‘Don’t count on the family to fulfil impossible missions’: An Interview with Maurice Godelier


On the occasion of the first anniversary of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in France, the anthropologist Maurice Godelier deconstructs the a priori idea that kinship is the fundament of society.

Where is the family, one year on from the signing into law of marriage for all on 23 April 2013? Opponents of gay marriage have not ceased to deplore the debasement of the family, the new government no longer devotes a ministry to it, and the partisans of medically assisted procreation (PMA) and surrogate pregnancy (GPA) are still waiting.

A report on parentage co-signed by the sociologist Irène Théry and the jurist Anne-Marie Leroyer was published this week (see Libération, 9 April). At all of 80 years of age, Maurice Godelier – one of the greatest French anthropologists – has seen worse: from Oceania to Africa, he has studied all sorts of forms of kinship bonds, always starting from the situation on the ground in order to challenge myths and a priori assumptions. He tells us not to expect the family to fulfil impossible missions like the restoration of society. An ex-Marxist and still a materialist, he has not ceased to ‘keep his own thinking independent of the ruling opinions and ideas’.

Cécile Daumas: Is the family at the foundations of society, as claimed by the opponents of marriage for all?

Maurice Godelier: For these opponents of equal marriage, who have principally come from Christian backgrounds, marriage is a sacrament: the union of a man and woman before God, and with God. This very fact forbids divorce. But we must distinguish this Catholic dogma from the philosophical assertion advanced by many thinkers from Antiquity onward according to which the family is the fundament of society. This assertion constitutes a fundamental theoretical error. The family plays an essential role in the construction of an individual, since children everywhere require care by adults in order to survive. So this is not a question of minimising the importance of the family and kinship links, but rather of not counting on the family to fulfil illusory missions.

But even in our secularised society, haven’t we seen the persistence of this idea, accentuated by the crisis, that the family is a fundamental value?

In a society where social binds are weakening and unemployment is spreading, it is normal that you would come to rely more on your family or friends. But on the theoretical level – and I say theoretical, not philosophical – of the analysis of social realities, nowhere and in no era has family been the fundament of society. Family does not give you an airport, an army or a mobile phone. What makes a society exist is the social relations that establish the sovereignty of a certain number of social groups over a territory, its inhabitants and its resources. Whether of a tribal character or at the level of state power, all forms of sovereignty up until the French Revolution combined or fused political and religious authority. Was not the ancien régime a monarchy based on divine right? But everywhere, whether attached to faith or not, the social relations that founded a given form of sovereignty simultaneously enveloped, traversed and subordinated the kinship links and groups that belonged to this social whole.

How would you analyse the transformations of the contemporary family?

In France, the separation of Church and state made religion a private matter. Civil marriage became the only kind of marriage recognised by a state that declared its own secularism [laïcité]. Moreover, the Declaration of the Rights of Man opened the way to a gradual diminution of the inequalities in the status of men and women, except as regards their wages. The generalisation of capitalist relations in all branches of production and commerce entailed a further redistribution of the population toward new industrial and urban centres. Families were dispersed and their members were often separated when they had their own children. Kinship was more and more reduced to the closest links among the most direct ascendants and descendants.

Today, marriage is no longer a necessary condition for founding a family, nor, of course, for living as a couple. A couple does not a family make. And more than a third of unions end within seven years, on average, on account of a separation or divorce by mutual consent. Hence the multiplying numbers of recomposed or single-parent families, where, in 95 percent of cases, it is a single woman who raises her children.

Is there a link between capitalism and family recompositions?

Our economic system relies on a de facto inequality in access to capital, and engenders differences in the accumulation of wealth and means of subsistence that the state attempts to reduce. It also affects kinship links, in that it promotes each person’s self-centred individualism and marginalises practices of solidarity. The lengthening crises have trapped entire populations in poverty or precarity, negatively influencing the relations between adults as well as between parents and children.

