Performing Kinship

It has taken me some time to complete this review, and for that, I apologize, I do hope the wait was worth it:

Krista Van Vleet sets out to explore the lives among the natives of the Sullk’ata region. In doing so, she establishes the role of ritual, exchange, and nurture which play roles in relatedness among these people. She does so by recounting stories told to her by the inhabitants and drawing upon observations from her time with them. In exploring the culture of this region, she not only illustrates their rituals and traditions in contrast with that of western society, but also explores our own culture as well. This is the primary reason for my reading this book and that which I took away from her writings.

The interactions of parents, spouses, children, and siblings only begin to illustrate the relationships among the natives of this region. Highly complex relationships exist within the exchange community known as one’s ayllu. The ayllu is developed over one’s lifetime extending to, as we would call in western society, relatives and in-laws, and to neighbors, friends, and more distant genetic relatives. Van Vleet illustrates these exchanges and interactions with a series of stories illustrating the complexity and subtlety of these relationships. She tells the story of a child, Javier, who had “two mothers,” in the sense that, when his birth mother (Julia) was unable to care for her child, the responsibility was given to her sister (Silveria) who provided and cared for him as a young child. Javier, in the sense of children being the receivers of food and nurture, was the child of both Julia, who cared for him from birth until her injury, and Silveria, who cared for him after Julia’s injury until she had recovered.

Children, in this culture, are nurtured by the parents. Parents are, upon the child becoming independent, given gifts from their children as a sign of love and gratitude. Silveria was upset when Javier failed to bring her a radio as he had done for Julia, insisting that Javier his mother.

While the story of “Javier’s Two Mothers” is used to illustrate how children, in a sense, are the child of the parent, it serves additionally to give insights into how Julia’s sister assisted her when she was unable to care for her child. Additionally, children can be “loaned” to couples whose children have all moved away. This serves to release the burden upon the childless couples to complete all necessary work for their subsistence, but also removes some of the burden from the parents with many children. This exchange of labor (ayni) is one of the corner stones of their culture.

Van Vleet illustrates this in a wonderfully short, but information rich, ethnography containing insights into conflict and resolution, violence and abuse, sexuality and alcohol, as well as many other aspects of life in Sullk’ata. She explores both the said and unsaid, the distinct and frighteningly similar, aspects of their culture. She further explores marriage and the integration of Catholic requirements upon civil marriage and how these requirements have been integrated as another layer of reciprocity is added upon the already quite complex exchanges of the ayllu.

The only real fault I found with this book is the complexity with which it explains. For individuals with only minimal knowledge of anthropology, it makes for quite a difficult read, however, with a bit of extra time and parsing the arguments thoroughly, it is quite easy to understand. Most of her claims are, if not at least intuitive given the narrative associated with it, fairly well explained and supported by additional references.

Finally, I fear I cannot possibly give this book a thorough review due to my lack of familiarity with cultural anthropology, but I have tried even so. Anyone with an interest in viewing, not just life in Sullk’ata, but also life in our own society, through new eyes would be encouraged to read this book. It will not give you a comprehensive guide to the lives of these people, but it will give you insight into our own lives. You may even come away as I have, wondering why we do some of the things we do.

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2 Responses to “Performing Kinship”

  1. 1 Pliny-the-in-Between
    October 26, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Sounds interesting, though I have always wondered how anthropologists avoid the Margret Meade/Survivor bias problems. Cultural anthropology and behavioral psychology can be so vulnerable to both confirmational and observational bias, so I’m interested in how she addressed that.

  2. 2 jaredcormier
    October 26, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    It is often done by addressing the possible sources of this bias up front.

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