EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Re-conceptualising kinship and relatedness in an ageing world [MAN]
Location U6-24
Date and Start Time 20 July, 2016 at 14:30
Sessions 2


  • Jason Danely (Oxford Brookes University) email
  • Jolanda Lindenberg (Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Jason Danely, PhD

Short Abstract

This panel explores changing meanings and practices of kinship in diverse contexts of ageing and longevity in order to reconsider the importance of kinship in anthropology. The future of kinship lies in the shifting realities, experiences and meanings of relatedness emerging in ageing societies.

Long Abstract

Within the discipline, critical voices emerging from post-colonial, feminist, queer studies and post-humanism seem to have deconstructed the anthropological category of kinship so comprehensively that it can be difficult to tell where to pick up the pieces. Given the highly mutable bonds of relatedness that characterize anthropological depictions of family life today, the stable structures and patterns of classical kinship appear less compelling, yet empirically, it remains evident that kinship still plays a vital role in the shaping of narratives of the life course and the provision of care.

In this panel we will reconsider kinship on the basis of insights from anthropological studies in societies experiencing rapid population ageing historically unprecedented longevity and declines in fertility. What happens to the conceptualization of kinship as populations become older, live longer, and as forms of their relatedness diversify? How does it give room for "constructed forms of kinship" and "logics of relatedness" (Sahlins 2011: 5)? What happens as we decenter the reproductive nuclear family and try to orient from the perspectives of older persons? Increasing numbers of people living longer also means increases in physical frailty and cognitive impairment, producing new potentials for indebtedness and intimacy, love and abandonment over the life course. Elsewhere, absence of kin due to smaller families, displacement or immigration, creates new spaces for political actors to occupy a more "family-like" role of care in the lives of older people. Our ageing world provokes us to imagine different forms and futures of relationality, affection and embodiment.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


21st Century kinship meets globalized aging in an indigenous Mexican community

Author: Jay Sokolovsky (University of S. Florida St. Petersburg)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the intersection of globalization with aging and cultural models of kinship and family, in an indigenous Mexican community. It details the dramatic changes in modeling kinship and family ideology, including powerful new narratives of elderly abandonment.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the intersection of globalization with aging and cultural models of kinship and family, viewed from 40 years of research in a Nahuatl-speaking indigenous Mexican community. The central linguistic trope in this community for modeling kinship and family is the tochantlaca, those linked, in a kin network to the walled central house compound and land controlled by the oldest couple. In 1972, membership in a tochantlaca was bounded by deferential and quite formal hand-kissing ritual toward older kin and authoritarian relations across generations. Beginning in the 1980s as globalization began to seriously impact the region, house compound walls began to be taken down, symbolically marking how generational ties were altering. Part of this change has to do with a greater equality between generational kin formations, the gradual replacement of an ideology of authority with that of love, but also increased conflict between male siblings in this patrilineal system. Intertwined with this has been the assumption of greater power of females within kin groups and the community. In the past decade, there has emerged a dramatic transformation in the local narratives about kinship, aging and generation. These include stories of abandonment of the elderly, youth's rejection of indigenous culture and the system of respect. The conclusions propose a connection to similar developments in other parts of the non-Western world especially in India and Africa and a way to understand how my observations on the ground in recent years, provide a counter to the claims of this new narrative.

ICTs and everyday care practices in Indian transnational families

Author: Tanja Ahlin (University of Amsterdam)  email

Short Abstract

This papers challenges the discourse of elderly abandonment by proposing that in Indian transnational families of nurses 1) migration may be seen as an act of care rather than abandonment, and 2) information and communication technologies enable care relations to sustain across large geographic distances.

Long Abstract

This paper presents some of my findings about the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in informal elderly care at a distance in Indian transnational families. During my fieldwork in the South Indian state of Kerala I realized that there was a tension between the popular image of elderly being 'abandoned' by their migrating children and the way in which some elderly living alone experienced living far away from their children. In this presentation, I (1) challenge the discourse of elderly abandonment due to migration and, (2) illuminate how everyday ICTs support caring across distance. I approach 'care' as a relational practice rather than a feeling or emotion, and 'care relations' as family relations. I start with a discussion of migration as an act of abandonment or care. I draw on my ethnographic material to show that physical presence of children may not automatically signify good elderly care, and further, that migration in itself can be understood as a form of care. I then explore how care continues to circulate in Keralite transnational families by means of ICTs. By bringing attention to everyday ICTs in informal elderly care, I suggest that they not only "have the potential to redefine our ideas about embodiment and the corporeal dimensions of social relationships" (Merla and Baldassar 2014: 52), but play already play a key role in this process.


Baldassar, L., and L. Merla (2014). Transnational Families, Migration and the Circulation of Care: Understanding Mobility and Absence in Family Life. New York: Routledge.

Responsibility, relatedness, and care in Japan's super-aged society

Author: Jason Danely (Oxford Brookes University)  email

Short Abstract

Providing eldercare in a super-aged society like Japan has resulted in greater fluidity of kin-based responsibilities and need for formal support. Understanding this new relatedness of care anthropologically means looking at the frictions between family and state welfare over responsibility.

Long Abstract

One way to understand kinship and relateness is to examine how they activate pathways for the circulation of care. In early twentieth-century, Japan, a normative kinship structure based on the "household" (ie) was promoted as a means of standardizing the family obligations to care for children and the elderly. Sociodemographic changes have made this kinship/care structure impractical for most families. And yet household based assumptions of care still underlie the logic of current state-provisioned long term care. In this system, the distribution of resources is based in part on the presence or absence of family, even if that family is unable to provide care in practice. Rather than displacing kinship as the dominant idiom of care, state-provisioned elder welfare services, and an increasingly privatised eldercare economy promote the responsibility of the household while simultaneously disempowering that household from many of the decisions involved in care. Fieldwork with both informal and formal carers revealed how this leads to friction between families seeking access to state-provisioned care and elder welfare agencies expectations of more kin-provisioned care. Kin-based care structures are also contested from within. Who takes on the care depends on availability, personality, "blood," and feelings between the carer and cared-for more than kin-based obligations. Understanding kinship in a super-aged society like Japan requires following lines of contestation and friction between family members and elder welfare services. This paper will present two case studies of blended eldercare and look at their implications for re-conceptualizing kinship and relatedness in anthropology more broadly.

Caring Relatives: an ethnographic contribution to the role and meaning of kinship for older women in Slovakia

Author: Noémi Sebök-Polyfka (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)  email

Short Abstract

This paper aims to analyze how kinship and relatedness are constructed by older women in Slovakia, as well as to highlight its significance in their everyday lives by taking into account biographical interviews.

Long Abstract

In Slovakia, a large number of women face poverty and social exclusion in retirement. As a consequence, they develop different strategies to cope with old-age-precariousness. These strategies often rely on different constructions of kinship and relatedness.

This paper reflects on the meanings of kinship in the aging society of Slovakia. It focuses on constructions of kinship in narratives of women in rural areas of the south-western part of the country. It discusses the meanings of relatedness in terms of obligations to younger family members such as caring for the older ones. The presentation aims to answer the following questions: Is kinship and relatedness important in the everyday lives of women in retirement age in Slovakia? Do older women expect their children or other relatives to support them later, when they become dependent on intensive care? Do other social ties and networks, such as neighborhood or friendship become increasingly more important than kinship at this point? What alternative forms of care work do women consider that go beyond traditional strategies?

This presentation is based on my PhD-research in Slovakia. My PhD-project aims to expose the strategies elderly women develop to cope with precariousness in their everyday life. The research methods involve biographical narrative interviews with women of retirement age, as well as expert interviews and participant observations in the south-western part of Slovakia. This presentation will broach the issue of using networks and kinship as a special strategy against poverty and social exclusion.

Professionally related: the consequence of re-establishing informal care in rural Finland

Author: Erika Takahashi (Chiba University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the relative care practice in Finland, which is prompted and supported by municipalities. By describing the extent of the municipal support and the narratives of relative caregivers, I’d like to discuss what the diversification and professionalization of being-related connotes.

Long Abstract

In social democratic welfare states, the informal care had not been a reliable resource for decades. For example in Finland, it is legally stated that children have no obligation to take care of their parents. However, the financial difficulty of the welfare state has opened up the possibility of exploring informal care as cheaper human resources once again. Therefore in Finland, the relative care support act of 2005 has prompted the municipalities to support "relative caregivers". This law ensures these caregivers financial allowances and respites from their care giving tasks. Logically, this law gives incentives to those who take care of their older kin, and regards them as care workers by ensuring his or her rights as part of the official work force. However, it has been common for children to have separate housings, for spouses to be divorced, and for couples and friends to cohabitate. The form of family has already been complicated to say in the least. With a weak idea of duty and a little bit of incentives, who would take the role of "relative caregiver"? This paper is to examine the unorthodoxical types of relationships which shape around the care of elderly people in rural Finland. By describing the decision making process of the relative care support division, the daily practice of respite care workers and the narratives of those who takes care of their elderly kin, the slowly transforming idea of "being related" and its connotation would be discussed.

Shifting long-term care: shifting kinship?

Author: Jolanda Lindenberg (Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing)  email

Short Abstract

Dutch long-term care is shifting to a “participation society” in which personal networks are increasingly appealed upon. This paper explores the use of home, family and “fictive kin” concepts in an institutional care setting and discusses implications of this for our conceptualization of kinship.

