On kinship and comparsion, intersubjectivity and mutuality of being

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Joel Robbins. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.2.021

Book Symposium

On kinship and comparsion, intersubjectivity and mutuality of being

Comment on SAHLINS, Marshall. 2013. What kinship is—and is not. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Joel ROBBINS, University of Cambridge


Marshall Sahlins has long had a knack for giving anthropology things it needs at the very moment it needs them—a moment that frequently arrives before most other anthropologists fully realize it is upon them. For example, in the late 1970s, Sahlins (1976) provided the discipline with a theorization of a strong model of culture and a defense of it against a range of its most capable materialist competitors. He did this just before those competitors and other weak versions of the notion of culture—versions, that is, that see culture, regardless of the importance they accord it, as at least in some respects epiphenomenal—exploded in popularity across the social sciences and humanities, including in many anthropological quarters, thus leaving strong versions of the concept in desperate need of the kind of clear articulation he had offered. Shortly thereafter, to give another example, Sahlins (1981, 1985) began to demonstrate that such a strong model of culture was fully up to the task of analyzing historical processes at the very moment when many anthropologists, newly convinced that history was something they needed to study, began to worry that culture’s possible failure in this regard would force them to abandon it. My point here is not that Sahlins ever convinced every anthropologist to adopt his positions on culture, but rather that he has regularly been very timely in providing the intellectual resources such a notion of culture has needed to remain viable amidst the critical vicissitudes of the last several decades of intellectual life. I would argue that with What kinship is—and is not, he has done it again.

What I have in mind in saying this is not particularly the claim that in this book Sahlins has given us the resources to carry on studying kinship in strong cultural terms. I think this may well be true, but those more deeply engaged in contemporary kinship studies are in a better position to render that judgment than I am. On my reading, a more general contribution of this book is the one it makes to demonstrating the continuing potential of cultural anthropology as a comparative endeavor. Over the last decade or so, several anthropologists have voiced the worry that a certain cross-fertilization between nominalist impulses in postmodern thought and the particularism that is always one moment of strong cultural arguments has left the comparative project that was once central to anthropology in complete disarray (see especially Keane 2003, who covers some of the same ground as Sahlins, but also Fox and Gingrich 2002; Gregor and Tuzin 2001; Robbins et al. n.d.). If every culture is unique, the argument goes, then we cannot establish any legitimate categories of cross-cultural comparative analysis— categories, that is, that do not do violence to the particularities of the cultures being compared. As Sahlins discusses, Schneider’s argument against the validity of kinship as a category of cross-cultural analysis is a key example of how this disabling effect comes about. At the core of this book is the proposal that such an effect can be avoided if we posit the right kind of universal categories as the grounds of our comparative undertakings. Sahlins aims to provide such a universal category here for the study of kinship.

For a strong cultural theorist, positing any kind of universal is a marked move. Sahlins is, of course, fully aware of this, as his language at the key moment in What kinship is indicates: “I take the risk: all means of constituting kinship are in essence the same” (2013: 29). What makes the universalizing risk worthwhile, I am suggesting, is that it allows for the recuperation of the comparative project. It is because Sahlins, our most important strong cultural theorist, takes this step that this short book—focused on a topic sometimes thought these days to be very specialized—counts as another of his well-timed and significant interventions in the development of anthropological thought.

* * *

If we are to follow Sahlins in deciding that the positing of universal comparative categories can be an aid to strong cultural analysis rather than a betrayal of it, we are going to have to put some thought into how to discriminate between good and bad universalist proposals. I am not sure Sahlins has provided us with explicit criteria for carrying out such discriminations in this book. Kenneth Burke said somewhere that he did not mind circular reasoning, provided the circle was big enough. In a rough sense, I interpret Sahlins as at least implying something similar about universal comparative categories: though frequently ethnocentric and objectionable, they are acceptable if they are big enough so as to include all the cultural particulars we find relevant to the comparative matter at hand. Big enough, that is to say, in a way that biologically based notions of genealogy are not big enough when it comes to discussing kinship in comparative terms. But of course, our comparative categories cannot be so big as to be vacuous. As Marcel Detienne (2008: 25) puts this point in another important recent book on comparison, comparative categories need to be “generic enough to allow the beginnings of a comparison but neither too general nor too specific to any given culture.” How, then, do we find them? I am not prepared to answer that question any more fully than Sahlins does in What kinship is, except to say that, in some respects, the entirety of the book, and the way it takes in anthropology’s history from the Victorian era forward, suggests that in important respects the process is going to have to be inductive (or, since in reality we never proceed wholly inductively, it is going to have to include a major inductive component). And it is going to have to be open-minded about the nature of its object in the way the best inductive work always is (see again Detienne 2008: 26). This kind of careful attention to a lot of ethnographic data in the formation of a universal comparative category is, at least, what Sahlins models for us here.1

