Critical Kinship Studies

Critical Kinship Studies

Edited by Charlotte Kroløkke, Lene Myong, Stine Willum Adrian and Tine Tjørnhøj-Thomsen

New York: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016, 324 pp.

Reviewed by Julia Kowalski


The editors of Critical Kinship Studies begin their introduction with an assertion: “the making of kinship today involves border crossing and mobility” (1). The contributors who follow build upon this insight to ask a wide range of questions about how changes to the mobility of people, reproductive technologies, and kinship substances are remaking kinship in the contemporary world. In asking these questions, the contributors and editors alike ask what kinship, as an analytic framework, can offer to our understanding of how global inequality is reproduced.

In their introduction, Kroløkke et al. situate the collected chapters within several scholarly conversations that critically engage kinship: critical adoption studies, assisted reproductive technology (ART) studies, and feminist anthropology. In bridging these conversations, the volume incorporates not just ethnographic research, but analyses of texts, films, and media representations. The volume is organized in four sections, each taking up a theme related to kinship, global mobility, and inequality. These four sections organize 18 chapters.

In the first, “Kinship as Substance,” chapters examine how biological materials come to be understood (or not) as the substance of kinship, examining oocytes, breast milk, and beliefs about racial identity in asking how different communities interpret the substance of kinship. In the second, “Kinship as Consumption,” chapters examine how global processes of surrogacy, adoption, ART, and care work operate within a global field of reproductive consumption, raising questions of labor, markets, and representation. In the third, “Kinship as Political Economy,” chapters situate adoption and reproductive technologies within political-economic frameworks, examining tensions that result from the historically specific politics of kinship in locations such as Israel, the United States, and Denmark. The fourth and final section, “Kinship (Re)Imagined,” examines the operation of kinship beyond the family, exploring topics ranging from trans kinship to pet-human relations to adoptee re-migration.

Critical Kinship Studies builds upon the contributions of the edited volumes on kinship that have set the terms of contemporary debates around kinship, such as Carsten 2000 and Franklin and McKinnon 2001. The central innovation of this volume is the shared focus of editors and contributors on “the making and unmaking of kinship are…effects of an unequal distribution of mobility” (5). By drawing together research that takes up a range of positions within what some have called “new” kinship studies—ranging from the visceral materiality of kinship to the implication of kinship in diffuse and abstract arguments about national belonging—contributors demonstrate how kinship intersects with mobility across multiple scales. The many kinship practices outlined in the collected chapters demonstrate how regenerating kin relations in a contemporary world depends upon some actors and objects becoming mobile, while others remain fixed. Representations of desirable modes of relatedness generate and rely upon networks of global mobility. People migrate to provide care work, secure affordable reproductive technologies, or find surrogates or potential adoptees. Materials circulate between geographic regions and between bodies. These kinship mobilities, crucially, rely upon a globally unequal field in which some people and objects are immobilized, available to provide affordable labor or biogenetic materials. The various chapters collected in Critical Kinship Studies pursue the empirical and theoretical questions raised by these insights about kinship mobility.

Critical Kinship Studies offers a broad collection of studies that build on the on-going critical conversation surrounding kinship in feminist anthropology, gender studies, and sexuality studies. Consisting of mostly European scholars, many of whom work on intersections between European nation-states and global circuits of kin-making, the collection offers empirically valuable information about how kinship features in a range of European settings. It also exposes readers to conversations on family, gender, and reproduction in European academic circles. For classroom use, the text offers a wide range of chapter-length examinations of topics like transnational and transracial adoption, surrogacy (from the perspective of surrogates, potential parents, and even consumers of popular culture), and reproductive technologies ranging from egg donation to neonatal intensive care to IVF, across a range of geographic sites. It also provides examples of how scholars use a classic anthropological category, “kinship,” to analyze materials like televised documentaries, texts, and photographs.

In Critical Kinship Studies, Kroløkke et al, and the contributors they have gathered, demonstrate that far from merely reflecting global inequalities, contemporary kinship—and the patterns of mobility and immobility upon which it depends—in fact underwrite globally unequal relations between regions, individuals, and kin.

Julia Kowalski is an assistant professor of anthropology at North Dakota State University. Her research examines how NGO staff at women’s rights organizations in north India repurpose patriarchal kinship in the service of women’s rights. She is at work on a book manuscript focusing on the intersections between human rights claims and kinship in Indian family counseling practices.

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