Friday, July 4, 2014

The Woes of Capitalism: Kinship, Sociality and Economy

Last semester, I chanced upon reading two subjects, anthropology of kinship and human ecology. There were certain topics in both the papers, which keenly analyzed the nature of human sociality in contemporary times. In kinship, we read about the onset of reproductive technologies and their vis-à-vis impact on kinship in western societies and transformation of the “joint family” in Indian kinship society and in human ecology, we read about the progression of industrial revolution transcending the national boundaries, moving across the world and giving rise to the concepts such as capitalism and globalization. When I was going through the subject matter, I could not help noticing a causal relationship between transformation of ecology and its impact on the kinship system. I will try to present an evolutionary account of the interaction of kinship and capitalism.

Kinship is perhaps one of the fundamental features of human social organization. Lewis Morgan, one of the founding fathers of Anthropology, pioneered kinship studies in the late nineteenth century. Though his conclusions regarding the evolution of kinship are nearly invalid today, kinship has been a cornerstone for anthropological research since then. Kinship refers to a set of social relationships which are patterned in a society through the principles of consanguinity and affinity. Every individual forms a kin group, where he recognizes different relationship. Most of the relationships come with pre recognized etiquettes and norms and every individual have to oblige them as such. Of course, individual variations are there, but on a societal level, a discernable pattern emerges.

In order to understand the significance of kinship in economic sphere of a society, we need to step back a little in time and try to understand its origin.  From an evolutionary standpoint, kinship as a system of group living is highly developed in humans, owing to the social and cultural development. But a curious look at the sociality amongst our primate cousins, we can find some homologies with them. Bernard Chapais, a renowned primatologist, has put forth a cornucopia of examples to demonstrate the various aspects of human kinship systems in various primates. For example, he found among macaques a tendency to favor the matrilineal relatives in terms of sharing food resources, supporting their kin in conflicts and helping other ‘uterine’ relatives to acquire a dominant status in their group hierarchies. Moreover, a discernable pattern to recognize maternal kin, exceeding four generations sometimes, has been recorded. There are various other anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and primatologists who have engaged themselves in understanding the basics of human sociality by meticulously observing the furtive lives of various primates. The primates who practice group living, have some figments of kinship, albeit restricted by biological relations with humans as exceptions who have somehow transcended the bounds of biology in the domain of kinship. Nevertheless, I brought up the fact of kinship in other primates to recognize it as an adaptive strategy for group living. As we can see from the example of macaques, the kinship bonds are used to access and manipulate resources, help each other in various activities and assert their dominance in the group to ensure survival. This example elucidates the role of kinship in primate sociality. Sociality here refers to the capacity of an individual to engage in social activities, which is a prerequisite for group living.

The evolution of sociality in humans has been remarkable. As shown by evolutionary biologist robin dunbar suggested, there is close link between the extent of social relationships found in a society and their neocortex size. Humans have an exceptionally large neocortex which might explain the extraordinarily developed social living in humans. As per his research, humans can have around 150 social relationships. Out of these 150, there are different groups arranged according to the intimacy level. The core group constitutes more or less, five individuals and an extended close group, consisting of nearly fifteen individuals. Beyond that, there are other social relations labelled as friends, acquaintances etc. Dunbar’s work shows us the crucial aspects of evolution of human sociality, both in neurological and anthropological sense. Kinship has been a significant part of human social sphere since its beginning as the group living adaptive strategy manifested itself in the form of kinship.
If we take a look at the preindustrial societies, we find that, what anthropologists refer to as descent group, are the primary element of social grouping. Descent groups essentially work as corporate groups sharing cultural, social and economic responsibilities. A common household, basically composed of close relatives collectively take up the subsistence activities. Take the case of the Nuer, a patrilineal cattle herding group with a distinct Kinship organization to regulate the economy. For example, the Nuer males tend to the grazing and the other related activities, while the females milk the cows and take care of other small animals. A kinship based domestic group caters to the economic organization among Nuers. Different forms of kinship system prevail in different communities with equally diverse ways of regulating economy. The ceremonial gist exchange, bride-wealth, bride-price and dowry are also principally based on the alliance system. Similarly, the concept of “undivided Hindu Joint family” elucidates the role kinship plays in the matter of property rights and economic activities.

The role of kinship has reduced significantly, more so in economic sphere in the post industrial world. Before the industrial revolution, the economic pursuits of every society were primarily a domestic activity involving kinship. But after the emergence of capitalism, a consequence of industrial revolution, the role kinship played in economy has changed. Here, we need to recognize a certain evolutionary force at work. As Darwinism says, there is a constant struggle for survival between individuals of a species for resources. The struggle was taken together by the kin group as a whole to meet their need for resources. But with the inception of capitalism, an indirect means to acquire resources came into force, namely money. A market based economic system, where money can be used to acquire resources changed the way of struggle. Now, a discrete focus on attaining money overshadowed the collective efforts of kin groups. Capitalism not only aided in establishing an easy access to resources, it also created abundant means to procure money and gave rise to the concept of profession. Professionalism, as we understand it today, is a development under capitalistic regime. The competition began for professional specialization to meet the needs of the populations. It has driven the post industrial society to a point where severing kinship ties would not harm one’s access to resources.  Professionalism, unlike kinship, emphasis on talent and output and thus, limits the scope of social ties, which were profuse abundantly in the kinship system. Moreover, the emphasis on individualism also impacts the kinship system directly. A constant need for individual freedom has changed the dynamics of our social organization. Individualism essentially nullifies the role kinship played in economic activities, thus reducing the function of kinship to a symbolic recognition of our normative social ties. A more severe impaction of capitalism on kinship is the struggle it has introduced within the kin groups by the means of commodification of resources. In order to claim maximum resources, a fair Darwinian struggle has ensued in an institution which once served the function to ensure their survival as a group.
The reduction of kinship to a symbolic system has just begun, though its effects can be recognized.

 As I perceive it, the breakdown of the economic function of kinship is followed by instability in the social bonding between humans. Kinship provided both economic aid and social needs. But, capitalism has swept over the economic functions of kinship and thus, profoundly affecting the role it played in socializing. As we are neurologically predisposed to maintain stable social ties, decreasing relevance of kinship in acquiring resources is causing a distress on our minds which is recognized as stress, anxiety, depression and such other disorders. The increasing number of mental ailments caused by unmet social needs is one of the characteristic features of the population residing in metropolitan cities. The social brain that was, once, a corroboration of our success in the living world is becoming a cause of distress. Perhaps, it is the beginning of a new evolutionary discourse or maybe it is an ephemera; we can only guess, we may never know.

Putting the aforesaid views in a Darwinian perspective, every aspect our lives seems to have an evolutionary significance. As the social environment is changing, it is directly causing a commotion in the fitness of individuals. Only those strong enough to endure this shall determine the future of human species

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