As important as the question of how we find our comparative categories is that of the best way to judge how well they perform once we have found them. Again, Sahlins does not lay out explicit criteria for answering this question as much as he models how one might approach doing so by demonstrating the great array of disparate kinds of ethnographic material he can comfortably bring under the conceptual umbrella of his proffered universal conception of kinship as “mutuality of being” or “mutuality of existence” (2013: 28). Biological linkage, histories of care and nurture, mystical influence, shared substance/residence/names, etc.—all of these phenomena, Sahlins shows, make sense as constitutive of kinship in these comparative terms. I find this a convincing demonstration that the universal conception he proposes is big enough to take in the range of data it is destined to confront. In what follows, however, I want to take a different tack to testing out the value of this conception. I want to see how well it performs under complication. For the particularist moment of all strong cultural analysis means that complications always arise. A good universal comparative concept cannot be so brittle as to break under the weight of such complication, but rather must be supple enough to become more interesting when faced with it. This is a matter, we might say, more of the flexibility of the internal organization of the concept than of its size or scope (its “bigness,” as I phrased it above). By way of testing the suppleness of the concept of mutuality of being, I want to confront Sahlins’ discussion of it with some ethnographic material from my fieldwork with the Urapmin of the West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.

* * *

Sahlins defines “mutuality of being” in a number of different ways throughout What kinship is, or at least he offers a number of different glosses of and synonyms for it. Perhaps the most basic of the definitions Sahlins offers of mutuality of being is the claim that it consists in “participation in one another’s existence” (2013: 18). Sometimes he also refers to it as “conjoint being” or “interdependent existence” (20). All of these phrasings suggest some kind of interconnectedness and some sense of shared fate. They accord well with the kinds of data on shared responsibility and mutual susceptibility, as well as on notions of shared nurture, substance (biogenetic and otherwise), names, and residence, that Sahlins’ adduces as variously parts of kinship understandings in many places.

The “corollary subjectivity” that goes with such mutuality, Sahlins tells us at one point, is the kind that Schneider glossed as “diffuse enduring solidarity” (24). But in many places, Sahlins suggests that mutuality of being also consists in a different kind of subjectivity—what he calls “intersubjectivity.” In fact, forms of the term “intersubjectivity” occur so frequently in the text that it becomes the most important synonym for mutuality of being—oftentimes appearing to gloss its substance completely. Thus, for example, Sahlins writes that a “kinship system” is “a manifold of intersubjective participations, which is also to say, a network of mutualities of being” (20). Or consider, from a key summary of the main argument that appears later in the book:

Chapter 1 offered a definition of kinship as “mutuality of being”: kinfolk are members of one another, intrinsic to each other’s identity and existence. Coming in various degrees and forms, such intersubjective relations of being, I argued, will account for performative or “made” kinship as well as relations of procreation (62).

It is this equation of mutuality of being with intersubjectivity that I want to complicate. I do not think they are the same thing, and I do not think being intrinsic to one another’s identity or existence, or sharing substance or histories of nurture or names or any of the other “media of mutuality” Sahlins identifies imply that intersubjectivity is a key feature of mutuality of being (54), much less that the subjective state of “diffuse enduring solidarity” requires it. And this point is not just a semantic quibble (about which, see more below), for among the Urapmin, as well as among many other Melanesian and wider Pacific Islands groups, mutuality of being is very much in evidence in just the way Sahlins expects (unsurprisingly, since he draws a good deal of his material from this region), but intersubjectivity very definitely is not. Prying mutuality of being and intersubjectivity apart, then, is crucial to rendering the former concept supple enough to carry out the kind of cross-cultural comparative work Sahlins has set out for it.

In making this argument, I am defining intersubjectivity in the usual way as a relationship between minds (see, for example, the OED, which has it as “existing between conscious minds”). To speak of intersubjectivity is to speak of some degree of shared mental content. As work on indigenous theories of mind and language ideologies in Pacific societies has shown, many of the cultures of the region make few explicit assumptions about such mutual sharing between minds (see Robbins and Rumsey 2008 for a review of some of this literature). The Urapmin, for example, state that no one can know what is in the “heart” (the seat of all thought and emotion) of another. Speech does not reliably convey information about what others are thinking or feeling, and people do not discuss other ways of inferring such information. They focus, rather, on the radical separation that holds between the minds of all people, even those who live in close proximity to one another and interact regularly.

