Monday, October 18

On the Partible Person, the Relational Individual and the Multiplicities of Kinship – Interview with Marilyn Strathern

Interview by Onur Arslan**
IstanbuLab Feminist Technoscience Interview Series (II)

The partible person is a quite different concept than of a relational individual. I think, the relational individual is a very Euro-American concept, and the individual is at the heart of it. We see this in terms of the way kinship very much focuses on the early socialization of a child, inculcates norms -that nature-culture stuff occurring in the early stages of childhood- and then the state comes in and takes over all kinds of educational and other roles. So ‘kinship’ becomes funneled into conjugal relations that are also kept very narrow with affines hardly being significant entities.

As part of IstanbuLab’s interview series with feminist technoscience scholars, Onur Arslan had the chance to have a conversation with Professor Marilyn Strathern during her visit to Northern California, UC Berkeley campus last April. Marilyn Strathern is an Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at University of Cambridge and  she is known for her contributions to both the anthropology of Melanesia and the anthropology of the United Kingdom. Although self-described as a “strict disciplinary person”, her reflections on the concepts of society, the individual, and gender speak to broader questions within feminist studies and science and technology studies.

Over the past 40 years, Strathern published 15 books and multiple book chapters and articles. Throughout her ethnographic work, Strathern conceptualizes Melanesia and Euro-America as relational counterparts, or problem spaces, enabling her to displace the dichotomies peculiar to Euro-American cosmologies such as society vs. individual, nature vs. culture, person vs. property, and men vs. women.  Her best-known work, The Gender of the Gift (1988), queries the conceptual tools that anthropologists and other scholars use in order to produce holistic accounts about complex worlds, concepts that, she argues, are not intrinsic to the life in Mount Hagen, her main fieldwork site in Papua New Guinea. In After Nature (1992), she rethinks kinship relations in terms of new reproductive technologies, gender, and the family. Strathern was one of the first scholars to argue that maternity (woman-as-mother) is not a biological fact, but a relational construct. She has also written on intellectual property, legal systems related to reproductive technologies, bioethics, and regimes of accountability.

As Donna Haraway puts it in her most recent book Staying with the Trouble (2016), Strathern is “an ethnographer of thinking practices”. Her ethnography offers the possibility of conceptualizing things and persons as relations before assuming pre-existing conceptual entities and their external relations. In this interview, Strathern emphasizes that our way of thinking is already structured through concepts like individual and society which force us to think in terms of parts and wholes. We are haunted by our own language whenever we attempt to talk about relations-as-things (and things-as-relations), as well as in our attempts to grasp sociality in the singular as well as in the plural. That is why the grammar and the words we write with matter. In other words, “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas with.” Strathern takes the language of description seriously in order to provide an “entry point into thinking about unexpected connections that things may or may not make.” Her engagement with the taken-for-granted conceptual tools is worth paying attention to.

We continue our interview series with Marilyn Strathern. Welcome Marilyn.

Thank you so much.

You describe the ethnographic moment as a mode of immersement, and a relation of the already understood and the need to understand. How do you see your ethnographic moment in general terms and how is it related to your recent work?

I described the ‘ethnographic moment’ because I wanted to give it a certain concreteness. It is one of those moments that arise during your direct involvement in what is going on around you where you realize your interests are guided equally by what is already in your mind and by what you bring into the situation. This, in turn, is part of a much broader and more generally pervasive relationship between the language with which one is describing something and what one is trying to describe.  The issue of appropriate description has been preoccupying me recently. And when I say description, I do not mean description as opposed to theory. I mean it in terms of what one ends up with as a set of descriptives to deal with a particular situation. This set encompasses any theoretical or analytical ambitions. An adequate description is the end goal and theory is subservient to that. So when I say ‘description’, it is quite an important word for me. As a rule of thumb, I would say that theory provides the concepts that inform how anthropologists take their analysis forward.  It is after the analysis that one knows what has to be described.

You made clear that you do not see yourself as an STS person. But your studies have drawn attention and become well-known in STS readership. How do you see your work speaking to broad STS questions?

I think if I could have had a different career, one of the people I would like to be would be an ecological biologist. Somebody else I would like to be would be an STS person. I would quite enjoy being in that field, but it is out of respect precisely for the implicit theorization and analytical work that goes into STS that I could not (as things are) lay claim to that kind of authority. You might conclude that I am a rather strict disciplinary person, and when it comes to concept-making, perhaps I am. At the same time, I am always very pleased when my ideas travel. That pleases immensely! There are certain interdisciplinary areas, I guess gender relations is one of them, audit is another, where I would like to bring a little bit of anthropological insight.

It seems to be that relations as units of analysis have taken precedence over other Western concepts such as the subject or the individual or other structural entities. Not only in anthropology but in other social science disciplines, everyone endeavors to describe relations that are supposedly plural and complex. How do you see this tendency focusing on multiplicity/plurality of relations?

