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45. Kinship

Rainbow yarn

What does it mean to be related?

For many years, sociologists were more interested in studying households, marriage and ‘the family’ than kinship.  Despite some important ‘community’ studies that looked at informal and kinship ties in the 1950s,1960s and early 1970s, for the most part ‘kinship’ was seen as the domain of anthropologists documenting kinship systems.  However, in the 1970s, sociologists including Graham Allan (A Sociology of Friendship and Kinship, 1979), and Manchester’s David Morgan (Social Theory and the Family, 1975) began arguing for the sociological significance of kinship.

Slowly but surely, sociologists started to become interested in kinship – and now it is a vibrant research field, with studies questioning what it means to be related, how we experience relationships with those we think of as kin, and how kinship and relatedness are changing. Manchester sociologists, notably in the Morgan Centre, have played a leading role in theoretical and empirical developments from the late 1980s onwards: a period which has seen kinship transform from an unfashionable branch of sociology to a key lens on contemporary society and social change.

Janet  Finch and Jennifer Mason’s Negotiating Family Responsibilities (1993) and Passing On (2000) established and elaborated a new and highly influential mode of theorising kinship as negotiated commitments.  Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan’s Same Sex Intimacies was a major milestone in understanding how kinship is created and negotiated in same sex relationships.  Taken together, these studies ‘troubled’ existing assumptions about kinship as entirely governed by rules or kinship position, or as a system of social relationships flowing more or less straightforwardly from biological or procreative ‘facts’.  Instead, they explored the ways that kinship is dynamic, changing and negotiated, albeit not without constraints.  Jennifer Mason (2008) goes on to conceptualise kinship as four dimensions of ‘tangible affinity’ – fixed, negotiated, sensory and ethereal.

Concomitant with these important developments in sociology, anthropologists too have become interested in how kinship is a creative accomplishment, especially in the context of adoption and ‘new’ or ‘assisted reproductive technologies’ (ARTs) (eg Janet Carsten’s After Kinship).  Sometimes referred to as ‘the new kinship’, a field has emerged that draws on the energies of sociologists, anthropologists, and socio-legal scholars, to explore how kinship is transforming in the face of challenges that ART processes pose to the previously assumed bio-genetic ‘facts’ of procreation and relatedness.  An important new study in this field, which has inspired much debate and has informed the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on Ethical Aspects of Information Sharing in Donor Conception, is Petra Nordqvist and Carol Smart’s Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception (2014).


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