At the same time that they deny that people relate as minds—i.e., at the same time that they in effect deny the importance of intersubjectivity as a way of relating people to one another—the Urapmin do strongly hold to the importance of a mutuality of being formed in particular around various kinds of bodily sharing: the sharing of biological substance (menstrual blood and semen), of food grown on the same land, of bodily care, of gifts received and consumed, etc. And as an endogamous language group of 400 people that reckons relations cognatically, virtually all Urapmin share at least some bodily being with all others. As Sahlins predicts, by various means they happily extend the mutuality of being to all those with whom they normatively have peaceful relations (44).

What we have in the Urapmin case, and in many other Pacific cases as well, is something like mutuality of being figured as intercorporality, but not as intersubjectivity. Shared knowledge or perspectives can be culturally elaborated “media of relationship” in some places, as they clearly are in the modern West (though there is a historical story to tell here—see, e.g., Robbins 2001; Keane 2002), but it need not be in others. To put the matter bluntly, kinship as the mutuality of being in some places does not involve intersubjectivity and in general does not require it.

* * *

Let me return for a moment to the question of whether my effort to separate mutuality of being and intersubjectivity is simply a semantic quibble. Sahlins may not be using “intersubjectivity” to mean something like “shared consciousness.” He may be taking some liberties with the term, employing it in ways that stretch beyond its standard definition. The phrase “intersubjective relations of being” that I quoted above (Sahlins 2013: 62) could suggest as much, since it is not clearly a statement about relations between minds, and there are other instances in which Sahlins appears to intend “intersubjectivity” as simply synonym of “mutuality of being,” employed to vary the flow of the text a bit.

Yet there is also a section of the book devoted to the work Michael Tomasello and others have done arguing for the absence of intersubjective relationships in the strict sense among non-human primates and its ontogenetically early appearance among human beings (37–44). This section is labeled a “Parenthesis” in the book, and it takes up Sahlins’ long running critique of Western individualist understandings of human nature rather than focusing primarily on the topic of kinship. But despite its rather marginal relation to the rest of the text, this section might well be read as suggesting that because intersubjectivity is a universal human capacity, it is universally a part of kinship. This would be a mistake, I think. It would be a mistake on the order of the one Sahlins identifies elsewhere in the book that involves assuming kin relations are always in the first instance biologically based because children generally learn to use kin terms first in domestic settings (66). From the point of view of cultural analysis, the point is not that humans universally have the capacity for intersubjectivity, or even that all humans experience it as infants, but rather what cultures do with the fact of intersubjectivity: do they elaborate it and make it central to their models of social relating, or do they disregard it or even work to define it away, as the Urapmin do? (For key work on how ideologies of intersubjectivity or its absence are taught to children, see Schieffelin 1990, 2008.) These are the questions we have to ask if we want to know what kind of variation there is in the role intersubjectivity can play in defining the nature of mutuality of being in different societies.

In the end, I am not worried here about what Sahlins means by “intersubjectivity” in What kinship is. My point is simply to suggest that whether he means it in the standard sense or not, it is important to recognize that on ethnographic grounds we need to know that if mutuality of being is going to be supple enough to survive as a universally valid definition of kinship for comparative purposes, it is going to have to shed any necessary connection to intersubjectivity in the standard sense. But having noted that intersubjectivity is sometimes absent from people’s understanding of kinship does not make intersubjectivity uninteresting as an issue in the study of kinship. Rather, it allows us to make some novel comparative observations about its variable role—which I take it is one place the kind of comparative arguments Sahlins’ book promotes should be headed.

* * *

So here, by way of conclusion, are two brief comparative observations. First, the Urapmin (and many other Pacific Islanders) extend biological or intercorporal relations of mutuality pretty widely, but they recognize something approaching a degree zero of mental relatedness. This seems the opposite of the Modern Western pattern. It is almost as if in defining biological relations in quite restricted (biogenetic) ways, and reducing kinship to these, Westerners have had to greatly expand the scope of inter-mental relatedness in order to have enough relationships to create a society at all. Indeed, they have had to assume that intersubjective interrelatedness is the outcome of pretty much every interaction. My sense is that there is something to learn about the relational imagination of individualism in this inversion—a relational imagination that in these terms may not be so much impoverished in comparison to those anthropologists usually study as it is simply different (though in other respects, analyses of it in terms of impoverishment do continue to appeal to me). Put another way, there may be only one kind of kinship—the kind constituted out of the mutuality of being—but there may be more than one kind of mutuality of being, not all of which produce kinship relations, but all of which are ways of constructing social relations of one type or another.

