EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Kinship: taking stock in the light of social media
Location U6-34
Date and Start Time 22 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Elisabetta Costa (British Institute at Ankara (BIAA)) email
  • Razvan Nicolescu (University College London) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Pietro Vereni
Discussant Claudia Mattalucci

Short Abstract

The panel discusses the place of kinship in the light of the ways people create and maintain personal relationships and networks using social media. It explores kinship in direct juxtaposition with other networks such as 'traditional' friendship and 'online' only friendship.

Long Abstract

The panel discusses the place of kinship in the light of the ways people create and maintain personal relationships and networks using social media. In some places, social media has reinforced traditional social networks such as families divided by mobility and migration, but it has also allowed the emergence of new types of social relations, solidarities, friendships and kin ties. Social media has also presented certain possibilities both to display and to conceal these relations, and to create social groups of different sizes. This range of groups means that social media enables what could be called "scalable sociality".

The panel presents reflections on the current state of kinship in relation to social media based on ethnographic studies around the world. It draws on nine long-term ethnographic studies carried out in different small and medium-sized towns as part of the Why We Post project (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/why-we-post), and the increasing number of ethnographic studies more generally where social media has been encountered as an important space for families, extended kinship and other relationships. By focusing upon social media we can assess kinship in direct juxtaposition with other networks such as 'traditional' friendship and 'online' only friendship, or the new role of strangers as social media confidants. In particular, the panel explores family relationships in contrast to relationships built on choice, such as friendship and romantic relations. What happens when one's mother 'friends' you, for instance?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


'Familiar strangers': rethinking kinship through Chinese social media

Author: Tom McDonald (The University of Hong Kong)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines why rural Chinese social media users want to connect with and talk to strangers online. Their behaviour poses an important challenge for traditional scholarly accounts of Chinese kinship that place strangers as the complete antithesis of kinship and familiarity based relations.

Long Abstract

This paper describes the popular practice amongst rural Chinese social media users of using social media platforms to connect with and talk to strangers, and the implications of this for our understanding of Chinese kinship.

Numerous anthropological accounts have stressed the importance of familiarity and kinship as the basis of social relations in China, effectively placing strangers completely outside the realm of prescribed social relations. For example, China's foundational anthropologist Fei Xiaotong asserted that "the basic methods of human interaction in rural society rest on familiarity … these methods cannot be used with a stranger".

This emphasis on kinship and familiarity as the basis of social relations become problematic when applied to data from a 15-month ethnography of social media use in a rural Chinese town, which showed participants did not always place strangers that they meet on social media outside of their network of social relations. Instead, they often treat social media as a ready source of potential friends with whom they are eager and willing to interact. Sometimes it is these strangers who individuals in fact feel they can confide the most in, and be able to share the most intimate feelings - or experiences - with.

As such, the evidence presented in this paper poses a fundamental challenge to the foundational principles of Chinese kinship, in addition to pointing towards the need for a broader understanding of kinship that incorporates the possibilities of play and experimentation.

Old people's emoticons and generational distinction: Chinese families on social media

Author: Gabriele de Seta (Academia Sinica)  email

Short Abstract

How do pervasive digital media influence familial relationships across generations in contemporary China? This paper draws on ethnographic research and presents a series of vignettes illustrating the tensions and contradictions emerging when families become articulated through new forms of mediation.

Long Abstract

In the People's Republic of China, digital media have been routinely associated with youth, the segment of society that has historically adopted new forms of communication with the most enthusiasm. In recent years, this equivalence is becoming less and less accurate: particularly in light of the popularization of mobile devices and Internet access, widening populations of middle-age users embrace digital media platforms, opening up new market opportunities and broadening the scope of online interactions, but also challenging existing social relationships - particularly in the familial domain.

Taking stock of the central role that the family traditionally plays in Chinese society, this paper begins from a straightforward question: how do increasingly pervasive digital media influence familial relationships across generations? My starting hypothesis linked the widespread mediated sociality among Chinese families to the persisting importance of kinship guanxi and filial piety in contemporary China. Further ethnographic research evidenced a contrasting possibility: that digitally mediated family relationships were carefully nurtured as a way to cope with accelerating social change and the accumulation of inter-generational gaps that have come to characterize Chinese modernity.

From passionate collectors of "old people's emoticons" to epistemological rifts between parents and children, and from the rapprochement of distant cultural and historical experiences to the searing politics of distinction between compressed generations, this paper draws on an ongoing engagement with Chinese digital media platforms and the practices of local users to present a series of vignettes illustrating the tensions and contradictions emerging when families become articulated through new forms of mediation.

Rethinking kinship on social media

Author: Xinyuan Wang (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the role social media plays in kinship among displaced Chinese rural migrants. Acknowledging the ways in which people deal with changes in life through social media, this paper further argues that social media has become the place where new social norms about kins emerged.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on findings of a 15-month ethnographic research project into the use of social media among Chinese rural migrants in a Chinese factory town. China now has 260 million rural migrants - the biggest migration in human history. One of the major problems these displaced migrants face is that they have been uprooted from rural communities which are based on kinship and guanxi (social relations) networks which used to offer essential support for individuals. The ethnography surprisingly shows that, for most rural migrants, especially the young generation, social media is not used for connecting with left-behind kinship, but to rebuild a new kind of social relationship online, which in return, challenges the very understanding and expectation of kinship.

