Friday, May 28, 2010

Kinship terms: age or relationship?

Kinship enjoys a special place in anthropology. Understanding how people are bound into a family is considered the first (and most certain) step towards understanding how people are bound into a society. Such relationships, because of their structure, acquire regular patterns in regards to the age-relationship interface or the gender-relationship interface as far as consequences of the relationship are concerned (like flow of respect, roles allotment, etc.). If a relationship broke this pattern in structure, it gives curious results.

Having recently attended a wedding, I found myself left with such a peculiarity: my maternal uncle (mama) had come too; he was only sixteen years old. I, being almost twenty, couldn't bring myself to call him mama. At least not seriously, as one usually does by force of being related in that way, unaffectedly. Nor could he give any credulity to my constant addressing him as mama and found it shameful at best. Relation-wise, he is superior to me, meaning one generation ahead. But age-wise, he is far younger. So is it that one's age determines the relationship that one assumes with others, on the spot? This reminds me how people spontaneously enter into relationships on streets, in trains, during economic transactions, etc. Chacha, kaka, bhau, bhaisaab, taayi, Sir, boss- each call, along with other factors, has a consideration of age involved. Misplacing these factors could give funny but insightful results (the epithet dangerous is not altogether ruled out). Age is more active a factor in setting up the relationship between two people, at least more so than formal expectations, which evaporate in front of it.

Further thinking about this provisional leads us to another question: how well can one know someone's age at first glance? Mostly, the answer to this depends upon the situation. For a sixteen year old encountering a sixty year old with white hair and loosened skin, the age difference would be most apparent. However, we must not consider loosened skin and white hair the same as old age. Its only too apparent that age never comes at the same time to all. Attributing predicates to subjects is always a tricky thing if left to speculation. To a three year old girl, a boy seeming ten year old could be anything from a nephew to a brother to an uncle (even a grand-uncle, if one could but stretch one's imagination), though he may invariably be interpreted as one of these (grand-uncle being the least likely, brother being the most). Given that it is impossible to make such lengthy calculations (due to lack of means of thought that are precise) , one makes do with available modes of reasoning (approximate precision from appearance). So further sharpening our idea, its the momentary appearance of age that plays a more important role in this entire business.

However, if we were to put formal relational ascriptions completely out of the picture, we would find it difficult to confront certain questions: how do those attributes invoke precisely those kinship terms? Why does appearance get tagged with age? I think at play is a scenario in which the mind has certain basic relational indicators to operate with, imbibed with growth and association, which one puts to a pass or fail test during active situations. Because appearance is something that holds more certainty than age in mere situations (as opposed to situations with knowledge), the relation-building process follows its lead more than that of accurate relations in the network of the family.

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