Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Family Trees and Their Affinities: The Visual Imperative of the Genealogical Diagram

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Family Trees and Their Affinities: The Visual Imperative of the Genealogical Diagram

Article excerpt

A minimum obligation

The recent revival of interest in kinship on both sides of the Atlantic(1) gives David Schneider's (1984: vii) oft cited remarks about kinship being a 'non-subject' and an 'artifact of the anthropologist's analytic apparatus' a rather novel twist. If kinship is an artefact of the anthropologist's analytic apparatus, then any new study of kinship will need to examine that apparatus as part of the ethnography. This article considers one piece of visual equipment available for representing kinship: the genealogical diagram. It considers why kinship was visualized in the way that it was, by literalizing the 'tree metaphor' (Firth 1983: 328), and thereby classing the genealogical diagram together with other sorts of trees.

The shift of kinship studies from anthropological centre stage to the backdrop is well expressed by Barnard and Good (1984: 1): 'every ethnographer, whether kinship specialist or not, is expected to come home from the field with a description of "the kinship system"'. This imperative echoes Barnes's (1967: 121) reference to genealogical charts as part of the ethnographer's 'minimum obligation' for making fieldwork 'intelligible' to others. Collecting and displaying genealogies diagrammatically was - and is - considered indispensable to an adequate description of the kinship system.

Firth and his colleagues (1969: 33), for example, systematically obtained genealogies for their study of north London 'as soon as possible and, if it could be managed, before kin were discussed at all'. Even Schneider (1984: 56) once described the genealogical grid as 'a construct modelled on the presumption of actual biological relations, that underlies the sociocultural product called kinship', and was to collect a substantial body of genealogical material before changing his mind about its significance (1980: 124). Times have certainly changed, yet simple genealogical diagrams remain a popular form of professional shorthand (see, for example, Rapport 1993: 83, 106).

This article explores the conceptual field of the genealogical diagram by considering its iconographical precedents. I have demonstrated the centrality of the genealogical method of social anthropological inquiry, developed by W.H.R. Rivers around the turn of the century, to subsequent British-style studies of kinship and social organization (Bouquet 1993). That work contrasted English notions of pedigree with Portuguese ideas about genealogia, and the problems attendant upon exporting the genealogical method even within Europe. Here I focus on the visual expression of kinship in diagrammatic genealogical form, arguing that this way of representing relatedness owed much to prior European use of tree-imagery as a taxonomic device. It tries, by taking seriously the diagrammatical form in which kinship connexions were (and are) routinely represented, to engage with what Taylor (1994: xii) calls 'the visual-sensual in the theoretical no less than the theoretical in the visual'. I want to suggest that visualizing kinship in the genealogical diagram reflects 'the limits of a specific ideological consciousness, [marking] the conceptual points beyond which that consciousness cannot go, and between which it is condemned to oscillate' (Jameson, in Clifford 1988: 223).

I discuss a number of northern European sacred, secular and scientific pedigrees that instantiate precedents available for visualizing kinship in diagrammatic form. These examples are drawn from Britain, the Netherlands and Germany.(2) A late eighteenth-century Dutch family pedigree exemplifies the secular class. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Dutch Trees of Jesse illustrate the class of sacred precursors. A phylogenetic tree, dating from the 1860s, demonstrates scientific appropriation of the tree.

My argument is that visualizing kinship in the form of a genealogical diagram in twentieth-century anthropology derived from the prevalence of tree imagery for secular, religious and scientific purposes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century (and earlier) Europe. …

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