This paper first examines the motivations and situation of Chinese rural-to-urban migration in order to understand the use of social media in terms of maintaining and establishing social relationships. After that, a detailed analysis of people's actual social media use is provided to give a close look of how social media, on the one hand, has visualized a new kind of kinship which has not been experienced in the traditional hierarchical paternalistic society and has allowed personal privacy for the very first time; and on the other hand, how it has selectively transplanted some aspects, such as the practice of folk religion and ancestor worship to an online environment.

From fictive kin to fictive friends

Author: Daniel Miller (University College, London)  email

Short Abstract

Despite developing the concept of fictive kinship, anthropology has ignored the rise of fictive friendship. This paper explores fictive friendship within three ethnographies. It then explores the impact of kin `friending’ on social media and its transformative consequences.

Long Abstract

The study of fictive kinship is well established in anthropology for societies where kinship dominates social relations to the extent that it becomes the primary idiom for other relationships. This paper argues, however, that we have neglected the opposite phenomenon, which is surprising, given the emphasis from Beck, Giddens and others on voluntarism in contemporary relationships. In many societies today friendship is valorised to such an extent that mothers want to be their children's best friends. The paper examines the overall trend towards fictive friendship. We then find social media platforms creating a process of `friending' which led to the iconic moment when `my mother asked to friend me.' But this turns out to be a two way process and fictive friendship applied to kinship on Facebook then led to striking changes in people's attitude to and use of Facebook. Examples of the tensions that result from fictive friendship on social media are taken from fieldwork in England, the Philippines and Trinidad and used to explore cultural diversity in fictive friendship,

Networking minimal kinship and maximal friendship in Southeast Italy

Author: Razvan Nicolescu (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

The paper suggests that in small urban places in the southeast of Italy social media created in a short period of time a new sense of social relations seen as a current response to the dissolution of traditional practice of kinship and familiarity relations in the second half of the 20th century.

Long Abstract

The paper starts off from the observation that in an average town in the region of Puglia, Italy, people use Facebook to connect basically to everyone they know, and use WhatsApp to talk intensively to a handful of family members, relatives, and close friends. Building on the observation of Maurice Godelier (1989) that 'kinship emerges at the point at which it is possible to conceive the relative of a relative, and thus relations between relations,' the paper argues that the experience of social media use creates a new awareness of social relations and kinship in particular.

For example, Facebook strengthens those social relations that offline are relatively looser and weakens those which offline are relatively stronger. This creates a sense of a fairly homogenous environment where people establish relationships based on negotiated experience (Miller 2007) while also find subtle ways to respect the values they are expected to uphold. On the other hand, the use of WhatsApp is dominated by far by marital relations. The paper uses the centrality of the household in the social organisation of Mediterranean communities and its social role in order to discuss how people use WhatsApp to restore some of the traditional kinship and familiarity relations that used to be based on everyday practice, co-residence, and vicinity.

The paper suggests a few attributes for the new emerging 'culture of relatedness' (Carsten 2000) inaugurated by the dualism between Facebook and WhatsApp.

Keeping in touch: recovering kinship ties online

Author: Giovanna Bacchiddu (Pontificia Universidad Catolica, Chile)  email

Short Abstract

A group of Chilean born individuals adopted by Sardinian families and their social media interactions with each other and with their Chilean biological families

Long Abstract

When Chilean born individuals adopted by Sardinian families 35-40 years ago formed a Facebook and a Whatsapp group, they did it with the purpose of keeping in touch and discussing about their origins and their contested identity. Now that several of them are locating their biological relatives in Chile, they use the social media to communicate with them and to share their emotional experiences with the rest of the adoptees via social media. This paper analyses trends of communication between adoptees, and between adoptees and their biological families through the use of social media and shows how such media allow for a pan-emotional experience for all those involved. The communication through social media, through its immediacy, permits a recovery of lost memories for those that were adopted at around 10 years of age, allowing visual experiences to reactivate the past, and cope with it through a different perception. The visualisation of one's recently found biological relatives through video calls produces surprising and unexpected developments to the adoptees biographies and emotional lives. These are regularly (and sometimes, instantaneously) shared with fellow adoptees through social media, allowing for a 'butterfly effect' and chain reactions towards the idea of recovering lost kinship ties.

Tribes and kinship among the Kurds in the social media age

Author: Elisabetta Costa (British Institute at Ankara (BIAA))  email

Short Abstract

The paper will discuss the role of social media in shaping ideas and practices of kinship among the Kurds living in southeast Turkey.

Long Abstract

The paper will discuss the role of social media in shaping ideas and practices of kinship among the Kurds living in southeast Turkey. Kurdish young adults have been massively using social media to communicate with distant relatives and members of the extended family, lineage and tribe living in other provinces and regions of Turkey, or also abroad. On Facebook young women and men often have few hundreds 'friends' who are same-sex peers, that together with their siblings of the other sex and their older and younger relatives (not connected to the internet), can compose a whole lineage. On social media they chat, communicate, and spend time looking at relatives' images and pictures, and can feel part of the extended family or tribe.

