Susan McKinnon

Professor, Emerita

  • Ph.D. University of Chicago 1983


Cultural anthropology; gender, kinship; hierarchy, exchange; science studies; Indonesia, the United States.

As a cultural anthropologist, my research and writing have long been focused on issues relating to kinship, marriage, and gender. I am fascinated by their cross-cultural and historical diversity, by their centrality in the structures and dynamics of hierarchy and equality, and by the way certain scientific texts have transformed their culturally-specific manifestations into universal facts of nature.

I began my investigations by thinking about the significance of kinship and gender in the creation of social hierarchy and equality. In a restudy of Raymond Firth's ethnography of Tikopia and, later, in my 1991 book, From a Shattered Sun: Hierarchy, Gender, and Alliance in the Tanimbar Islands (eastern Indonesia), I examined how relations of hierarchy and equality are created through the articulation of differentially valued relations of kinship, marriage, gender, and exchange. This work has also been integral to the development of a broader conversation among socio-cultural anthropologists and archaeologists about the usefulness of Lévi-Strauss’s concept of “house societies” for an understanding of the emergence of social hierarchy. 

Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies (2001), edited with Sarah Franklin, explored contemporary transformations in kinship (and kinship studies) in the wake of the new reproductive technologies, the biogenetic and information technologies, gay and lesbian relations, and the global political economy and the resulting transnational migrations of people and cultures.

A critical appreciation of the history of kinship studies and anthropological theory is central to much of my research and writing.  In "Domestic Exceptions" (2000), for example, I revealed how the particular analytic concepts and domains used by Evans-Pritchard had the effect of disassembling Nuer understandings of social relations, of misrepresenting the Nuer as patrilineal and egalitarian, and of obscuring the hierarchical dynamics of Nuer society.

Over the years I have been interested in tracing the ways in which different forms of kinship and marriage have been used as signifiers of what is considered “backward” or “modern” in the meta-narratives of social evolution, development, and modernization that have been at the core of social theory for the past 150 years. In a School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar volume, Vital Relations: Modernity and the Persistent Life of Kinship (2013), Fenella Cannell and I challenged the reigning presumption that "modernity" is marked, in part, by the separation of kinship from economic and political relations; and papers in the volume explored the myriad relations between kinship, economy, nation, and religion in so-called "modern" societies. And in a book I am writing writing on the sitmatization of cousin marriage in the US, I explore eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American understandings of the relation between different forms of marriage and different types of polity and the way the prohibition on cousin marriage was tied to ideas about being a modern nation and a democratic republic.

I am intrigued, more broadly, by the ways in which culturally specific ideas of kinship and gender are "naturalized" as universal scientific truths. I have written on this topic in connection with American scientific conceptions of incest and also in critiques of evolutionary psychology. In Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture (2005), co-edited with Sydel Silverman, we brought together a multifaceted argument from the four fields of anthropology to challenge and offer accessible alternatives to reductive theories of human social life that currently saturate the American popular media. Following upon this initiative, I wrote Neo-liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology (2005).  In this Prickly Paradigm Pamphlet, I mobilized anthropological understandings of the diverse cultural arrangements of kinship, marriage, and gender to argue against the claims of evolutionary psychology that (Western) gender attributes are both universal and genetically determined.

Selected Publications

2021 - The American Eugenics Record Office: Technologies for Terminating 'Degenerate' Family Lines and Purifying the Nation. Social Analysis 65(4):23-48.

2019 - Cousin Marriage, Hierarchy, and Heredity: Contestations over Domestic and National Body Politics in Nineteenth-Century America (Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology.) Journal of the British Academy 7:62-88.

2019 - Reading the Contested Forms of Nation through the Contested Forms of Kinship and Marriage. In The Cambridge Handbook of Kinship, Sandra Bamford, ed., pp. 605-628.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2017 - Kinship Particularism and the Project of Anthropological Comparison. In Human Nature and Social Life: Perspectives on Extended Sociality. Jon Henrik Ziegler Remme and Kenneth Silander, eds., pp. 150-165. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2016 - Doing and Being: Process, Essence, and Hierarchy in Making Kin. In The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Anthropology. Simon Coleman, Susan B. Hyatt, and Ann Kingsolver, eds., pp. 161-182. New York: Routledge.