At a very simple level, this is all very creative and productive work. Because, as Paul Rabinow says, when things are brought into relation, the effects of one thing upon another are unpredictable. So you are opening yourself up to an interest, as it were, in the unpredictable itself. Whereas in a focus on entities, in terms of identities that can be classified, or defined and so forth, you are closing down.  Now closing down and opening up have to alternate: it can’t all be opening up and it can’t all be closing down. As to relations, relations by themselves are vacuous. They are no more interesting than anything else. The question is how one uses them to bring entities into position with each other. That is one kind of an answer. Another answer is that in the fields where I work, and thinking of trying to find an appropriate descriptive language, going in with a fairly open mind about the kinds of relations that might or might not be important, provides an entry point into thinking about unexpected connections that people may or may not make.

Can we say that you deploy relations rather than describe them?

I hope I deploy them (smiling). Of course, the model of relations external to entities is a particular type of reading of relations. And what I have been just talking about entailed just that reading. But one can also use the same term (‘relation’) to indicate what can be drawn out of entities by other entities, where the relation isn’t external in that sense.

I would like to talk about your recent public lectures in UC Davis and UC Berkeley. Although their titles seem different, I believe that both of them are mainly concerned with the distribution of selves and the concept of the “partible person”.  This concept is related to the concept of relation in your work. Could you tell us more about this concept of partible person? How could a person be partible?

I can tell you the origin of my interest. Because it arose in a very specific ethnographic context, namely my work in Melanesia, and from the way in which people use objects, items, valuables, at all points in the careers (or lives) of persons to point out that somebody is one person’s daughter and another person’s sister’s daughter, or another person’s wife, and all the rest of it. And we would regard these as different statuses, precisely because we (Euro-Americans) have an indigenous theory of relations. We would say, okay the woman is playing the role of wife, or that she has got the status of a sister, or the status of daughter. It is imagined that these statuses are like an external costume that she carries around; moreover, while these relations all radiate from her, she herself is not completely described by these relations. Rather, she has autonomy as a subject, agent or individual, even as she is connected through her relations to other individuals. And what keeps the individual coherent is the externality of those relations. Now I think that does not completely describe how Euro-Americans deal with people. But it describes quite well a lot of the assumptions that go into the way we analyze or describe or talk about people. On the other side, this set of assumptions cannot deal with those situations where -over a life span- how you come into the world and the kind of birth that you have, the kind of marriage you make, the kind of funeral arranged for you becomes an occasion for referring to your maker. So a child, who has kin both on the maternal and the paternal side, has to deal with these different relations in terms of their own health, their own survival, their flourishing as a person. That flourishing depends on how a person enacts their relations and deals with these other entities. But there are also certain moments in which it becomes important for people to shed these identities. So, for example, in a patrilineal system, when a woman marries, she has to be cut off from her paternal kin, for at that point she is created as one who has no capacity to pass on those paternal elements within her. She goes as a maternal person to the husband’s group. Because these different changes and statuses are registered in terms of flows of wealth and valuables, gifts, compensation (payments), and so forth, ethnographers in the region have referred to the partibility of these wealth items. These items are distributed between different persons, as a detachable or partible counterpart to the flow of nurture or relational concern. People also divide themselves off from one another in attending to one relationship rather than another, and I borrowed that term partibility to refer to the fact that there is no single identity which encompasses a person all the time. We might want to talk of ‘dividuals’ rather than individuals.

So you are saying that persons are composite properties of others and that in Melanesian practices, and in Euro-American ones as well, persons appear as hybrids?  How are Melanesian or Euro-American hybrids different from networks which are deployed by actor-network persons?

That is a very interesting question. You have to realize that what I am doing is trying to alter the language of description. I am not saying Melanesian persons are this or are that. I am saying that with the language we have at our disposal, we have to do things with that specific language. The notion of partible person, for example, does not make sense in English. It does not resonate with a regular English speaker. I have not yet thought about bringing those observations together with actor-network theory. But it is an interesting conjunction that you have made. I think the general concepts related to the network partake in that same sense of externality that we find in vernacular Euro-American models of relations but what actor-network theory does is to try to make you see that entities are already composed in multiple ways. You know something is A, B and C at the same time. And in that sense, I can see an analogy between the composite person and the network.

And you are focusing on cutting the networks rather than…

Yes, that’s true (laughs). That was really just to point out that in the hands of some people there is a tendency to think that networks are forever augmenting and creative, rather as in a business school model of networks. You go to meetings and you do networking. That is always regarded as something positive, and you expand yourself and there is no end to networks. I just wanted to point out the particular situations where actually it is very much in people’s interests that they are exclusive in the relations they choose and not axiomatically inclusive.

I would like to ask a question about kinship. Until at the end of 1980s, there was a strong belief that kinship played no role in modern society. Your works The Gender of the Gift and After Nature demonstrate something else. How is kinship still part of Euro-American cosmologies today?

Well, one of the messages of After Nature is that we have a kinship system that actually does produce individuals …

In what sense? Or how?

