Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Meanings of Kinship among the Ese Ejja of Northern Bolivia/Signification Des Liens De Parente Chez Les Ese Ejja Du Nord De la Bolivie

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Meanings of Kinship among the Ese Ejja of Northern Bolivia/Signification Des Liens De Parente Chez Les Ese Ejja Du Nord De la Bolivie

Article excerpt

In this article, my concern is with the meanings that the Ese Ejja attribute to what we call 'kinship relations' or 'relatedness', and how these relations are lived in practice. In what follows, I discuss the ideas of sameness and difference around which kinship is constructed in the constant effort to fend off the dangers of outsiders, while protecting and reproducing the group of those who care for each other. By 'constructed' I mean both actively 'put together', fashioned in everyday interaction, but also 'understood', as something children are born into and learn about.

On the one hand, I describe how, for the Ese Ejja, as for many other peoples in Amazonia--and elsewhere--kinship ties are constantly made and relatedness is highly performative. In this respect, I concur with Daniela Peluso, who affirms that the 'Ese Eja (1) continually shape and reaffirm relatedness ... through the quality and reciprocity of acts of nurturance, care taking, cooperation and generosity' (2003: 107). My data partly confirm some of the observations regarding the processual understanding of kinship and of the person that have been made in Amazonia (e.g. Conklin 1995; Gow 1991; McCallum 2001; Overing Kaplan 1975; Rival 1998; Riviere 1984; Vilaca 1992; Viveiros de Castro 1992), but also in India (Busby 1997; Marriott & Inden 1977; Trawick 1990), Southeast Asia (Carsten 1995), Madagascar (Astuti 1995; Bloch 1993), and Melanesia (Strathern 1988). On the other hand, however, I stress the significance of filiation and of ideas regarding the transmission of substance. I suggest that kinship ties for the Ese Ejja are given at birth, and that there is an important element of fixity in kin reckoning; this simultaneous givenness and ongoing construction are called upon strategically according to circumstances. (2) This is highly significant in the context of recent Amazonian kinship studies, which tend to stress how 'kinship is not understood to derive from "consanguinity" or shared, inherited substance', instead it 'is constantly fabricated' (McCallum 2001: 24). This position, which may not be shared by all Amazonianist scholars, none the less broadly characterizes the writings of the British and Brazilian schools, with which this article directly engages.

Although, for the Ese Ejja, kin can be, through marriage and procreation, 'made out of others' (to use Aparecida Vilaca's expression [2002]), I suggest that others are also made out of kin. Otherness is found first of all within the group of close kin, among cross-relatives, who are considered sufficiently different as to be suitable marriage partners, who, through shared life and procreation, are made into the same. I argue that the making and undoing of ties are part of an ongoing process of negotiating viable social relations.

The debate over 'processual' and 'given' aspects of the person and of kinship has a long history in South Asia, where scholars have rejected or qualified the dominant paradigm set by Louis Dumont's explanation of Dravidian kinship systems, which focuses on affinity at the expense of consanguinity (see Busby 1997; Carsten 2003; Parry 1989). The applicability of the Dumontian model to Amazonian societies also has a long history. I am aware of the fact that many Amazonianist scholars would maintain that 'the "canonical Dravidian" as defined by Luis Dumont is better exemplified in Amazonia than in South India' (Taylor in Godelier, Trautman & Tjon Sie Fat 1998: viii), but I do not wish to engage in the debate here as this would exceed the scope of the article. However, Cecilia Busby's (1997) suggestion that, among the Mukkuvar of Kerala--who use a Dravidian kinship terminology--marriageability should be understood in terms of inherited substance rather than as a function of exchange lends support to my contention that Amazonian ethnography would benefit from exploring further local conceptions of 'consanguinity', or shared substance, derived from filiation. …

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