The Kurds, with the exception of the poor peasants, have been traditionally organized into tribes that vary in size from a few thousand to more than a hundred thousand (Martin van Bruinessen). Despite Turkish state's policies of population resettlement and assimilation, forced migration, and urbanization processes, tribal loyalties and kin ties continue to remain a fundamental basis of social organization among the Kurds. However, for many young people, social media is the principal or the only place where they can maintain and strengthen relationships with distant relatives dispersed around Turkey and the world. Furthermore, the online reunification of first, second and third cousins contributes to shape a sense of belonging to the Kurdish community, and to the production of Kurdish identity.

Negotiating kinship online: bridal homes and marital woes on a Facebook group

Authors: Gulay Taltekin Guzel (Bilkent University)  email
Alev Kuruoğlu (Bilkent University)  email

Short Abstract

We investigate a Turkish online community in which women discuss home decorations and family relationships. We argue that kinship is regulated and negotiated through expertise formed and practiced in this forum; and also that strangers are accepted into one’s circle of intimacy.

Long Abstract

How is kinship and intimacy regulated and negotiated on a semi-public online forum? We investigate the "closed" facebook group "Yeni Gelin Evleri ve Çeyizleri" (New Brides' Homes and Dowries), a community with the stated purpose of discussing home decoration and dowries in Turkey. In the Turkish context, the bride (and her family) is traditionally responsible for furnishing part of the home - such as the bedroom - and is also expected to have prepared, along with her mother, a dowry composed of knitted, embroidered, and crocheted household textiles. Preceding the wedding ceremony, the dowries are placed in full display within the furnished home, and the home is made available for visits from family members, relatives, and friends - a practice called "dowry display" (çeyiz sermek / sergilemek).

In this group, women post photos of their (almost-)furnished homes, and ask for opinions. They display their dowries, in a manner akin to the dowry display ritual. As such, complete strangers are incorporated into the wedding preparation practices, which previously lay within the boundaries of intimate circles.

The group is used for an additional purpose: discussing relationship negotiations amongst family members. Young women post messages about strained relationships with their significant others, as well as their in-laws. Other members discuss what appropriate actions might be taken, and share their own experiences. As such, we argue that not only is kinship regulated through expertise found and practiced through this forum; strangers are also taken into one's circles of intimacy.

"We are a strong, big family": constructing alternative kinship on Facebook

Author: Berna Yazici (Bogazici University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the role of social media as a key medium for the emergence of alternative kin relations among those who grew up in state residential homes in Turkey.

Long Abstract

This paper draws on my ethnographic research with individuals who grew up under state care in residential homes in Turkey. Growing up in residential homes often marks one as kinless in the eyes of the wider society, leading to experiences of social discrimination both in institutional and post-institutional life. Social media emerges not only as a key medium for activism against this discrimination but also facilitates the construction of an alternative imaginary of kinship among those exposed to this discrimination. I examine how this alternative kinship formation takes place at multiple scales, contributing to the creation of social groups and networks of different sizes. I reflect upon how individuals who grew up in residential homes in different cities throughout the country get to imagine themselves as brothers and sisters, referring themselves as "a strong, big family." I also discuss how smaller groups such as those who were raised in the same residential home are constructed through kinship idioms. My discussion highlights the specific ways the very medium of Facebook contributes to the construction of these alternative kin relations, which were even extended to include me, the ethnographer in networks imagined through kinship idioms.

Kinship, religion, and social media: the case of the cult of María Lionza in Venezuela and beyond

Author: Roger Canals (University of Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

The cult of María Lionza from Venezuela is a widespread ritual practice in which spirit possession is frequent. In this cult, kinship and religious ties are closely interwoven. The massive presence of the cult on the Internet is reshaping links between believers, ancestors and supernatural beings.

Long Abstract

The cult of María Lionza (Venezuela) is an example of the so-called “Afro-American religions”. In this cult, there is a strong connection between religious ideas and notions of kinship. Family appears as an extension of the hereafter and the hereafter is also seen as an extension of the family. When a relative dies, for instance, he or she forms part of the pantheon of gods. A believer may even marry, make love to or "inherit" something from a spiritual entity. Many rituals deal specifically with the redefinition of kinship relationships.

The cult of María Lionza has a massive presence on the Internet, particularly on social networks such as Facebook. These social media platforms are frequently used by believers living abroad. The cult has adapted to the Internet very rapidly and has created specifically digital practices and discourses (such as online rituals and digital identities). Many of these online practices are related to kinship and friendship. One can, for example, become “friends” with an ancestor on Facebook, perform a “spiritual wedding” online or build a digital religious altar in which images of spirits, relatives and ancestors are connected. Digital images may also be used as religious icons.

What are the effects of these transformations on the kinship and friendship relationships off-line? How is social media changing the way in which believers conceive and perform their religion?

This paper is the outcome of a long-term research project on the cult of María Lionza in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Barcelona. (See www.marialionza.net for a recent project funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation).

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.