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Expanding beyond our project – kinship in the light of social media

By Daniel Miller, on 26 July 2016

The recent meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists in Milan was the first time we have engaged in a collaborative consideration of a topic linking our team’s research with that of others working in similar research areas. The chosen topic was kinship in the light of social media. From our own team, Elisa spoke about the use of social media for reconstituting tribal identity amongst Kurds, Tom spoke about how rural Chinese actually seek out strangers using social media, Xinyuan discussed the use of social media to re-orientate from kin to other forms of socialisation and Razvan discussed how people in South Italy re-constitute kin within wider relationships. My own paper was on the development of ‘fictive friendship’, i.e. how kinship is increasingly modelled upon friendship.

But for us the most interesting development was seeing our work in juxtaposition with the work of others. Gabriele de Seta of Academia Sinica Taiwan presented the aesthetics of visual posts by older Chinese users of social media and how these are strongly differentiated from those that had been established amongst younger users. Giovanna Bacciddu of Pontifica Universiad Catolica Chile, explored the use of social media to connect Chilean birth parents with their children who had been adopted in Italy. Gulay Taltekin Guzel and Alev Kuruoglu of Bilkent University Turkey, showed how religious Muslim newlyweds in Turkey establish a site to discuss the moral and other norms of married life. Finally, Roger Canals of the University of Barcelona looked at how kinship and religious ideals are interwoven in the aesthetic of social media representations of the cult of Maria Lionza in Venezuela.

Taken as a whole the session, which produced a very lively and engaged discussion, showed why this will always be a central topic within the anthropological study of social media. It is not simply that the family is one of the foundations for so much usage of social media, including new platforms such as WhatsApp. Nor even that social media is often important in itself for helping people create new relationships with kin which may include the repair of ruptures in the family thanks to migration, but it can also mean creating new distance from kin in favour of other forms of sociality. Above all it became evident that we cannot understand the development of social media itself, except through seeing it in part as a reflection and manifestation of wider changes in kinship relations and the rise of other relationships models such as the stranger or friendship. Fortunately, the study of kinship is perhaps the single best established tradition in anthropological scholarship and it seems a very productive means to re-engage this traditional scholarship with an entirely new medium.