New forms of individual solitude have appeared. Social workers and private associations try to ‘repair’ (heterosexual) families in difficulty and even to ‘retrain’ adults as parents. But the difficulties in exercising authority over children or over school pupils do not only come from parents or teachers, since the individualism promoted by the system in which we live simultaneously acts on all institutions: the family, schooling, business, etc. As well as on each one of us.

You say that a child is more than its mum and its dad…

For my book Metamorphoses of Kinship, I chose thirty among the 160 societies that I analysed in order to see how they viewed the making of a child. All considered it necessary for a man and a woman to have sexual relations: but this is never enough to make a child. In a matrilineal society, only the woman is a parent. The sperm only contributes to a foetus that is made by the mother, with the help of one of its ancestors, incarnated in her body. After the child’s birth, it is the maternal uncle who exercises authority over it and not the woman’s husband, to whom her children do not belong. There is thus some logic to these representations that translate their kinship system. And for more than two thousand years, for Christians sexual relations in marriage have also not completely sufficed for making a child. It is also necessary that God intervene to give the foetus a soul, which is immediately marked by the original sin passed down the generations since Adam and Eve, hence the need to cleanse it through baptism. This is no longer the vision that the life sciences present us.

Today could this third element be the new procreation technologies?

These technologies offer us unprecedented perspectives. Never did any myth envisage two women making a baby! In order to write my book on Lévi-Strauss I studied more than three thousand births. I found miraculous births and pregnant men, but never two women making a baby! Modern science has offered this opportunity, and couples have taken it up.

How, as an anthropologist, have you understood these new forms of kinship?

When, fifteen years ago, the public authorities asked form my comments on the then newly-emerging question of families with same-sex parents, I looked into my anthropologist’s ‘back catalogue’ and found nothing! Of course, even in ancient Greece they knew of both male and female homosexuality, and in Africa there were marriages among women without sexual relations. So I was heading down the wrong path. I chose a historical method.

And how far did the history validate your point of view?

Starting from the fact that today a certain number of homosexuals would like to establish a family with the approval of the law, I sought to understand how this demand became possible over the course of history. I understood that it was the product of the confluence of three major transformations that have taken place in the West. The first began at the end of the eighteenth century with the value attributed to childhood and children already in Rousseau’s Émile, and culminated in 1959 with the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The child now became a whole, separate person and a bearer of rights. The second transformation took place in the twentieth century in the scientific field. Homosexuality ceased to be treated by medicine as an illness that needed a cure, and by psychology as a perversion. In parallel with this, observation of male chimpanzees and bonobos demonstrated that these primates – the closest to our own species – were heterosexual when females were available, and had relations among individuals of the same sex when they were not.

Starting in the 1960s, homosexuality thus came to be seen in the eyes of science as another, normal sexuality, and it necessarily followed from this that humans are also bisexual by nature. But in different societies and periods homosexuality has been either harshly repressed (Saudi Arabia, Uganda, etc.) or valued as a means of promoting elites such as in ancient Greece, Rome, etc. The conditions were thus in place for homosexuals – whether women or men – to want to both live according to their own sexuality and to follow their desire for children. And there was a third condition that allowed a political response to their demand: in a democracy, if a minority demands rights that do not take anything away from the rights enjoyed by the majority of the population, then sooner or later these rights will be accorded to them. And this was accomplished – in part – by the promulgation of the law on marriage for all.

You are in favour of the legalisation of surrogate pregnancy. Why?

Surrogate mothers allow women who have oocytes but regularly have miscarriages to have children. When the baby is born, it is genetically and socially attached to the man and woman who wanted to have it. Interviewed at the National Assembly’s commission hearings during the debates over marriage for all, I heard opponents of this legislation cite the case of Ukrainians who have children for well-off European couples or that of Indians who after having had twelve children have a thirteenth to sell for a profit – I find all these arguments scandalous. We are not in Indian caste society or post-Soviet Ukraine. France is a democratic country whose forward movement must be based on its own democratic standards. Surrogate pregnancy is an extension of parenthood. The state must provide a legal form authorising this practice.


Translated by David Broder

The interview was originally published by Libération.