21A.01 | Fall 2019 | Undergraduate

How Culture Works


Ethnographic Assignment 1: Diagram a Set of Social Relations (Kin-Based or Not)

Inspired by Malinowski’s diagram of Kula (see page 82 of Argonauts of the Western Paciflc), and by Parsons’ diagram of mid-century middle-class American families (see page 23 of the article “The Kinship System of the Contemporary United States” (PDF - 2MB)American Anthropologist 45, no. 1 (1943): 22–30), this assignment asks you to diagram a set of social relations. The relations may be kin-based or not, but they do need to be established enough to constitute a chartable social unit. Something like grocery store transactions probably won’t yield a very interesting diagram (…unless you notice the same people coming back and forming social ties in and through that grocery store).

To go about this, you will need to:

  • Observe how people relate to each other—paying particular attention to status relations and material exchanges: what sorts of entitlements and obligations come with the different positions in your social diagram? Are these entitlements and obligations a good marker of social distance?
  • Ask the people involved what they think about these relations, paying particular attention to the significance of the terms people use to describe them. Do the people in the structure you’re diagramming recognize it as a structure? Can they tell you about how these relations changed and how they worked in the past?

Then, after finding a social structure and diagramming it, write a short essay (2–3 pages) describing your diagram and the way you went about constructing it. What relations did you take to be significant? What data did you gather to understand this significance? How does your diagrammed social structure speak to our class discussions and readings?

Please put your diagram (and/or your experience of producing it) in conversation with at least one of the texts assigned for this class.

The only relation I ask you not to write about is your own family.

Good luck!

Student Example

“The Family Line System of Theta Xi” (PDF - 1.5MB)

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2019
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples