David Murray Schneider was among the leading contributors to symbolic anthropology and the study of kinship. He defined culture as a system of meanings and symbols and emphatically distinguished culture from the social system. Schneider also made important contributions to Micronesian ethnography. From the 1960s through the mid-seventies, he was a powerful force in the University of Chicago’s anthropology department. He was instrumental in founding the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania. And, through his analysis of kinship as a cultural system, he became arguably the most important precursor of postmodernist deconstruction in anthropology.
Schneider was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918. His parents were Eastern European immigrants and political radicals. He attended Cornell University intending to major in agricultural bacteriology, but, largely under the influence of R. Lauriston Sharp, he switched to anthropology.
Following a brief stint of graduate work at Yale, Schneider was drafted into the army. Upon his discharge, at Margaret Mead’s urging, he was admitted to Harvard’s new doctoral program in social relations. There he studied under anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn as well as sociologists George Homans and Talcott Parsons. A period of fieldwork on the Micronesian island of Yap in 1947-48 led Schneider to conclude that his predecessors’ work on kinship was “absolutely all wrong,” and he devoted his career to developing an alternative approach.
In 1955, Schneider coauthored with Homans Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes, a book that criticized Claude Levi-Strauss’s structural analysis of the prevalence of matrilateral over patrilateral cross-cousin marriage. That led to a vituperative debate with British anthropologist Rodney Needham.
Schneider’s most widely cited book is American Kinship: A Cultural Account, in which he employed kinship to illustrate his approach to studying culture. He attempted to eliminate prior assumptions, identify the meanings and symbols through which community members define their own cultural units, and use his interpretive insight to elucidate the order underlying his informants’ cultural system. The result was a view of kinship that differs from the common-sense perspective held by most American natives but was intended to make that commonsense perspective intelligible to the critical observer. He argued that kinship is a cultural system, not a set of biological facts. Americans use biological relatedness as a symbol in terms of which kinship is defined and differentiated from other cultural domains, but the application of that symbol is not dictated by objective biogenetic reality. Later, he argued that at the cultural level it is impossible to distinguish kinship from such other domains as religion and nationality. Ultimately, he claimed that kinship is merely an anthropological construct that does not exist in any known culture. His last major work, A Critique of the Study of Kinship, explored the implications of kinship’s (alleged) nonexistence and how the illusion of its existence had distorted cultural analysis throughout the history of anthropology.