Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Indigenous Modes of Representing Social Relationships: A Short Critique of the 'Genealogical Concept'

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Indigenous Modes of Representing Social Relationships: A Short Critique of the 'Genealogical Concept'

Article excerpt

Abstract: The first part of the article discusses briefly the notions of genealogy and kinship within the Euro-American epistemological context and advocates the necessity for a sharp distinction between these two domains. While being a useful tool, especially in comparative approaches, the collection of genealogies is nevertheless the enactment of the genealogical concept, which in turn is a particular mode for legitimising status associated to a culturally specific iconography.

The second part of the article portrays ethnographic material illustrating, as an alternative to the genealogical concept, Indigenous modes for representing relationships between people in the Western Desert, and that do simultaneously include affiliations to and structuration of space. These Indigenous modes and iconography for representing 'genealogies' reflect a cultural schema that can be summarised as an unalienable link (or identity) between people and locales on the one hand, and between relationships and routes/tracks on the other. A genealogy in the understanding of a Ngaatjatjarra-speaking person of the Western Desert is a representation of both social and spatial affiliation and structure.


Genealogies and what will be called here the 'genealogical concept' formed one of the foundations of kinship studies and have long served as the implicit proof of well-conducted fieldwork. Following their partial rejection as ethnocentric tools from the 1970s onwards, they have, however, lately become again an unavoidable iconographic part of native title evidence and have therefore survived and maintained some scientific or jural validity, albeit in contrasting historic and epistemological contexts. This persistence of the genealogical concept in anthropology and related fields inevitably leads to an interrogation of its possibly opportunistic nature or uses, reflecting its adaptive capacity as well as the persistent cultural theme it conveys. In addition to apparently being a culturally (Euro-American) defined mode of representing 'natural evidences' of procreation, may we presume that it is also the 'natural' (i.e. intrinsic) expression of social relationships?

In this article, I reiterate the reasons why the 'genealogical concept' is not always an accurate model for depicting emic representations of social relationships and subsequent determinations of affiliations to land. In some cases, it is a framework imposed for the purpose of providing evidence relating to questions of Indigenous interests. I begin by briefly recapitulating some of the major criticisms directed towards the use, and more particularly the historical background, of genealogies in anthropology. Within this discussion, I endeavour to explain why such concepts as 'kinship system' or 'kin category' should be sharply distinguished from 'genealogies'.

In the second part of the article, I present and discuss some examples of Indigenous modes of depicting people and land, which I recorded among Ngaatjatjarra-speaking people in the eastern part of the Western Desert. These examples illustrate an Indigenous iconography for representing social relationships that accords with what anthropologists would call a genealogy or a pedigree. However, the meanings expressed reflect a particular cultural schema that is distinct from that conveyed by the genealogical concept. In this schema, social relationships, rather than being firmly based on genealogical associations, also include representations and elements of space-structuration.

The genealogical concept

The pedigree or genealogy, wrote Barnes (1967:101), 'is a statement of the way in which individuals are, or assert that they are, connected with one another through marriage and common parentage'. Later in the same paper, Barnes distinguishes such individuals and genealogical statements according to a very specific understanding of 'objectivity' or 'genealogical truth' that is associated with seemingly non-alterable biological conditions and consequences embedded in an absolute and universal definition of the basis of kinship: the recognition of procreation and filiation. …

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