Through what we have been talking about and through the externalizing effect of relations. So you have a model of the individual plus his or her relations. In fact, I was going to say with respect to the ‘partible person’, there are many anthropologists who are very happy with the idea of the ‘relational individual’. But the relational individual isn’t what I am interested in a Melanesian context. The partible person is a quite different concept than of a relational individual. I think, the relational individual is a very Euro-American concept, and the individual is at the heart of it. We see this in terms of the way kinship very much focuses on the early socialization of a child, inculcates norms -that nature-culture stuff occurring in the early stages of childhood- and then the state comes in and takes over all kinds of educational and other roles. So ‘kinship’ becomes funneled into conjugal relations that are also kept very narrow with affines hardly being significant entities. And we end up precisely with thinking that kinship (in the larger social sphere) is not really important. Yet actually it is very important because it is precisely these practices that make it a very different kind of kinship from what we were talking about. But, you know, this is also a bit of a parody: there has been a lot of recent work being done on the new kinship (as it is called), which looks at family businesses, the intersections of kinship with class, race and gender and so forth.

How about the role of technology? Because now we have seen how technology is embedded in kinship relations. In what sense do you see new reproductive technologies transforming kinship relations?

I would say it pretty much reinforces some of the values that are associated with Euro-American kinship which is to do with choice and with creating a kind of person that you, yourself and your child want to be. Technology was of course introduced in this sense as an enablement, very much supporting and reinforcing ideas about family life. Also, of course, people have made choices that were not predicted! You put choice in people’s hands and they do very interesting things with it. So, we now have a range of arrangements for procreation that really was not imagined when the technologies started out.

I would also like to talk about the relationship between kinship, scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the emergence of the concept of society. For instance, in Reading Relations Backwards you make interesting connections between them.

One thing that started me off was realizing that the concept of relation in English, which had been used in a very abstract way to refer to the ordering of entities, as one might talk of the planetary spheres as people like Galileo did, became in the seventeenth century also used for kinsfolk. Today we use the terms ‘relation’/‘relative’, as in ‘your relation’, ‘your relatives’, ‘your friends and relatives’, as almost no other European language does.  This raises a question about what was happening in English kinship, at that time, which made it suitable to transfer this very abstract term so that instead of talking about kinsfolk or using the other general words that we have (for example, ‘kinsman’, ‘cousin’ in a general sense) people preferred to use ‘relations’. What else was changing in the connotations of relations? One context might have been the scientific revolution, so-called. I mean, very broadly, when you remove a final cause from your explanation of the universe, you are left with correlations between entities. You are left with the relations of one thing to another whether there is no final cause, or deity (as Latour’s crossed-out God), as the ultimate source of all explanations, or whether the deity simply becomes very remote. If relations, in general, had a new visibility, it was certainly the case that people deliberately sought out – or cut off – their relations in terms of social connections.

Since 1980s some anthropologists have come to believe that the concept of society has become analytically useless, but as you emphasize in your works, these concepts remain to be rhetorically powerful and they have been transformed into power technologies in the hands of policy-makers. How should we treat these concepts in the current political climate?

Even though anthropologists might set aside the concept of society, they go on using ‘social’ as an epithet, for they are still interested in the kinds and forms of relations that people create themselves. So, the notion of social formation or the notion of the social has not disappeared from their repertoire. It is also the case that ‘society’ is one of those rhetorical words, such as the notion of ‘human rights’, the notion of ‘woman’ from  a feminist point of view which might be conceptually indefensible yet you need it politically. The idea of ‘rights’ is indefensible according to some critiques but you actually need something like a concept of human rights in today’s world politics. Property is another example. As a scholar or academic you may want to specify just how it is useful, or not useful, but there are definitely contexts in which the notion of people belonging to things or people owning things carries political weight. And society belongs to one of these indefensible analytics that has political purchase. Whether any of these concepts are used in ways one might evaluate positively or negatively is quite another matter. They are players (or actants) and one has to realize they have a purchase on the international stage.

You are known for your divided interest in Melanesian and British ethnography. Could you tell us more about the comparison of them? I am asking this question because you sometimes compare Melanesian practices which altered over time to Euro-American concepts. On what ground does such comparison become possible?

Well, in one sense, there are no grounds! I am glad you ask that question, because that brings us back to what I was talking about right at the beginning. The Euro-American repertoire of languages and concepts is the vehicle through which we describe situations that were never made to be described through that vehicle. So, there is a comparative moment in the very act of putting words on paper because you are already translating or equivocating at that point. For me, the fundamental comparison is always between the language you are using and what you are trying to describe. But I have never meant -although it may come over in that way- I have never meant it (talking of British through Melanesian practices, and vice versa) as a comparative exercise in the sense of comparing some part of British with some part of Papua New Guinean social life. That said, one of my concerns about the language of description is that language rarely does the job of equivocation properly or thoroughly. What is and is not permeable by ideas from elsewhere becomes itself of interest.


* Image from Marilyn Strathern’s lecture titled “Souls in Other Selves and the Immortality of the Body”,  Foerster Lectures on the Immortality of the Soul, UC Berkeley, April 17. The lecture can be watched from this link.

** Special thanks to Marisol de la Cadena, Mehmet Ekinci and Morganne Blais-McPherson for their contributions.