Tugging on a thread (of thought)

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Jeanette Edwards. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.004


Tugging on a thread (of thought)

A comment on Marilyn Strathern’s “Anthropological reasoning”

Jeanette EDWARDS, University of Manchester


Sarah Green has provided us with a productive and fruitful metaphor to think with—knots: threads that catch up, bind together, tie, and entangle anthropologists and anthropologies with themselves and with social and political actors and commentaries external to themselves. The knot also draws our attention to how some materials lend themselves more readily than others to being knotted—rope, twine, string, hair, and so on—and how the specific material renders the knot more or less fast, slippable, undoable, and consequently more or less useful or undesirable.

Marilyn Strathern takes seriously the call made by Green to interrogate the ties that bind anthropology with itself and with the wider “contexts” (Green’s term) in which it is practiced: contexts which inform anthropology and in which anthropology intervenes. The knots in Strathern’s paper are made of threads. A thread, she writes, is something that can be caught hold of, but it also catches onto things in its vicinity. In her felicitous phrase, a thread is “going somewhere because it is coming from somewhere.” Her threads travel not only across the globe, but also back in time: they catch hold of Yanomami and their Venezuelan doctors, Equadorean fertility patients, health service workers in Australia’s Northern Territory, the ethnographers of all three, and eighteenth-century philosophers. If Strathern’s paper is a knot, then it is surely a piece of macramé: intricate, lacelike, but sturdy.

In her introduction to this special section, Green points to the setting or milieu in which anthropology operates—to the wider contexts in which it is entangled. But Strathern refuses a straightforward notion of context as milieu or background, as she does a straightforward carving up of what falls either inside or outside the discipline. Roy Dilley reminds us that context used to refer to the act of composing (conjoining) meaningful stretches of language (either written or verbal), and later came to describe the conditions “under which meaning is attributed to a stretch of language . . . the conditions shaping that which has been conjoined” (1999: 4).1 For Chi W. Huen, the juxtaposition of these two meanings of context is faithful to the original Latin meaning of contextus as a “weaving or gathering together of things” (2009: 164; and see Dilley 1999). Strathern’s paper gathers and weaves together diverse ethnographic and historical materials, and in so doing it creates a new and unexpected context. She has written before about the way in which anthropologists are implicated in creating the contexts that they deem necessary (at different historical moments) for conveying an understanding of the social worlds they study. Her 1986 Frazer lecture poses the problem in a different way: How, she asked there, can anthropologists “create an awareness of different social worlds” when all they have at their disposal are terms which belong to their own? “When faced with ideas and concepts from a culture conceived as other, the anthropologist is faced with the task of rendering them within a conceptual universe that has space for them, and thus of creating that universe” (Strathern 1987: 256). In this paper, Strathern begins by untying some key knots that make up the conceptual universe of which anthropology is but a part. She focuses on two clusters of concepts that have informed and been informed by anthropology—nature-society and self-scrutiny— and catches up threads that link current and ongoing anthropological (but not only anthropological) debates to English and Scottish versions of the Enlightenment. Her paper both gathers up and weaves together diverse and unexpected materials, and provides a context in which we can begin to understand the materialization of the concept of “relations” as generic kinspersons.

Turning first to self-scrutiny: the kind of self-scrutiny that current audit regimes mandate depends on an idea of the self that can be split—split, that is, between an examining and examined self. With the help of Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Keith Hoskin, Strathern unknots the threads that tie together different eighteenth-century variants of the double self which were necessary precursors to contemporary ideas that persons can, and should, self-consciously monitor, evaluate, and assess their own being in the world. I underline here the “should.” The moral imperative to self-scrutiny appears to have gathered steam in what many commentators identify as the neoliberal political and economic regimes of late modernity. Ilana Gershon, writing of what she calls “neoliberal agency,” describes a shift from a liberal view of persons as “owning themselves as if they were property,” to a neoliberal view of persons as “owning themselves as if they were a business.” She describes it as the condition of always being “faced with oneself as a project that must be consciously steered through various possible alliances and obstacles” (Gershon 2011: 539). Here, the self is “a flexible collection of assets” in constant need of attention, investment, and development (Martin 2000, cited in Gershon 2011) and is a particular manifestation of the person that can both see itself and work on itself from near and far. Gershon describes a radical departure from the post-Enlightenment version of the person, who was imagined as owning his or her own body, the labor of which s/he could theoretically sell “in the market” (2011: 539). Do such shifts in understandings of the self that have been tracked to political and economic changes of the 1960s and 1970s2 constitute a transformation not of the same kind, but of the same order, as that which Strathern charts for the eighteenth century? Both the proprietorial and “enterprising self” (and see Hofmann 2010) depend on the double vision that Corsín Jiménez (2013) argues is the strabismus of modern knowledge, and it is characterized by proportionality and, more important for present purposes, reversibility. Reversibility here is the movement between what can and cannot be seen— the visible and hidden—and between the inside and outside. For Corsín Jiménez, the strabismus conjures the capacity for an object to be “held in view by one eye . . . [and] playfully deformed by the other eye” (2013: 25). In real eyes, however, it seems that the brain puts effort into preventing double vision and to dampening the playfulness of the misaligned eye by ignoring what it sees.