Long Abstract

The Netherlands has often been described as a strong welfare state; one that has relied on institutionalized care for its ageing population. Although research shows that in reality care ideals and practices may divert from this portrayed image. Currently a more drastic shift in long term care regulations and provision is initiated by changes in long term care funding. Responsibilities and expectations are being reoriented and usual care is to be provided by relatives. A reliance on family members, however, is not necessarily evident given changes in kinship arrangements and long-standing care ideals in the past decades. In this paper, I explore how terms of relatedness and kinship are dealt with in an institutional care setting that is affected by these macro-governmental changes. Based on fieldwork in a residential care facility, I will analyse how in this setting home- and family-like concepts are invoked and how these are experienced by the older individuals living there and by their relatives. I will further delve into this "alternative" future of kinship by exploring the use of kinship terms by older residents with a particular focus on the use of what is commonly distinguished as "fictive kin" (Mc Rae 1992) or "voluntary kin" (Braithwaite et al. 2010). How is the use of kin terms for non-kin and what does it mean? How does it relate to a take-over of this institutional setting of roles that were once fulfilled by relatives? And what are the implications for the study of kinship in anthropology?

"Following in their mother's footsteps": expressing kin relations through menopausal experience

Authors: Isabel de Salis (University of Bristol)  email
Amanda Owen-Smith (University of Bristol)  email

Short Abstract

Women express the quality of their female kin relations through their differing or similar menopausal experiences, revealing as much about their relations to their kin and non-kin as they do about menopause. These findings are based on repeat in-depth interviews with 48 UK mothers.

Long Abstract

Menopausal women describe "following in their mother's footsteps", hoping or fearing they will share their mother's easy or disabling experience. Some women invoke their mothers' easy time to contrast themselves and their kin from other women's difficulties during menopause. In contrast, some women do not perceive menopausal experience as inherited and some adamantly distance themselves from their mothers' menopausal dramas or troubles. Most women feel sure that their daughters will have a similar menopause to themselves, often citing their similar puberty. Explanations for similar and differing experiences included inherited personality traits, physiology and physique, and environmental factors such as diet and exercise. Often the bodily process of this transmission was vague although sometimes hormones were used to express changing kin relations: hormones depleting when husbands depart or daughters leave home. Women did not feel their mother's experience necessarily determined their own, but were likely to feel responsible for determining their daughters' future menopausal problems. Importantly, quality of relationship seemed to influence how closely a woman's experience of menopause followed her mother's and would affect her daughter. Women were especially critical and disparaging of the menopausal symptoms and behaviours of non-kin, and of close kin they disliked. These findings are based on repeat in-depth interviews with 48 UK mothers about their experiences and perceptions of menopause. They reveal as much about women's relations to their kin and non-kin as they do about menopause. It is evident that kinship is still active in shaping life course narratives, in this case menopause.

Fictive kin: real and imagined models of social support in late life

Author: Maria Vesperi (New College of Florida)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how late-life decisions to assume alternative kinship identities and obligations may be facilitated in the United States by contemporary literature and films featuring older protagonists.

Long Abstract

Since the African-American strategy of "going for sisters" was first documented in the anthropological literature, research on aging in the United States has included close attention to alternative models of family support. Viewed as adaptive and enriching rather than compensatory, relations identified traditionally as "fictive kin" can be limited to one-on-one or can include extensive networks with affinal breadth and generational depth. Some networks established in late life are facilitated by housing arrangements, religious congregations or social clubs; others are sustained solely by friendship and mutual awareness of need. All share an assumption of reciprocal obligation, often defined in ideal contrast to the absence or perceived shortcomings of consanguineal kin. Many studies of alternative kin networks focus appropriately on structured social inequality and other deficits, but with the result that the agency of individuals in reaching for new social goals is often ignored. This paper examines several types of alternative kin networks in relation to models presented in contemporary literature and film. Novels and films with older protagonists are increasingly popular, and the dramatic tension often includes interaction between consanguineal kin to what researchers have dubbed families of choice or by choice. Of particular interest is how reading about or viewing fictional families provides a shared experience and a safe but fertile space for imagining and sometimes acting upon what might be.

Bringing the "old" kinship back to the studies of "the aged"

Author: Barbara Pieta (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is about the importance of attending to empirical regularities in the study of relatedness in the ageing world. Preliminary statistics, ethnographic data and participatory video material from the ongoing fieldwork (in an Italian village) will be used to illustrate the argument.

Long Abstract

A growing number of anthropologists today recognize the value of attending to patterns and structures in studying kinship and relatedness, and they do so with significant success (see. e.g. Schweizer and White:1998, Heady and Schweitzer:2010, Heady and Kohli:2010).

This paper starts with the assumption that the moment anthropologists bring kinship back into the studies of "the aged",can also be a good moment to bring the "aged" version of kinship back to the anthropologists' mercy.

I will use the preliminary findings of my ongoing fieldwork on the intergenerational relations in an Italian village, joint with the already existing data from other studies, to show how statistically captured regularities of kinship/household dynamics can combine with ethnography and produce new insights on kinship relations in the era of increased longevity.

The preliminary statistical data presented include: a) residence patterns, inheritance and other intergenerational transfer; b) household economies now and in the last decades: mouth to feed/hands to work proportion, and how it changed historically. This data, supplemented with oral histories, data gathered through participant observation and Participatory Video material, will provide basis for the analysis of (changing?) nature of intergenerational dependency and how this translates into (new?) kinship dynamics.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.