Biological kinship and the construction of positions

Through the times there have been many ideas regarding what constitutes the being of the human subject: religion, race, class, gender and culture are examples of human features, which have been viewed as essential to the individual’s self. To J. David Velleman, one such essential element consists of the biological ties shared with one’s family, which to him is a premise for any healthy identity[1]. If having such an identity then is something which is to be valued, so he argues, it follows that it is immoral to create human life where the offspring has no chance to get to know who she is with regards to her biological ancestry, as is the result of donor conception for instance[2].

In this essay, I aim at comparing Velleman’s arguments with theories of identity formation to see what such theories tell us about the value, which Velleman lends to biological kinship. I will also use culture as an example to view how such social features relate to identity. Since Velleman is concerned with the themes identity, self-image and self-knowledge, which overlap but all have a different meaning, I will for our purpose use the term position to describe a central standpoint the individual establishes for her to view the world as meaningful and having a coherent context.

Velleman on kinship and identity
According to Velleman, knowing our relatives and especially our parents provides a knowledge of ourselves, which is of irreplaceable value to personal identity[3]. This is reflected by the fact that most people rely on their acquaintance with biological relatives in constructing their identity[4]. Prominent in Velleman’s identity formation via kinship is the narrative concept, defining ourselves in the terms of a story which puts everything in context. To Velleman, thus knowing our biological family enables us to integrate authentic stories into our own identity[5]. In the case of adoptees, he holds that they may find meaningful positions from narratives about their adoptive families, but they lack the most important stories about themselves[6]. The biologically related narratives are what he calls family-resemblance, which qualifies individuals as belonging to the same family and are vital to the process of bonding and the social realm of the family[7]. To Velleman, this resemblance is deeply rooted in one’s self-concept, which includes information not only about how one looks, but also about personal traits and characteristics[8]. Many aspirations are directed at fulfilling family-resemblance concepts, trying to live up to certain criteria which reproduce the family-resemblance[9].

Heritage and Culture
As Norqvist and Smart note, Velleman’s theory rests on the idea that the individual’s constitution is linked to origin, a paradigm, which has manifested itself around many human features[10]. Genetic heritage shares this foundation with racial biology, which in our time has developed into the discourse of culture[11]. Just as kinship, culture too is often held as something essentially defining of the individual. Culture is also compelling as a source for positions, for it offers a predefined narrative and gives certainty about where one comes from and who one is[12]. Just as family-resemblance, cultures thus offer schematic stories, which help their members to bond and interact[13].

Having identified similarities between culture and kinship, we can now move forward to the critique of culture as establishing a dichotomy between socially constructed positions in the same way that biological racism does, claiming that the individual is inescapably determined by her origins[14]. According to Haslanger, such theories fail to explain individual development: even though a person should directly relate to some cultural group, her position often turns out to be unexpectedly different[15]. For instance, being an Afghan in Sweden cannot be the same as being an Afghan in Afghanistan since not only is the meaning of Afghan different, but one is also faced with many other circumstances in a specific time and place which influence one’s position, including the unique experiences of the individual[16]. The same thing should hold for family narratives, where Velleman seems to be taking for granted that knowing ones’ ancestors’ narrative automatically triggers some fixed self-knowledge, which can be incorporated into one’s position[17]. Instead, drawing on the same source of kinship relation, even siblings often have very different conclusions about their family history and how it affects their position[18].

Relative identity
Velleman holds that positions do not consist of loose facts of one’s past, but are processes of telling stories[19]. However, focusing merely on one specific narrative neglects the many other factors which shape the individual[20]. As our position is built up from an endless source of influences, Song and Haslanger argue that positions are not only complex but also vary; the individual possesses layers of positions that are negotiable and are used in different situations[21]. If I have access to both a German and Danish position, one of these will be more defining of me in certain situations, depending on social expectations and which position I myself may choose to apply[22]. It thus becomes utterly hard to pinpoint some essential position, if what I am positioning myself as is always relative to the specific situation.

A related observation regards the development of the individual’s position over time, which is steadily in progress, on her way to becoming or turning herself into something[23]. This seems intuitive to us when we reflect upon how we ourselves change and confirms the observation made by Song, showing how ethnic identities change over time[24]. Here too it becomes hard to extract some essential position, if positions are in steady flux.

What we have seen thus far, is that positions are relative and relational. They are also constructed in relation to other individuals, which includes the family, but potentially everybody else too[25]. A third consideration thus arises which holds that our position is formed by the dialectic of identity and difference[26]. A position is thus not only formed by the recognition of who I am like, such as my family, but also of who I am not like. With regards to the culture example, it has often been noted that a certain Swedishness could not have been constructed without an anti-thesis. Such experiences of sameness and difference occur at home, having a different gender than one’s siblings for instance, in the playground, at university, at work and so on, forming complex webs of meaning and interpretation of the self[27]. This is another problem for the idea of biological kinship being essential to the individual’s position, for what the individual meets in her surroundings also intrudes upon the manifestation of the kinship narrative.

Coercive structures
Even though positions are not fixed, control of one’s position is often a hard thing to attain, for what position one is expected to hold underlies coercive discourses. Culture can again be taken as an example, for it on one hand may structurally justify discrimination and stereotypes, on the other hand, the ones being discriminated may themselves believe in the idea that they in fact are different due to the cultural paradigm. In several studies, Foucault shows how based on certain social norms, the normative and the unnormal become separated, with those not fitting in, the docile bodies, being socially and institutionally coerced into certain living conditions[28]. Furthermore, when situating people in a certain situation and constructing their entire reality around the position they are being coerced into, the docile bodies often start believing in this construction and reproducing it[29].

