Marilyn Strathern


On her book Relations: An Anthropological Account

Cover Interview of April 08, 2020

In a nutshell

How do anthropologists describe their own practices? Their working concepts would have to be part of it. Nothing could be more diffuse or ubiquitous than the English-language use of relation, yet many socio-cultural anthropologists would claim it as a signature concept for their discipline. It holds a privileged place both in how they think and write and in the social and cultural lives they study. Importantly, uncovering relations that may not be immediately apparent often signals a critical or questioning move. The driving question of this book is how to provide a critical account of that very practice.

English speakers call kinsfolk their relations or relatives. This idiosyncratic usage seeds an exploration of changing articulations in knowledge relations and interpersonal relations over the last three hundred years. Familiar notions of identity, selfhood, consciousness, family, friendship, comparison, connection, affinity, resemblance, similarity, difference, and so forth, acquire new interest. They feed into an argument about the nature of relations that also springs from materials with lives of their own, an unlooked-for outcome being a novel understanding of ‘Western’ (Euro-American) kinship. While the investigation draws on anthropological works from numerous locations, it also touches on different theoretical stances, on critical theory, and on historical interpretations of early modern social life, with a taste of philosophical writings from the time. The reader is invited to observe how relations act and behave (so to speak) in diverse circumstances. We could call it an ethnographic exploration, but—insofar as it too works with relations—it has to move beyond the usual comfort zones of exposition.

Behind the driving question is another driver. Only now do we seem to be hurrying to take action on numerous relational deficits in our understandings of, and care of, an ecologically and politically precarious world. Being critical is also taking care and, when it comes to taking care of relations, taking conceptual care.

Now scholars often criticize the concepts other scholars use in order to herald new horizons: out with the old, in with the new! In this case I wish to criticize a concept—not just to create a wider context (as in critique) but to raise objections (as in criticism)—while not wishing to get rid of it. The reason lies in a conundrum as old as scholarship itself: because the concepts we value also get in the way of what we want to express.

Social anthropology responds to the conundrum like no other discipline in the tools it has at its disposal. It actively invites what it learns from its subjects and objects of study (across the world) to challenge its own modes of exposition. Uncovering relations enables anthropologists to draw things together and give coherent accounts of apparently disparate elements in people’s interactions with one another; at the same time, the very concept of relations may block other understandings, limit what can be conveyed, and even import unwarranted assumptions about the nature of social life.