Thinking About Kinship & Society

This post began as a stream of consciousness Twitter thread that I’ve retrofitted into a blog post.

As is always the case, both the political left and right see truths about the markets. The left is correct that money and trade reduces interpersonal prosociality (increased in-group “lovin’”). The right is correct that money and trade increases impersonal prosociality (increased stranger trust).

The question then becomes: how do we balance the two?

Markets help you with stranger danger. Norwich Market by Richard Croft is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

On the one side, mafia-like cronyism and nepotism isn’t an effective way to run a state or company. Nor is xenophobia or out-group hatred good for populous nations. But impersonal dealings lead to alienation, loneliness and disconnection. Many nation states in the twenty-first century are widely pivoting between the two extremes, and discontent is widespread.

The right has recently picked up on a general malaise felt by populations. Ironically, the out-group distrust felt by many immigrant communities leads them to cluster in small, often kinship-based, local groups, which in turn increases distrust from outside the communities at what is perceived as insularity. This feedback loop increases the separation of clusters and problems compound (this is also, unfortunately, a general story of most “ghettos” across time and geography).

Getting a balance is difficult as our political system consists of two groups taking opposing positions and shouting them at each other. Compromise or agreement in the middle with best bits of both mean both sides lose rather than win. This process is powered on steroids in 24hr social media world.

I feel this stuff is important because it seems to underlie many different political discussions – it’s lurking as the real cause of Brexit discontent and wider populism malaise. It’s about how we build a sustainable society that fits with our make-up yet doesn’t discard progress.


Traditionally inter-marriage has worked as a solution. In Western nations in the latter twentieth century, university and social norms mean that different social or intellectual groups are much less likely to mix and inter marry. For example, how you respond if your boss married their secretary? Or go through the jobs of those you meet down the local pub or café, is there a large variation?

National Mixing Service?

Schemes that actively and randomly pair different backgrounds, classes and genders to stimulate inter-group romances and friendships at a pivotal time also seem to work. Especially if such schemes involve group problem solving and group hardships as this strengthens bonds (basically forms kin-like bonds). This suggest national-service style approaches may work, with the caveat that you need proper shuffling. Private education represents what happens when you have selection rather than shuffling – you get strong in-groups with similar background that are detrimental for understanding and national governance.

One of the reasons why the UK has a core (London) and periphery (away from London) inequality problem is because age-cohorts from top private schools group up together around London and tend to settle in the area with attenuated links to local institutions.

Embedded Kinship?

Another solution is that maybe dispersed and distributed grounded kinship is not a bad thing. It suggests that tying kinship groups to companies via loyalty to those groups is not necessarily bad – banking with brother-in-law’s employer, shopping with sister’s employer etc. Thinking of the graph-linkage. Maybe companies could implement wider & effective family discounts. It also could act as a check or balance on employment- you have to treat employees well as customers are tied to the employees. However, evidence from economics suggests that these kinship restrictions also constrain growth (e.g. of credit). So there is maybe a trade-off between efficiency of economic entities and strong relationships within the community.

While nepotism has traditionally been seen as bad and inefficient, a balance between impersonal companies and sluggish single-family affairs could may be found in local multi-family ownership of key local assets and companies. Of course this generally was the case (not by choice but by technology limitations) over 100 years ago and in the early formation of the US. Increasing the interactions of family groups would appear to easily get the buy-in of conservatives.

Some of the problems we experience in the “West” are maybe a result of both the left and the right going too far in removing all kinship links – the right overemphasising impersonal transactions and mentally compartmentalising family, the left clamping down too much on nepotism and family structure as a reaction to provincial discrimination. Of course, the irony is that think tanks on both left and right have substituted belief-based groups of those with similar background (e.g. progressive university politics, unions, private education, finance etc.) for kinship groups while retaining human size and relationship limitations on groups.

Elder Council?

One big difference between developed Western societies and tribal groups is the deference shown to the elderly. Pensioners in the UK are wealthier than they were historically (those lucky enough to have assets or pension schemes), yet are increasingly isolated and lonely. General feeling suggests Western societies have swung too far to the “impersonal” side of thing. It suggests taking a leaf from tribal groups and giving the elderly more of a role in providing wisdom consultations. This could provide prestige and sociality, with the caveat that mixing of backgrounds (and age-cohort interactions) would be needed to temper a natural hardening of opinion and increasing fear of other that are often seen with old age.

