Skinship: Touchability as a virtue in East-Central India

Chris Gregory


In "What kinship is" Marshall Sahlins (2011) provides a new and provocative answer to an old and much-debated question, defining it as the "mutuality in being." For the Halbi speakers of the Bastar Plateau in East-Central India kinship is defined by touch: juniors greet seniors with tactile gestures of familial respect that are reciprocated by tactile gestures of familial love. On certain ritual occasions these salutes are adorned with colorful flowers, tasty food, purifying water, sweet-smelling incense, nice-sounding words, and heartfelt sentiments. Non-kin, by contrast, are defined by non-tactile gestures of mutual respect. The general implication of this case for the study of kinship as "mutuality of sensible being," to give Sahlins‘ formulation a slight twist, involves a move away from the study of kinship as the abstract semantics of reference terminologies to a consideration of the pragmatics of face-to-face sensible relations between people. Little ethnographic research has been done on the latter; the Japanese word "skinship," evoking as it does the coming together of touch and kinship, signifies a fresh approach to the analysis of kinship.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau1.1.007