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  1. On Professor Roy Wagner’s Analogic Kinship: A Daribi Example

    April 13, 2012 by Fan

    On Professor Roy Wagner’s Analogic Kinship: A Daribi Example


    Fan Zhang


    In Analogic Kinship: A Daribi Example (1977), Roy Wagner proposes a kinship theory drastically different from the Structuralist approach he frequently refers to in the paper. The emphasis on human agency, creativity, responsibility and diachronic realization and contingency distinguishes his theory from the determinism of the latter. His data collected from the New Guinea Daribi people, at the same time, underscores the idea that universal male dominance over female is a cultural construct.

    Wagner puts forward the idea that kin differentiation is a social fact, not a natural fact assumed traditionally. Kinship system, thus, is not a result of integration of existent natural differentiation but the invention of differentiation (Wagner 1977:623). The direct purpose of marriage, from this point of view, is not to join different genders assumed to be naturally separate but to separate individuals from their initial solicitude.

    Wagner’s concept of solicitude corresponds to his mentor David Murray Schneider’s idea of “enduring, diffuse solidarity” which Wagner quotes in the paper (Wagner 1977:623). Further investigation of Schneider’s earlier text from his American Kinship: A Cultural Account (1968) results in such passage that is worthy of contemplation:


    “… it is possible, in real life to engage in sexual intercourse or to avoid. But it is difficult in real life to go about in a state of love, manifesting enduring diffuse solidarity. (Schneider 1980:61, emphasis is mine)”


    Wagner discusses the interdiction between a man and his mother-in-law later in the paper (Wagner 1977:629) but he never discusses explicitly the relation between son and mother.

    However, it is exactly between son and mother that an enduring solidarity is most pronounced. The separation of a man from his initial solicitude, thus, can be hypothesized as primarily the separation of a son from his mother. We have seen abundant ethnographic data supportive this hypothesis throughout this course, especially in male initiation rites across New Guinea Highlands.

    Since human relations are naturally similar to each other and they are culturally differentiated, the created differences are thus contingent: there is an unavoidable “essential similarity” flows between differentiated relations. The human responsibility, thus, is to locate this unavoidable similarity and compare other similarities – which are naturally flow among themselves if they are not regulated – to this very core essence. In turn, human distinguishes morally desirable flow of similarity from morally undesirable flow of similarity (Wagner 1977:624).

    Wagner shows Structualist’s influences despite his criticism of latter’s synchronic and determinist approach. In particular, he follows Structrualist’s example in an attempt to incorporate the totality of human phenomenon from (native) human biology to cosmology to kinship and to economy. He differentiates three types of human relations where the flow of similarity takes place. Besides the essential relationship and its flow, there are total relationship and  particular relationship (Wagner 1977:624-627). Particular relationship “exemplifies essence” while total relationship is “the aggregate of all the kinds of relationship represents a homologue” (Wagner 1977:624).

    Without proposing universal contents of this essence-particularity-totality scheme, Wagner focuses on the Daribi case where he carried out field work.

    The essence for Daribi people is male seminal fluid and its flowing across social relations. One of Wagner’s key points is that this flow is first of all diachronical or corresponding to life cycle. The incorporation of synchronic flow via external objects and methods such as exchange of meats and women is secondary to the initial flow. This emphasis on diachronical orientation is termed by Wagner as “analogical model” while Structuralsit synchronical model is termed as “homological model” (Wagner 1977:633).

    From this essential flow, particular flows are generated. The key event in generating other flows which also creates the totality of culture and society, in the Daribi case, is the creation of basic dyad through betrothal. The very fact that after betrothal mother-in-law taboo becomes paramount to future grooms indicates the difficulty separation of son and mother sentimentally if not sexually mentioned above.

    What generates the economic flow is the native assumption of male contingency as opposed to female sufficiency (Wagner 1977:628). This assumption unites native human biology with social hierarchy, kinship system and economic exchange. The lack of enough seminal fluid which is crucial in maintaining lineality gives males moral or cultural responsibility to gain meat. The exchange of women in the kinship system corresponds to the exchange of meat. In other words, marriage becomes the exchange of seminal fluid between males. This is a conclusion corresponding to our readings of symbolic or ritual homosexuality observed in various New Guinea Highland tribes.

    Wagner’s key contribution may be his integration of Levi-Strauss’ horizontal exchange system into a vertical and more biology-based scheme. At the same time, he re-opens the dichotomy of the West and the Rest in this paper, which may have invited later postmodernists’ interpretations or distortions.




    Schneider, David Murray

    1980 [1968]. American Kinship: a Cultural Account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


    Wagner, Roy,

    1977. Analogic Kinship. Ethos, Vol.15(2): 623-642.