Religion, Kinship and Incest

In The New Left Review, Jack Goody reviews Maurice Godelier’s Métamorphoses de la parenté.

This is a blockbuster of a book. Nothing like it has been written since Lévi-Strauss’s Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949) or Meyer Fortes’s Kinship and the Social Order (1969). Yet in the sweep of its evidence and argument, Godelier’s summa is more ambitious and far-reaching than either of these. It is at once a major intervention in the discipline of anthropology, and a work of the widest human interest. Kinship has the reputation of being the most technical department of anthropology, the least accessible to a general public. But while Métamorphoses synthesizes a huge range of complex materials, it is written in an unfailingly lucid style that makes no assumptions of professional familiarity with terms and debates about kinship, but always takes care to explain them in language anyone can understand. The book is both a monument of scholarship and a gripping set of reflections on universal experience. It is certain to be read and discussed for years to come.

Godelier introduces his work with a contemporary paradox. Traditional kinship patterns in the West are in dramatic dissolution today, as heterosexual marriage declines, biological and social parenthood become dissociated, homosexual unions are legalized. Yet in the same period, anthropology—where the study of kinship was once the basis of the discipline, ‘comparable to logic in philosophy and the nude in art’—has all but completely turned its back on it, since the rebellions against Lévi-Strauss of Leach (Rethinking Anthropology in 1961) and Needham (Rethinking Kinship and Marriage in 1971), followed by the clean sweep of Schneider (Critique of the Study of Kinship in 1984), to the point where it is scarcely even referred to by postmoderns like Clifford and Marcus. Can it be that anthropology has nothing to say about the upheavals going on around us? Godelier intends to show the opposite.