Marilyn Strathern


On her book Relations: An Anthropological Account

Cover Interview of April 08, 2020

A close-up

It might come as a bit of a surprise that there is so much in the book about friendship. Perhaps because I know so little, I find some of the literature on early modern England fascinating in this regard. Perhaps what will pique the reader’s interest is to see the way in which friendship segues into kinship. I have surprised myself, at any rate, on this score.

Historians have long been alive to the temptation to think one knows what friendship is. Intriguing for example are present-day misunderstandings of companionate relations as flourished across pre-modern Europe. So what else do we need to be alert to? As it turns out, the attributes of friends and relatives have over time diverged and converged in quite specific ways.

At any rate all this made me think afresh about twentieth century anthropological accounts of kinship and friendship, and I found myself speculating on an old controversy: the glaringly diminished place of family and kin in modernity. Of course the controversy hardly belongs to anthropology alone. Political writers pondering long ago on an emergent sense of society and state began a conversation that has lasted three centuries. I join the conversation with some thoughts of my own about how English speakers link up different aspects of their social lives.

Take seventeenth- and eighteenth-century usages of ‘society’ and ‘association.’ These seemingly reflect back something of the positive tenor there is to making relations that has already been mentioned. At one place the book touches on David Hume’s eighteenth-century ruminations on human nature. He showed himself as enamored of the associational facility of linking thoughts as he was of the convivial nature of being in company. Indeed he connected them: resemblances between people are like connections between ideas. Incidentally, Hume was thinking of social circles in general, not of kin relations at this point—it is as though the latter had already been pushed to one side. Of course as with any literary piece one has to consider metaphor, and I could not resist a glance at some of the arguments of the time about decorating speech. An interesting juncture is when ‘family’ loses its power as a metaphor for ‘state’.

The cover that Duke University Press designed for the book is taken from a painting frequently reproduced to evoke the Enlightenment, Wright’s An experiment on a bird in an air pump. The scientific revolution domesticated: at a private house an itinerant lecturer is demonstrating the effects of air by withdrawing it from a bell jar in which a bird flutters. Several people gathered to watch are held by the painter in various relations of power (the observer with his hand on a watch), concentration (on learning what will happen next), comfort (embracing the youngest watchers there), and indifference (between two who have eyes only for themselves). There have been many attempts at identifying the personages. Generically, we would recognize a circle of friends and relations.