Home from home?


What constitutes kinship? A genealogist argues for consanguinity, a lawyer views it as a term that legally binds and a priest insists it must be recognised by God.  A superficial scan of Western history would show a consistent pattern of what our forbearers believed to have implied kinship. Yet, if we examine the relations within kinship systems more closely the only thing that becomes clear is a lack of consistency. Retrospectively this idea of perfection and exactitude within family organization seems more like a fallacy than a fact. According to some right-winged politicians traditional family values are in jeopardy. But, what exactly is endangering them? The nuclear family, which rose to fame during the industrial revolution, is apparently on the brink of disappearance. Yet, the ideal of a singular mother, father and child living together in a state of perfection has never really been practiced. This is especially true in a day and age where step-relations, fostering, adoption, co-habitation, etc. are becoming increasingly frequent.

As early as Lewis H. Morgan’s work with indigenous peoples of the Iroquois tribes in the northeast of the United Sates and southeast of  Canada during the mid-1800s, rudimentary classification systems of kin have appeared erroneous. The relationships were far more complex than had originally been imagined by earlier anthropologists. Their system encompassed principals that prevented warfare by the creation of a brotherhood between five distinct nations. Within those, tribesmen and women that lived within longhouses were considered family, even if they lacked blood ties. This complexity within kinship systems was consistent with natives throughout North America, tribes within Africa and Asia and even peoples living in cities in Europe. There seems to be a natural human desire to oversimplify the intangible, and it became especially easy through the process of ‘othering’.  As we look deeper into how families worked it become increasingly apparent that kinship could no longer be based merely upon relationships formed by common ancestry or blood-relatives.

One big, happy family?

In fact one might argue that a student flat constitutes a sort of kinship system. This is not to say that living with other students is congruous to living in the traditionally conception of a harmonious family. In the Western hemisphere, where  Judeo-Christian values have been especially impactful in the creation of laws and social norms, there has been an attempt to undermine any type of kinship that is not biological or recognised by a formal institution (such as the church or the law). The ‘traditional’ family has been placed on an arguably unattainable pedestal. Yet modernity has attempted to make more ‘unusual’ relationships appear the norm. This is not to say that kinship was historically always within the boundaries of these values, but perhaps more unusual systems were purposefully ignored.

Living with a wholly new group of people can be one of the most atrocious events of a student’s life. If only there was a dime for each time a friend complained about their flatmates. But if you think about this carefully, does it differ that much from a ‘regular’ family? You are co-existing within a confined space for a lengthy period of time, much like you would within any kinship system. Though it may seem unnatural, thanks to those Judeo-Chrisitan values one was brought up with, to classify those within a student flat as participating in a kinship system, we are in fact living much like a family. Common spaces are shared, meals are shared and from this you garner a special relationship with those you are living with. Flatmates quickly become more than friends. Anthropologist George Murdock believed that kinship was defined as ‘a social group characterized by a common residence’. This is obviously true of any student flat.

A new type of family

If we are regarding a kinship system as a way of organizing individuals socially, then a shared house has a degree of affinity. For the most part we have selected who we will live with (much like a marriage), and so although it is different from a consanguine tie it is there nonetheless. These are people who we will eat with, sleep with, share our space with. Throughout our lives we experience different spheres of kin. We begin with the tiniest, most intimate sphere, consisting solely of the mother who keeps us alive. It then expands as we become older and go to school. For most children a school day is around seven hours, which is probably more time then they will spend with their biological and culturally pre-determined relatives. Your schoolmates, teachers, coaches become your kin. Finally you arrive at university, rent your own house and enter another orb of kinship. Much like a regular family there is fighting, but similarly high levels of bonding. It would be difficult to spend a nine months with someone and still feel your relationship was on par with that of an acquaintance or friend. There is something much deeper than that, whether it is bordering on hatred or love.

For decades anthropologists have tried to compartmentalize the lives of families, tribes, villages and dynasties. Classifications such bifurcate, lineal and generational are created by scholars to neatly sum up our complex, chaotic ties and relations with other people. Of course it is easy abhor these oversimplifications, even if they do help clarify what we are meant to be studying and examining. To me at least they just seem too detached from the living creatures and intricate relationships they are describing. Kinship seems to be a much more social term than a genetic one. Biology and cultural norms only account for a part of what we determine is within our kinship system. If this is indeed the case, then we should all view our flatmates as members of a tiny family. Maybe when you move into that shiny new flat (or more likely in St Andrews dark and old) you should make your new flatmates aware of this. Perhaps you could even elect a substitute mother? You know, someone to do the dishes and the laundry?


Alexandra Rancourt 

Image 1 – Evil Erin

Image 2 – Roogi