Book Review: Cousin Marriages: Between Tradition, Genetic Risk and Cultural Change

Cousin Marriages: Between Tradition, Genetic Risk and Cultural Change. Alison Shaw and Aviad Raz, eds., New York: Berghahn Publishers, 2015, 238 pp.

Cousin Marriages: Between Tradition, Genetic Risk and Cultural Change brings together chapters from geneticists and varied social scientists to build a current and cross-disciplinary examination of cross-cousin unions. Any good introduction of an edited volume should hang together well as a stand-alone discussion, and editors Shaw and Raz succeed by introducing the current complexities of a topic so many categorize as medically perilous, anti-modern, and socially indecorous. They smartly follow with two informative, foundational chapters bringing readers up to speed on the basic concepts needed to engage the theme at depth. The first covers prevalence and outcomes of consanguinity in the modern world (Bittles), and the second reinforces some basic genetic knowledge while explaining the steps toward calculating risk for consanguineous reproduction (ten Kate et al.). These informative pieces alone offer up quick teaching tools for medical anthropologists looking to utilize basic science knowledge to lay the groundwork for considering the interplay between nature and culture of cousin wedlock.

In the introduction, the editors propose a frame that splits this theme into three aspects: social and cultural analysis, medical representation of risk, and their “synthetic perspective” that combines the previous two to open up the spaces truly between tradition, risk, and change. Some of the chapters feel shimmied into this well-considered category, but overall the volume offers the reader illustrative and informative discussions of cousin pairing in Europe and the Middle East in today’s socio–medical contexts while taking the time to recognize the heterogeneity of its modern manifestations.

As a scholar who works with the cultural and medical fallout of consanguinity among the Pennsylvania Amish, I am grateful for a concise and well-paced book covering this larger theme from multiple perspectives. The utility of Cousin Marriage does not end, however, with researchers who have a direct stake in the issues. This book addresses an often oversimplified and misunderstood theme in both the science and culture of mating and does so using clear viewpoints with each chapter setting its own tone.

This kind of flexibility delivers just the kind of material that plays well among medical anthropology students and future health care providers receiving anthropological training. For example, read on its own, a chapter covering marriage practices among British Pakistanis and the engagement of some in that community with medical genetics services (Shaw) provides readers with a crisp balance between traditional practices, epidemiology, clinical services, and issues of representation contemporary settings. Even more, read in contrast with its surrounding chapters, case studies like this one elucidate the interplay between varied concepts of marriage partners and the body politic in a globalizing world.

After putting this book down, two broad concepts linger—handling risk and geneticization. Overall, the book offers a frank discussion of real risk in these types of mating pairs and how that risk can be both better understood and better managed. The editors bring in the concept of “healthy consanguinity” as a goal for applied recognition of these socio–medical middle grounds. To that end, the last three chapters of the volume deal with the direct management of risk (Zlotogora, Raz, and Teeuw et al.) and emphasize case studies around the necessity of guidance, screening, or genetic counseling in some form or another as a mediator between scientific probabilities and social possibilities. These detail real-world struggles reflecting the lived experience of those touched by health concerns resulting from close-marriage in their lineage. The kind of cross-disciplinary middle ground required for well-executed counseling and screening within a given community is just the type of synthesis that medical anthropologists should be getting excited about.

Cousin Marriages also intersects with how considerations of genetic risk between mates, and particularly those with close relations, help illustrate our fall into the geneticization of our biological and subsequently social realities. This is the kind of geneticization that Nikolas Rose describes as a “grid of perception,” pushing marriage, career, and reproductive decisions toward a struggle for potential optimization reflective of our biological makeup. Indeed, Kuper’s afterword invites the reader to finish with an enjoyable piece discussing cousin marriage in Victorian England as part of this distinct history. The afterword recalls a clear move toward thinking about risk as a deterrent for these unions and an early shift in the geneticization of our thinking as it was linked to class and gender. Even outlining Darwin’s own struggles in this regard, Kuper’s history of medicine piece finishes the book well—with the type of satisfying background we medical anthropologists love to retrieve from our tool belts and wave around to make our points about the social construction of medicine.

A clear weakness in this collection is the concentration on a limited geography. Focus on the Middle East and modern Europe provides the reader with a valuable picture of these regions and their connections to one another, but there is surely a gap left in the conversation for missing contexts across the rest of the globe. This is a danger, certainly, in pulling together a thematic volume of pieces wedded by a practice that happens worldwide. Just as this slice of the planet illustrates variability and change, the reader is left with questions of how these lessons expand or extrapolate within other cultural, geographical, religious, socioeconomic, and genetic settings.

Despite that gripe, the examples and overarching presentation of this volume are important as we look for continued ways to bring together the questions of the localized social histories of cousin pairing with any potential for biological deleterious effects. In this way, the real contribution of the book is in its own wedding of two disciplinary cousins—medical anthropology and genetics. Each field and their associated subfields hold their own histories of interpreting kinship. This volume brings those voices to a marriage of interdisciplinary as it weaves together contemporary studies from both perspectives.

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