2016 - Tempermental Differences: The Shifting Political Implications of Cousin Marriage in Nineteenth-Century America. Social Analysis 60(2):31-46.

2015 - Productive Paradoxes of the Assisted Reproductive Technologies in the Context of the New Kinship Studies. Journal of Family Issues 36(4):461-479.

2013 - Vital Relations: Modernity and the Persistent Life of Kinship (with Fenella Cannell, eds.). Santa Fe: School for Advance Research Press.

2013 - Kinship within and beyond the "Movement of Progressive Societies." In Vital Relations: Modernity and the Persistent Life of Kinship. Susan McKinnon and Fenella Cannell, eds., pp. 39-62. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

2013 - The Difference Kinship Makes (with Fenella Cannell). In Vital Relations: Modernity and the Persistent Life of Kinship. Susan McKinnon and Fenella Cannell, eds., pp. 1-38. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

2008 - Afterward: Adoptive Relations in Theories of Kinship and Modernity. In Relative Power: Changing Interpretations of Fosterage and Adoption in Pacific Island Societies, Jeanette Dickerson-Putman and Judith Schachter, eds. Special Issue of Pacific Studies 31(3/4):232-247.

2005 - Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture (with Sydel Silverman, eds). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2005 - On Kinship and Marriage: A Critique of the Genetic and Gender Calculus of Evolutionary Psychology. In Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture. Susan McKinnon and Sydel Silverman, eds, pp. 106-131. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2005 - Neo-liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology. Prickly Paradigm Pamphlet Series. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2002 - A Obliteração da Cultura e a Naturalização da Escolha nas Confabulações da Psicologia Evolucionista. Horizontes Antropológicos [Brazil] 16:53-83.

2001 - Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies (with Sarah Franklin, eds.). Durham: Duke University Press.

2001 - The Economies in Kinship and the Paternity of Culture: Origin Stories in Kinship Theory. In Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon, eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

2000 - The Tanimbarese Tavu: The Ideology of Growth and the Material Configurations of Hierarchy. In Beyond Kinship: Social and Material Reproduction in House Societies. Susan D. Gillespie and Rosemary Joyce, eds., pp. 161-166. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

2000 - New Directions in Kinship Study: A Core Concept Revisited. Current Anthropology 41(2):275-278.

2000 - Domestic Exceptions: Evans-Pritchard and the Creation of Nuer Patrilineality and Equality. Cultural Anthropology 15(1):35-83.

1996 - Hot Death and the Spirit of Pigs: The Sacrificial Form of the Hunt in the Tanimbar Islands. In For the Sake of Our Future: Sacrificing in Eastern Indonesia. Signe Howell, ed., pp. 337-349. Leiden: Research School Centre for Non-Western Studies, University of Leiden.

1995 - Houses and Hierarchy: The View from a South Moluccan Society. In About the House: Lévi-Strauss and Beyond. Janet Carsten and Stephen Hugh-Jones, eds., pp. 170-188. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1994 - American Kinship/American Incest: Asymmetries in a Scientific Discourse. In Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis. Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney, eds., pp. 25-46. New York: Routledge.

1991 - From a Shattered Sun: Hierarchy, Gender, and Alliance in the Tanimbar Islands. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

1990 - The Matrilateral Transference of Power in Tikopia. Journal of the Polynesian Society 99(3):227-264; 99(4):341-371.

1989 - Flags and Half-Moons: Tanimbarese Textiles in an "Engendered" System of Valuables. In To Speak with Cloth: Studies in Indonesian Textiles. Mattiebelle Gittinger, ed., pp. 27-42. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History.

1988 - Tanimbar Boats. In Islands and Ancestors: Indigenous Styles of Southeast Asia. Douglas Newton and Jean Paul Barbier, eds., pp. 152-169.  New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.