For a second comparative observation, we can turn to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (2009) piece “The gift and the given,” which is a key inspiration for Sahlins’ argument. In the conclusion of this piece, Viveiros de Castro (ibid.: 262) argues that in Amazonia “kinship . . . is a process of constructing a proper human body out of the primal analogic flow of soul-matter in which humans and animals interchange their bodily forms unceasingly.” The notion of analogic flow comes from Roy Wagner’s (1977) work on Melanesia. But it is worth noting that this flow seems to strike Melanesians as exciting and as a welcome spur to creative relational work, whereas it appears to be a threatening fact of life in Amazonia— driving constant efforts to shore up specific kinds of “humanity” (specific bodily mutualities of being) against their possible dissolution into other kinds. Perhaps these broad differences of approach to the burgeoning world of mutuality are related to the fact that for many Melanesians the primordial and unbreachable separation of minds renders the issue of bodily dissolution moot (or, if properly managed, productive), while the primordial sameness of souls in Amazonia grounds the image of the analogic flow of relatedness as something dangerous that threatens to dissolve the differences beings seek to maintain between bodies (Viveiros de Castro 2009: 242–43). This suggests another fruitful avenue of comparison opened up by Sahlins’ argument, provided we get the universal claim at the heart of it just right.


Detienne, Marcel. 2008. Comparing the incomparable. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Fox, Richard G. and Andre Gingrich. 2002. “Introduction.” In Anthropology, by comparison, edited by Richard G. Fox and Andre Gingrich, 1–24. London: Routledge.

Gregor, Thomas A. and Donald Tuzin. 2001. “Comparing gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: A theoretical orientation.” Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An exploration of the comparative method, edited by Thomas A. Gregor and Donald Tuzin, 1–16. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Keane, Webb. 2002. “Sincerity, ‘modernity,’ and the Protestants.” Cultural Anthropology 17 (1): 65–92.

———. 2003. “Self-interpretation, agency, and the objects of anthropology: Reflections on a genealogy.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45: 222–48.

Robbins, Joel. 2001. “God is nothing but talk: Modernity, language and prayer in a Papua New Guinea society.” American Anthropologist 103 (4): 901–12.

Robbins, Joel and Alan Rumsey. 2008. “Introduction: Cultural and linguistic anthropology and the opacity of other minds.” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (2): 407–20.

Robbins, Joel, Bambi B. Schieffelin, et al. (n.d.). Evangelical conversion and the transformation of the self in Amazonia and Melanesia: Christianity and the revival of anthropological comparison. Manuscript under review.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1976. Culture and practical reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1981. Historical metaphors and mythical realities: Structure in the early history of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

———. 1985. Islands of history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2013. What kinship is—and is not. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1990. The give and take of everyday life: Language socialization of Kaluli children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2008. “Speaking only your own mind: Reflections on talk, gossip and intentionality in Bosavi (PNG).” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (2): 431–41.

Schneider, David M. 1984. A critique of the study of kinship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2009. “The gift and the given: Three nano-essays on kinship and magic.” Kinship and beyond: The genealogical model reconsidered, edited by S. Bamford and James Leach, 237–68. New York: Berghahn.

Wagner, Roy. 1977. “Analogic kinship: A Daribi example.” American Ethnologist 4 (4): 623–42.



Joel RObbins
University of Cambridge
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF
United Kingdom


1. Another, complementary, way to interpret the analytic process on display in What kinship is would not be in terms of an inductive combing of the ethnographic record per se, but rather in relation to Kuhn’s model of scientific revolutions. This reading would note that for at least 50 years, anomalies that fall outside the biologically based genealogical method have been piling up. They have been well explored in hundreds (thousands?) of ethnographic discussions, and Schneider (1984) offered one phrasing of a scientific revolution that would accommodate them by abandoning the notion of kinship altogether. Sahlins here lays out a different revolutionary paradigm that would account for the anomalies in terms of their shared bearing on the category of mutuality of being. I think the inductive process of arriving at comparative categories that I mention in the text encompasses this Kuhnian interpretation of the reasoning that underlies Sahlins’ argument, but it also allows for less dramatic developments that do not depend on the appearance of multiple anomalies. As such, it is likely to hold in more cases of comparative analysis in anthropology. Only in a domain with as much momentum as kinship once had in anthropology would anomalies succeed in piling up in great numbers as they did there, allowing for a revolution (or two) to occur rather than early on issuing in a simple abandonment of the topic as a focus of comparative research.