetics and biotechnology for understandings of kinship.
Three articles examine critically how biotechnology strains preexisting notions of kinship. Joan Bestard's essay examines attitudes towards artificial insemination and egg donation in Barcelona in order to argue that kinship is not merely a natural fact but rather culturally understood. Although all of the essays touch on this idea, Bestard's article might do the best job of illustrating the cultural nature of kinship. Similarly, Auksuolė Čepaitienė offers an ethnographic study of a small Lithuanian town in order to ascertain ideas about family belonging. She finds that concepts such as "kin," "family," and "blood" are related, but do not overlap. For instance, her subjects believe that a husband and wife are family, but not kin. In another article, Bestard and Marre discuss the practice of adoption, and find that even adopted children are expected to look like their parents and are often chosen based on a perceived resemblance. They thus point to ways in which non-biologically related kin are connected through the conception of "resemblance."
Two articles, one by Catherine Degnen and another by Ben Campbell, treat the controversial issue of genetically modified (GM) foods. In her ethnography of northern England, Degnen finds a connection between food and kinship, mostly because parents feel a need to ensure that their children eat properly and are protected from harmful food. Campbell uses the subject of GM foods to discuss the possibility of "non-human kinship." He claims that the high levels of concern expressed in Britain about the effects of genetically modified crops on birds and plants betray a human ability to feel kinship with the natural world. Although his argument relies on a very wide definition of kinship, it does raise some interesting questions.
Other articles deal with kinship systems that do not conform to traditional ideas of the family. Enikő Demény examines foster mothers in Hungary and argues passionately that their unsung work deserves greater recognition. Anne Cadoret analyzes families headed by homosexual parents, focusing on France. She finds that despite legal obstacles, these families are able to establish their own thriving kinship systems. Cadoret then argues that the ability to do so ultimately proves kinship to be a social rather than a biological category.
Two essays examine larger ideas about kinship in two different societies: Norway and the Roma of Spain. In her study of Spanish "gypsies," Nathalie Manrique finds that a complex understanding of "blood" defines kin relationships. She uses her subjects' beliefs about conception to argue that "blood sameness" is not synonymous with genetic sameness, echoing other contributions in the volume. Marit Melhuus and Signe Howell's essay looks at Norwegian legislation concerning the family, especially in regards to adoption. They argue, based on changes in the law, that adoption and "assisted conception" are becoming "naturalized," meaning that relationships once considered "unnatural," such as that between a child and its adopted parents, are now increasingly seen as "natural."
Finally, two of the articles in the collection look more broadly and theoretically at the implications of modern technology for kinship. The first, by Enric Porqueres i Gené and Jérôme Wilgaux, critically examines the incest taboo in order to explore basic ideas about kinship. They find that biotechnology has created new anxieties about incest, especially the fear that the biological children of sperm donors could inadvertently have sex with their close kin. They use these concerns to argue that older ideas about "blood" and their related prohibitions still exist today at a time when biological relationships are defined by the more scientific category of "genetics." In the last article, Carles Salazar asks if "genes are good to think with." He answers by saying that genetic relationships do not necessarily imply kinship relationships because kinship is a culturally constructed form of symbolic knowledge. Salazar's book-closing essay makes a solid final case for the argument that kinship is a fundamentally social, rather than biological, relationship.
Unlike the pieces of many other collections, the disparate articles in the volume hold together because they are woven through with a common thread. They all attempt, in one way or another, to challenge the assumption that kinship is a biologically determined relationship, and succeed in convincing the reader of kinship's social underpinnings. Even so, most scholars of kinship and the family will pick up this book without needing to be persuaded of this point. The collection will thus be most useful for readers interested in exploring kinship as a category of analysis, as well as those who want to further explore contemporary debates about adoption, assisted conception, and genetically modified foods.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Jason Tebbe. Review of Edwards, Jeanette; Salazar, Carles, eds., European Kinship in the Age of Biotechnology.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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