Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Chronotopic Formulations and Kinship Behaviors in Social History

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Chronotopic Formulations and Kinship Behaviors in Social History

Article excerpt

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What do young Korean sopranos who sing in church choirs have in common with elderly Japanese gentlemen living alone? What do Indian Muslims who mourn distant tragedies share with Amazonian Indians who avoid the names of their own children? What do white Kenyans seeking autochthonous belonging in Kenya share with Mauritians seeking authentic roots elsewhere?

The accompanying articles show that in all of these cases, and others, participants in social practices around the world routinely invoke the idiom of kinship to perform or construe interpersonal behaviors, whether their own or of those they meet or try to imagine. In doing so, they inhabit kin-like relationships with persons or groups that are sometimes nearby in time and place (such as their interlocutors), and sometimes quite far (such as the dead or the unborn). The social-semiotic practices through which people inhabit these relations are kinship behaviors whose participants rely on chronotopic formulations of place, time, and personhood (Agha 2007a) in order to become recognizable to each other as social beings of specific kinds, whether as persons already belonging to, or as persons hoping to avoid, group-specific historical trajectories in relation to others.

Kinship Behaviors

I use the term kinship behavior (Agha 2007b) to describe perceivable behaviors that are phenomenally disparate in kind, but are semiotically unified by the presence of kinship terms, whether 1) in the practices through which they are performed, or 2) in the practices through which they are construed. In the first type of case, kinship behaviors consist of speech behaviors in which kinship terms readily occur as utterance segments. In the second type of case, the behaviors in question may be of any perceivable kind; they count as kinship behaviors only insofar as-and as long as-they are construed or typified society-internally through an idiom of kinship. In all cases, the significance of perceivable behavior as kinship behavior is formulated through cultural models of conduct, and is recoverable only by those acquainted with these models. As the accompanying articles show, it takes a semiotically informed ethnography to make the model and what it construes intelligible to others-a feat that requires attention both to the metasigns (or metasemiotic practices) that formulate the construal and the object-signs (or interpersonal behaviors) that are construed through them. To lose sight of one or the other is to lose sight of the reflexive models that make these practices intelligible to those whose practices they are.

In kinship behaviors of the first kind-where kin terms occur as utterance-segments-the social-indexical significance of such behaviors is not recoverable from the lexical denotation of the kin terms that happen to be used or avoided in some instance (multiple forms of address and reference are always available as alternatives in any social interaction), but is readily apparent from metasemiotic discourses that specify which kin terms are appropriately used by whom in relation to which others. When Korean Christians avoid asymmetric patterns of traditional kin term usage in favor of a simplified symmetric pattern in Church settings, they formulate themselves as "Christian brothers and sisters" before God, and Korea as an emerging "global center of Christianity" (Harkness, this issue). This self-formulation is evident in their narratives of ethno-national and spiritual progress within Korea (which differentiate them from other Koreans), and of the cosmographic progress of Christianity within world history (which differentiates them from non-Christians), thus giving a distinctive formulation to their own place in community, nation, and history.

In kinship behaviors of the second kind-which are phenomenally diverse, and in which no kin terms need occur-the fact that kinship relations of some specific kind are even at issue is only intelligible to those acquainted with discourses that metasemiotically typify such behaviors through an idiom of kinship. …

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