Finding the heart of kinship

  • Michelle Elmitt

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


This is a study on the intelligibility of love in social families. Using field research
from contemporary Australia and Bahir Dar, Ethiopia it examines the ways that
adults are performing in loving relationships with non-biological children to
make their relationships intelligible, particularly when spoken language may not
allow articulation of the intersecting lines of desire, conflict and loss. The
examination occurs across different social worlds, where the divide between
biological and social kinship differs, and anticipates revisions of kinship in all its
complexities. It involves analyses of fifteen face-to-face interviews and provides
interpretations of the emotional and psycho-social phenomena revealed in the
interviews both academically and through a creative writing process.
In this research a rich theoretical tapestry is woven to investigate the complex
and multifaceted lived experiences of the participants, as well as the possibilities
of love and kinship that arise. Key to this is an engagement with Judith Butler’s
work, in particular Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000).1
Butler’s work helps to uncover tensions and ambiguities that arise when
relationships are formed amid a current of opposing discourses, particularly in
societies which persist in privileging the nuclear family model, and make the topic
hard to talk about. Her concept of performativity also provides a means of
understanding why each family is doing things differently. Foucault’s concept of
subjugated knowledges2 is another structuring thread throughout this
investigation. It informs my aim of bringing to light and interrogating the buried or
hidden knowledges of social parents to uncover alternative discourses and possibilities
for action.
The dissertation includes six chapters. Each chapter contains scholarly and
fictional analysis of the fieldwork, which consists of interviews with fifteen participants: eleven adults parenting children in step, adoptive, foster and same sex
families in Australia, and four adults who have adopted children in Ethiopia.
In line with a reflexive methodology based on visual ethnography, the fifteen
participants were invited to bring photographs of themselves with their nonbiological
children to discuss with me in one-hour long unstructured interviews.
In Ethiopia I was accompanied by a co-researcher, Mr Temesgen Beyene.
In the scholarly analysis of the fieldwork I review discourses to capture the effects
of the many power-plays that influence the participants, and I explore playful and
creative spaces where the subjects’ inner and outer worlds may meet in ways that
foster loving relationality, drawing from Donald Winnicott’s Playing and
Reality (1971)3. It is my intention, through such a focus, to cast light on the way
that processes of love and aspects of the unconscious interact. The fictional
analysis, by way of creative writing methodology, works through some of the
more immeasurable emotional phenomena, and highlights moments of conflict,
confusion and ambiguity in the interviews and scholarly analysis. It explores the
more immeasurable emotional, haptic and affective information that was
conveyed outside of spoken language and leaves space for the reader to navigate
some of the confusions and tensions that arise in the participants’ descriptions of
their relationships for themselves. It also incorporates the researchers’ lived
experiences and positions more fully into the research.
The findings indicate that, while loving relationships in social families can be
confusing and fragile, people are reworking discourses to find ways of making
them intelligible. In some cases adults appear to be creating transitional spaces
where differences might be negotiated, and intersubjective relationality can
develop in complex psycho-social terrain. In other cases, adults appear to be
making use of such spaces that already exist. Just as Antigone’s Claim anticipates a
social revision of kinship — where the unwritten rules are examined and new
possibilities of fulfilling family relationships can emerge — the findings of this
study anticipate a social revision of kinship where the hegemony of biological
relationships weakens and people come together in new kin-like formations to
extend ideas of what family, home and kinship are.
Date of Award2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Canberra
SupervisorPaul Magee (Supervisor) & Bethaney Turner (Supervisor)

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