Strathern’s paper does more than just show the historical precedents of either “self-scrutiny” or the dyad nature-society, both so formative of anthropological endeavors. With her own characteristic double vision, she tugs on Yanomami understandings of the differences between human beings, or at least the kind of differences that matter, as well as their will to make kin of the creole doctors who serve them. She also tugs on the understandings of Ecuadorean fertility patients who embrace the assistance of clinical staff, God, and kin in their attempts to achieve a pregnancy. The assisted conception offered by IVF, which might be described in the United Kingdom, for example, as “giving nature a helping hand” (Franklin 1997), resonates differently in Ecuador. Here assistance is expected and embraced as a precondition of life itself: it is, writes Elizabeth Roberts (2013), the “very basis of existence.” With limited material resources, the assistance of kin in gathering the finances required for IVF, the assistance proffered by the clinic and medical staff, the assistance extended by the gamete donor, and the assistance given to and by God are all actively expected and acknowledged by would-be Ecuadorean parents who value relationships of dependency rather than autonomy. In the words of Roberts: “When practitioners of Ecuadorian IVF make appeals to God and the Virgin for the fertilization of eggs retrieved during IVF, they are operating within a modern project where God’s intervention does not contradict their identity as Catholics or as practitioners of modern scientific medicine” (Roberts 2006: 528). The ethnographer of the Yanomami sees the creole doctor and the anthropologist’s discourse as aligned, mutually intelligible, while the ethnographer of fertility services in Ecuador, itself a thoroughly modern enterprise, sees an alternative cosmology, and one that does not stem from European Enlightenment thinking.

But this is not all that is of interest in these two ethnographic examples from South America. Both reveal a malleability of race and the body. The discrepancy between the Venezuelan doctors in the field and the Yanomami they work with, in terms of what each expect from the other, allows the ethnographer to knit together the whiteness of the ideas of both the doctors and the anthropologist. Through medical care, specifically IVF, Ecuadorean women become whiter—not symbolically but ontologically. And this has a history in other projects concerned with whitening the nation in Ecuador and elsewhere (see, e.g., Wade [1997] 2010; de la Cadena 2000; Weismantel 2001).

Given the turn to race, I was reminded of another shift in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century kinship thinking across Europe. I refer to the fading in and out of the significance of the idiom of blood as a key substance of relatedness. In Christian Europe of the Middle Ages, consanguinity and marriage were designated more by the idiom of flesh than blood. Historian Anita Guerreau-Jalabert argues that the emergence of a reference to blood made it possible to carve out a separate category of agnates from a broader category of flesh kin that would have previously included affines. She suggests that the “new image of blood may have accompanied the transition at the end of the Middle Ages from a system centred on the marriage alliance to a system preponderantly organized by filiation—the latter having been restructured by patrilineal transmission processes” (Guerreau-Jalabert 2013: 75). This is tentatively argued, and the historian calls for more research, but what is robustly argued elsewhere in the same collection of essays is that, by the seventeenth century, blood had become a significant and central category of descent and alliance (Sabean 2013). Interestingly, however, its prominence in such kinship thinking was relatively short lived. David Sabean and Simon Teuscher (2013) go so far as to argue that as a metaphor for family and kinship relationships it pretty much disappeared in the eighteenth century. But, as it faded from familial discourse, it was put to use elsewhere: retooled (“refitted,” in their words) for a new purpose and for new connections, and emerging as a key category of both race and nation (ibid.).While there is clearly a much more complicated story to tell here, and one that will have uneven contours across Europe, the social life of the concept of blood as it moves out of the domain of kinship into that of race is interesting. According to the historians I cite here, it returned again to the family fold at the beginning of the nineteenth century as scientific ideas of heredity and inheritance were developing.

There may be no threads to tie, but it is likely to be more than a coincidence that just at the time affinity, with its initial meaning in kinship (in relations of marriage and alliance), was spilling over into the domain of knowledge making (to connote resemblances in the abstract), it was also being carved out from the broader kinship of the flesh—at a time, that is, when the distinction between affines and agnates was being firmed up: honed to suit the political concerns of the time.

Let me tug at one of what I see as the key threads of Strathern’s paper. She invites us to question an anthropological tool of the trade—a banality that seems obvious. How, Strathern asks, did relations become an object of description? How did we get to be able to relate relations? In tracking the concept of affinity by way of Yanomami affines who evoke alterity (not similarity), and by way of eighteenth-century shifts in its meaning from kinship to knowledge making, Strathern provides us with a way of imagining how “the relation” came to refer to concepts and persons alike.

