The fallacy of symmetry, or how Australian Aboriginal people think of kinship differently

Abstract : Australian cultures have often been used to illustrate the complexities and the formalized nature that human social organization can reach and, as Lévi-Strauss wrote, to demonstrate how Aboriginal people have “surpassed the level of empirical observation and raised themselves onto the level of knowledge of the mathematical laws that govern the system”. These approaches, believing to have discovered in Aboriginal kinship the beauty and universality of social symmetry and boundedness continue to persevere, as Allen’s tetradic theory, or the contemporary legal framework allowing indigenous peoples to claim their homelands, demonstrate. This paper will show that symmetry and boundeness — the so-called “crystalline beauty of Aboriginal kinship systems” — are at the most an indigenous meta-discourse describing the ideal of reciprocity as the fundamental value of the moral order. Indeed, far from being limited by their own systemic framework, the practice of marriage or the conception of who and what is kin are means to extend or retract sameness as a network of complementarities in which diversification, asymmetry and openness are the conditions for internal social reproduction. On the ground, Australian Aboriginal kinship reveals itself as shifting webs of connections to land (aka people) and its (their) material and immaterial resources.
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Conference papers
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https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-01395766
Contributor : Laurent Dousset <>
Submitted on : Friday, November 11, 2016 - 6:36:09 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 1:30:05 AM

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Laurent Dousset. The fallacy of symmetry, or how Australian Aboriginal people think of kinship differently. Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Hamburg University, Nov 2016, Hambourg, Germany. ⟨halshs-01395766⟩

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