The Nuer Incest Prohibition and the Nature of Kinship: Alterlogical Reckoning

Essay Excerpt

In order better to come to grips with the anthropological challenge the study of kinship presents, in this article I abandon our received "reality" in favor of a basically ambiguous holism, that is, in favor of a "reality" that, though dual, remains unitary.

I have chosen as the empirical vehicle of my argument the Nuer of East Africa. In his classic account of Nuer kinship and marriage (1951), Evans-Pritchard isolates three relationships to which the Nuer incest prohibition applies but which cannot be identified as relationships of kinship by any presently intelligible sense of the term. With this striking anomaly, Evans-Pritchard's ethnography furnishes an exemplary case of what I referred to above as the root problem of the anthropological study of kinship, the problem of just what it is we are talking about when we call upon this term. Evans-Pritchard treats this anomaly, uncharacteristically, in terms of a stringent functionalism, attempting to explain it away: he argues that although the relationships in question are not really relationships of kinship, their inclusion under the incest prohibition serves to maintain the social structure in its current form. My task, however, is to show how the Nuer might find kinship where we find none, that is, to make intelligible how the three relationships might constitute kinship as such. The three relationships are those obtaining between a man and his wife's sister, between an adopted Dinka boy and the daughter of his foster-father's brother, and between a man and the daughter of one of his age-mates.

My argument is organized into five parts. First, I review the table of the Nuer incest prohibition and marriage rules; second, I relate and criticize Evans-Pritchard's argument concerning the Nuer prohibition and the anomaly in question; third, focusing on just one of the three stipulated relationships - that between a man and his wife's sister - I construct the ontological picture in view of which this relationship may be seen to constitute genuine kinship; and fourth, I bring into this picture the two remaining relationships. A final section, pointing out some of the important implications of this analysis for the study of kinship, makes up a fifth part. (Evans, 324-325) 

About the Author

Dr. Terence M.S. Evens is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. His areas of interest include: Social Anthropology, Social Theory, Phenomenology, Ethics, Philosophical Anthropology, and Collectivist Settlements. He has extensive field research on the social life of an Israeli kibbutz. Archaeological and anthropological field research in India. Extensive research in the literature of the Nuer of East Affrica. Career-long research in phenomenology and social theory. His present research include: Monographic study of anthropology as ethics, reason and human agency. Comparative study of conflict, sacrifice, and the self in transcendental social movements. Monographic study on the phenomenology of the Nuer. Various essays on anthropological theory.

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