Social topologies (2/3). The House

In a previous post I introduced some considerations about the use of topology as a method in anthropology, and briefly presented a first case study about conceptions of the body in the tattooing process among a minority group in Yunnan province, China. In the meantime, this exploration has become a larger collective project around the idea of “Topology as Method”.

As announced in my first post, this second short essay moves up a scale and takes up the notion of “house” as an analytical category on the basis of an ethnography I carried out in a Tibetan community in a valley called Drapa (Zhaba) on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, and in light of some considerations about regional comparisons of kinship systems.

In this mountainous valley, many households are made up of brothers and sisters, who live with their own mother, maternal aunts, and uncles. Children live with their mothers, and though their fathers/genitors are generally known, they do not cohabit; partners do not marry but maintain their relationship through what is generally called the “visit system” in anthropological parlance. The Na (Mosuo) who live further south across the border with Yunnan province, have become famous in popular media internationally for practicing a similar sexual visit system.

While such a case, as has been argued for the Na, may force us to question some of our assumptions about family, in particular its relationship to marriage, my purpose here is to reframe the question from the perspective of the main identifiable social unit: the house. As an ideal-type, the house is therefore a consanguineal household: a co-residential kinship group that includes no regularly present male in the role of husband-father. (Which does not imply they do not exist.) Its constitutive set of relationships are horizontally that of brother/sister, and vertically that of mother/child and avuncular relation. While the temporal continuity of the house is ensured through the constitution of a matriline, the pair of siblings is a constitutive internal duality of the house. I will return to this point further on.

The organizing principle of a household in relation to the visit system is matrifocal, and for these domestic units a mother and her dependent children are the most significant and sufficient members for ensuring its continuity. A continuity that is not expressed in terms of a shared inherited substance (bone or blood) but through the use of a house name. The tangible and intangible property of the household (that is of a given generation of siblings) is inherited by the subsequent generation of siblings (with no gender distinction). In other words, where there is a predominance of the visit system, we find a matrifocal principle, and for most people the household is their only basic social affiliation.

If we look through the lens of the house as the main social unit, we come to realize that in many cases matrilineal descent is not what is at play here: unilineal descent may not be relevant to describe household characteristics and their variation. There seems to be a great variety of cases, and it is not uncommon for a house to end up with members who have no direct blood relationship with their ancestors. To ensure the continuity of the house, several strategies exist. For a given generation, in the case where the women in the household only have sons and no daughters, for example, one of the sons will marry and a wife will enter the house. Similarly, if there are no sons, it is possible to arrange for a man to marry in. As a result, we see a system whereby the gendered dyad of siblings is transformed and replaced by a married couple (with in one case a woman from outside, and in the other a man from outside) to maintain the unity of the house. The continuity of the house is expressed through the continuity of its name.

This is where I think we can draw on Lévi-Strauss’s notion of “house”, with some potential comparative value for the larger region of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands. What is important for my purpose is not so much to rely on the notion of “house-based” societies per se but to think of the house as a particular kind of space. Let me remind you of Lévi-Strauss’s definition of a “house”:

“a corporate body [a moral person] holding an estate made up of both material and immaterial wealth, which perpetuates itself through the transmission of its name, its goods, and its titles, down a real or imaginary [descent] line, considered legitimate as long as this continuity can express itself in the language of kinship [descent] or affinity [alliance] and [or], most often, of both” (Lévi-Strauss 1982 and [1987], as quoted in Gillespie 2000: 27).

The notion of “house” emphasizes residence as a means of regulating membership, and allows us to escape descent-centered typologies. My point here is to emphasize that the continuity of the house in Drapa should not be regarded as dependent on a rule of matrilineality but as the combination of various factors that together make up the conditions for its reproduction. The “house” as a continuous category, perpetuating itself in spite of the changes caused by endless births and deaths of people living in it, is what interests me here in exploring the socio-symbolic complex of relatedness and belonging.

Contrary to household, house is used as a term that simultaneously refers to a social unit and a physical structure, and should be considered within a more complex set of relations that connect the building, the members of the house, and the forces associated with them, such as fortune, luck, prosperity, etc. Such an approach to the “space” of the house goes back to Henri Lefebvre (among others) who saw the house as permeated streams of energy, a nexus of incoming and outgoing conduits (Lefebvre 1991, 93). It is of particular relevance here to mention, for example, that up to two generations ago residents of Drapa who were known for having exceptional luck (suide si) – which would bring prosperity to the house – would not be taken out of the house after their death. Their body was buried in the ground near a wall of the house, or alternatively some of their bones were kept in a cache within a wall of the house so that their luck remained in the household and continued to benefit its members.

Therefore, the space of the house, considered not only as a building but as the spatial formulation of kinship and other principles is an expression of a social morphology where the inside/outside and other polarities are at play, and where the continuous production of difference in relation to the production of similarity is articulated.

In sum, I argue that rather than being seen as practices dependent upon a particular kinship rule, even if set in the appropriate ecological, political and economic context, several kinds of marital practices (polyandry, uxorilocal marriage and virilocal marriage) and forms of sexual partnerships (the visit system and matrifocality) coexist logically within a particular social organization – with the “house” at its core. In other words, my preliminary analysis of my ethnography in Drapa leads me to consider the “house” as the locus for primary social relations and as being at the center of the web of relatedness and forms of inclusion and exclusion. I do not propose that we use “house” or “house-based” societies as a typological model. I propose that we pay greater attention to more processual and performative forms of sociality (without presupposing that  “unilineal descent” or “marriage” and “alliance” are the norm) and their spatial anchoring: the house as a relational space. Perhaps this will allow for a reconsideration of our conceptual vocabulary in our attempts to undertake regional comparisons.


Gillespie, Susan D. 2000. “Lévi-Strauss: Maisons and Société à Maisons.” In Beyond Kinship: Social and Material Reproduction in House Societies, edited by R. A. Joyce and S.D. Gillespie, 22-52. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space, translated by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.


Stéphane Gros

Stéphane Gros is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (France), Centre for Himalayan Studies. He is the author of a monograph on the Drung of Northwest Yunnan province in China (La Part manquante, 2012), and has written numerous articles and book chapters on issues of interethnic relations and representations of ethnic minorities, poverty and categorization, as well as rituals and cosmology. He has edited or co-edited four collections of relevance to ethnographic theory, Chinese studies, and area studies. For 2012-2016, he was the Principal Investigator for a collaborative project titled "Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands", funded by a ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. His personal research currently investigates aspects of kinship and social organization, conversion to Christianity, as well as heritage politics and environmental discourses.

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3 Responses

  1. KAPLANIAN says:

    Est-ce que vous avez publié quelque part le texte que vous avez présenté au dernier IATS à Paris ? Cela m’avait beaucoup intéressé.

    • Je vous remercie pour votre intérêt. Je prépare actuellement une publication en relation à ce thème évoqué dans le billet et traité, sous un autre angle, à l’occasion de ma présentation au dernier IATS. J’envisageais une enquête de terrain cette année qui a été annulée mais le projet de publication verra néanmoins probablement le jour avant. Je vous tiendrai informé. Je suis pour ma part très intéressé par d’éventuels parallèles et possibles comparaisons dans le monde tibétain et ses périphéries que je connais mal dans leur diversité.

  1. 04/12/2019

    […] of the body in relation to tattooing and the second offered a discussion of the notion of “house” as an analytic category. With this third post, I move up to the macro-level of borders between […]

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