Just imagine if such groups of pensioners were asked to come up with climate change solutions. It would help cement consensus and solutions would be much more likely to have sustainable buy-in.

The Problem of Political Engagement & Kinship

One often repeated problem with civil engagement is the political classes are strange and disconnected. Those that are engaged tend to rise from specific single-issue background. There is also a lot of independent wealth. This arises against the background of everyone else being too busy trending water to engage.

This is a downside to impersonal trust. The markets not only drive a constant busyness but also disconnect us from traditional free social support structures. We now need to pay for child care, social care, and senior care. These are all emotionally taxing endeavours that traditionally have needed a kinship bond to provide an inbuilt motivational “oomph”.

By basing social and community care on money we abandon those who have no money or at best replace it with an uncaring disinterested state. Not only this but the very vocabulary that is now regularly used to rationalise and support such care is that based on an accounting in impersonal monetary terms. This feeds back and strengthens alienation and isolation.

The left often underestimates the amount of social care that is performed by kinship groups and tends to push for increased spending on impersonal state support. But this is going the wrong way – phrasing the problem in the language of impersonal sociality that is part of the problem. While increased state spending is often objectively better, it’s still unsustainable psychologically.

The shame is the right is traditionally better on seeing the value of kinship structures (“family values”) but tends to frame this via a “nuclear family” lens (thanks early Christian church). It sees the family as an alternative rather than partner for state support. The right also often perceives a threat to the family from the state, which isn’t helped by the threatening language of the state often used by those on the left who fear that kinship groups have too much power.

Kinship & Care

While not perfect and not always the case, kinship groups overall tend to be better at unconditional support for those needing care. The left is right to highlight that most of the emotional and social labour was historically performed by women and has been undocumented and/or ignored by unaware political structures that tend to be primarily male. However, while the left is good in highlighting the social-binding labour performed by women, it tends to see it as a burden to be shorn, leaving a vacuum that is traditionally left to the state.

Social housing policy since World War II has generally been purposely or inadvertently designed to break up wider family structure and prevent a grounding of community roots. High house prices and mobility in last 25 years (often enable by the motor car) have compounded this. Families are often now separated. It is rarer to see different branches of the same extended family all living within walking distance.

Also state or charity support in the modern world is always conditional due to resource limitations and also to prevent fraud and free-loaders when applied at scale. In traditionally-sized kinship groups, there is no room for the latter due to group size – you cannot hide (for good or bad).

But conditional support is psychologically demanding for both the recipient and giver of care – there is always judgement and comparison and categorisation rather than presence and acceptance. Eastern philosophy warns of the dangers of the former over the latter.

So there is a tension or irony between the family and small village being both suffocating & judgemental (e.g. in modern city migration myths) and yet unconditionally supportive without explicit instruction.

Knowledge of Traditional Tribal Care Systems

It would be interesting to look into reports that examine how those with disabilities and social needs are traditionally supported in tribal groups across the globe. A quick google shows things tend to be split by academic background – anthropologists are generally good at being positive and emphasising the rich lives of care; think tanks, NGOs and governments tend to be clouded with a more “intersectionality” view (e.g. disabled + old + minority = super bad) vs a “what can we learn” view.

What does tend to come through is that the elderly are held in higher esteem, which provides a buttress to social care provision, and there is a greater integration of ages for a variety of social tasks (e.g. grandparents & sisters care for young, young assist in return).

I’m not a romantic believing in the noble savage but many of the WEIRD written reports take an overly Hobbesian view that has an over-reliance on a “rational” superiority of Institution hidden behind a patriarchal concern (basically modern missionaries).

Also as we’ve seen across the world (and uncovered recently in Canada) – the “care” of WEIRD institutions (church, state or charity) for those from tribal groups with disabilities has not been free of sexual abuse, neglect and psychological torture (or worse).

I guess the general idea is to take the best from different approaches – the acceptance of the better kin groups & inherent motivation for care but with stronger safeguards against bad actions (and actors). The latter can be based on existing ritual and belief rather than impersonal “rationality of law”.

Originally tweeted by Ben Hoyle (@bjh_ip) on 22 May 2022.

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