In the same spirit, Norqvist and Smart show how the norm of being biologically related to one’s parents has been incorporated in society and how this plays into the treatment of individuals. As in Foucault, people who did not fit within the model of biological kinship were often seen as undesirable or as harming their children[30]. As they note, English family law works on the presumption that children born to a married woman were the legitimate offspring of her husband[31]. With new family structures developing, this relation became more and more complex with the result that the state abolished anonymous gamete donation in all UK licensed infertility clinics, so that all children conceived in this way are at least institutionally entitled to receive identifying information about their donors[32]. The most significant policy overlap between donor conception and adoption is to Norqvist and Smart precisely in this area of creating and/or sustaining links with genetic parents[33].

Haslanger holds that such norms regarding what constitutes a healthy position is culturally specific and located within social structures[34]. When Velleman thus states that most individuals form their position via biological kinship and it hence must have special value, this does not make it natural or essential but like culture remains part of a social reality[35]. One of the main observations which Norqvist and Smart are able to make, derives precisely from the constructed idea of the individual’s position, which is assumed to stem from correct knowledge about one’s genetic forebears[36]. This norm manifested itself socially and institutionally so that it had a profound impact when somebody did not fit into this norm. Not knowing one’s father thus brought with it many problems and much adversity in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, having few rights and a stigmatized status[37]. This was the reason why parents of adopted children were often advised not to mention to others that their children were adoptive, since this would discriminate the children and make life hard on them[38].

As Norqvist and Smart note and what the current emphasis on the right to know one’s genetic parents shows, is that the question regarding genetic connection cannot be fully ignored for it indeed does play a great role for individual’s position. However, this is not due to it’s intrinsic value or relation to the individual, but because of it’s rootedness in a culture and the awareness of it’s members what it means to fit or not fit into this norm[39]. As Haslanger notes, identity problems arise for adoptive children not simply because they have been told they are adopted, but because there are conflicting cultural values around them[40].

Whilst not refuting that biological kinship may have some special place in the production of a position, the text has established doubt which the theory as presented by Velleman needs to take into consideration. We have doubted that biological kinship has an intrinsic value to the construction of healthy or authentic positions. Using the analogy of culture, we questioned a determinism, which holds that a narrative manifests itself in a predictable way and showed that in fact people turn out in very different ways. We have also seen that positions are not only complex but relative and ever changing, being influenced by our surroundings and dialectic structures. All of this questions, if Velleman can argue for biological kinship as an essential or natural part of the individual’s position for it questions the idea of one essential position itself. However, another way to argue for Velleman would be that kinship has functional value, for it seems that most people construct their position in such a way. Here we have cast doubt on such claims by showing that what constitutes a normatively healthy position, such as culture or kinship, is socially constructed and reproduced by society. If identity problems occur, this must not necessarily be because the individual lacks some important narrative of herself, but because she is aware of the normative which disqualifies her.


De los Reyes, Paulina – Mångfald och Differentiering – Diskurs, olikhet och normbildning inom svensk forskning och samhällsdebatt – Arbetslivsinstitutet 2001

Foucault, Michel – Discipline and Punish– The Birth of the Prison –Penguin Books, London 1991

Gren, Martin, Hallin, P.O, Molina, Irene (red.) – Kulturens plats/maktens rum – Brutus Östlings bokförlag, Symposion 2000

Hall, Stuart – Representation – Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices – Sage, The Open University London 2003

Haslanger, Sally – Family, Ancestry and Self: What is the Moral Significance of Biological Ties? – Adoption & Culture (2009) 2.1., URL:

Nordqvist, Petra; Smart, Carol –  Relative Strangers – Family life, genes and donor
– Palgrave Macmillan Studies in Family and Intimate Life, 2014

Song, Miri – Choosing Ethnic Identity – Polity Press, Cornwall 2003

Velleman, J. David – Family History – Philosophical Papers Vol. 34, No. 3 p. 357-378, 2005;

[1] Velleman, p. 357

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 364

[5] Ibid, p. 363

[6] Ibid, p. 376

[7] Ibid, p. 365

[8] Ibid, p. 366

[9] Ibid, p. 368

[10] Norqvist, Smart, p. 24; Haslanger, p. 15

[11] Gren, Hallin, Molina, p. 142; Des los Reyes, p. 14; Song, p. 7

[12] Norqvist, Smart, p. 24

[13] Haslanger, p. 21.

[14] Gren, Hallin, Molina, p. 10; Des los Reyes, p. 57

[15] Haslanger, p. 15

[16] Song, p. 9

[17] Norqvist, Smart, p. 24

[18] Ibid, p. 118

[19] Velleman, p. 363

[20] Norqvist, Smart, p. 25

[21] Haslanger, p. 8, 25; Song. p. 17

[22] Song, p. 10

[23] Norqvist, Smart, p. 25; Des los Reyes, p. 59

[24] Song, p. 17; Haslanger, p. 8

[25] Norqvist, Smart, p. 26

[26] Des los Reyes, p. 13; Hall, p. 237

[27] Norqvist, Smart, p. 26

[28] Foucault, p. 138

[29] Ibid, p. 264, 266

[30] Norqvist, Smart, p. 11

[31] Ibid, p. 21

[32] Ibid, p. 22

[33] Ibid, Smart, p. 22

[34] Haslanger, p. 12

[35] Ibid, p. 26

[36] Norqvist, Smart, p. 23

[37] Ibid, p. 24

[38] Ibid, p. 20

[39] Ibid, p. 123

[40] Haslanger, p. 17


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