While initial meanings of affinity were attached to kinsfolk, it came to be used to imagine resemblances in the abstract. Relations, however, moved in the opposite direction: from epistemic relations to persons—to relatives. It tied up into itself knowledge about persons, their interactions, and their relatedness. The emergence of relations to refer to kinsfolk allowed for a generic, abstract notion of kin. You could now know about them without knowing much or anything about the specific or specificity of the individual persons related. If the extension of the concept of affinity from kinship to abstract resemblances had the potential of affirming, endorsing, to use Strathern’s word, a conceptual tendency toward empathy, what did the reverse move of “the relation” do? What conceptual tendencies were promoted in the move of the relation from the domain of knowledge making to kinship? Perhaps it is such a move that allows for what is often referred to nowadays as “the plasticity” of contemporary Euro-American kinship: the capacities to cut out those kin who are elsewhere (in another context) inextricably linked, as well as to connect, in the abstract, to kin where there are no, and unlikely ever to be any, affective ties.

Strathern’s is an intricately and beautifully knotted paper, and it shows how the examination of our banalities—which turn out to be foundational categories of thought—is in itself a crucial intervention in the social worlds that shape anthropology and in which anthropology aims to intervene.


Corsín Jiménez, Alberto. 2013. An anthropological trompe loeil for a common world: An essay on the economy. Oxford: Berghahn.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2000. Indigenous mestizos: The politics of race and culture in Cuzco, 1919–1991. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dilley, Roy, ed. 1999. The problem of context. Oxford: Berghahn.

Franklin, Sarah. 1997. Embodied progress: A cultural account of assisted conception. London: Routledge.

Gershon, Illana. 2011. “Neoliberal agency.” Current Anthropology 52: 537–55.

Guerreau-Jalabert, Anita. 2013. “Flesh and blood in medieval language about kinship.” In Blood and kinship: Matter for metaphor from ancient Rome to the present, edited by Christopher H. Johnson, Bernhard Jussen, David Warren Sabean, and Simon Teuscher, 61–83. Oxford: Berghahn.

Hofmann, Susanne. 2010. “Corporeal entrepreneurialism and neoliberal agency in the sex trade at the US-Mexican border.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 38: 233–56.

Huen, Chi W. 2009. “What is context? An ethnophilosophical account.” Anthropological Theory 9: 149–69.

Martin, Emily. 2000. “Mind-body problems.” American Ethnologist 27: 569–90.

Roberts, Elizabeth. 2006. “God’s laboratory: Religious rationalities and modernity in Ecuadorian in-vitro fertilization.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 30: 507–36.

———. 2013. “Assisted existence: An ethnography of being in Ecuador.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 19: 562–80.

Sabean, David Warren. 2013. “Descent and alliance: Cultural meanings of blood in the Baroque.” In Blood and kinship: Matter for metaphor from ancient Rome to the present, edited by Christopher H. Johnson, Bernhard Jussen, David Warren Sabean, and Simon Teuscher, 144–75. Oxford: Berghahn.

Sabean, David Warren, and Simon Teuscher. 2013. “Introduction.” In Blood and kinship: Matter for metaphor from ancient Rome to the present, edited by Christopher H. Johnson, Bernhard Jussen, David Warren Sabean, and Simon Teuscher, 1–17. Oxford: Berghahn.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. “Out of context: The persuasive fictions of anthropology.” Current Anthropology 28: 251–81.

Wade, Peter. (1997) 2010. Race and ethnicity in Latin America. London: Pluto.

Weismantel, Mary. 2001. Cholas and pishtacos: Stories of race and sex in the Andes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



Jeanette EDWARDS is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. She has worked on kinship and assisted reproductive technologies in the United Kingdom and Europe with fieldwork in the north of England, and more recently in Lebanon. She was convenor and director of an EU-funded collaborative project on the ‘Public Understandings of Genetics (PUG)’ and her publications include: Born and bred: Idioms of kinship and new reproductive technologies in England (Oxford University Press, 2000); European kinship in the age of biotechnology (edited with Carles Salazar, Berghahn, 2009); and Recasting anthropological knowledge: Inspiration and social science (edited with Maja Petrovic-Steger, Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Jeanette Edwards
Department of Social Anthropology
School of Social Sciences
University of Manchester
M13 9PL, UK


1. Of course, threads lend themselves to being conjoined, while knots are handy tools for the act.

2. David Graeber, in this volume, dates the start of what he calls the neoliberal age slightly later, to the 1980s, with the breaking of union movements and mass access to consumer credit and home ownership: it is no less momentous, however, and, as he sees it, a fundamental break from an earlier era.