SNF Sinergia Project with four research groups: Profs. Marianne Sommer (University of Lucerne), Simon Teuscher (University of Zurich), Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter and Lübeck), Caroline Arni (University of Basel).

Financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation from February, 2019, to January, 2023.

Michael Günzburger, Baum. 2007. Graphit auf Papier, 57 x 77 cm

‘In the Shadow of the Tree: The Diagrammatics of Relatedness as Scientific, Scholarly, and Popular Practice’ is an interdisciplinary collaboration of four research groups investigating the bewildering variety of diagrams that have been used to conceptualize, determine, and produce relatedness in Western Europe and in spaces of European expansion since the Late Medieval Period. Work on the ‘tree of life’ has brought to light unexpected evolutionary affinities, and the possibility to study the genetic make-up of human populations as well as to identify the place of individual human DNA within ‘the human family tree’ has impacted our understandings of relatedness. In parallel, new digital methods to visualize such relations have proliferated. Drawing on a long cultural and scientific history, such visualizations tend to take the form of a tree, reflecting the assumption that evolution and descent follow a bifurcating pattern. ‘Tree thinking’ has therefore been identified as a dominant mode of thought and the tree as a canonical icon in modern biology. Indeed, tree thinking has been made out as a general modern Western rationale that reduces relatedness to descent. Rather than tracing the history of a particular idea or icon, however, we offer a comparative analysis of diagrams of relatedness as epistemic, cultural, and political practices. The project introduces a new interdisciplinary approach to diagrammatics that analyzes diagrams as techniques that transcend such binaries as ‘thought and action’ and ‘image and text’ and includes the reconstruction of the practices of collection, observation, experimentation, modelling, drafting, commenting, explaining etc. that inform diagrams of relatedness, as well as the politics of their production and use.

Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer
Project Leader
T +41 41 229 56 15 

Main Project Research Group Marianne Sommer: Evolutionary, Cultural, and Genetic Anthropology, 19th–21st Century

The research group lead by Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer focuses on diagrams of relatedness in the diverse subfields of Biology, Anthropology, and Ethnology from the 19th to the 21st century.

Prof. Dr. Marianne Sommer
Project Leader
T +41 41 229 56 15 

Subproject: Trees in Translation: Diagrammatic Techniques in Ethnography, 1850–1975

While the importance of visual technologies like cartography, photography, and film for the history of ethnography has been widely and critically discussed, the great epistemological significance of diagrams has as yet to be recognized (for initial considerations see Bouquet 1996; Grimshaw 2001, 32–40; Ingold 2007, 109–113). The project addresses this vacuum through a reconstruction of the role of diagrammatic techniques in the formation, stabilization, and development of kinship studies from 1850 until 1975. It investigates how diagrams — at the beginning mostly pedigrees — helped to render ethnographical knowledge comparable, amenable to accumulation and standardization (Latour 1987). This is done from a longue-durée perspective, for different schools of ethnographical thought, and at different stages of ethnographical knowledge production.

Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, anthropologists have critically engaged with the colonial past of their field (for a seminal text, see Asad 1973), and since the 1990s, this engagement has surged (beginning with Stocking 1991). In this context, kinship studies have been criticized for being a product of Western bias imposed on indigenous cultures (Schneider 1984). Building on these engagements, the project aims at throwing new light on them through an analysis of the beginnings of diagrammatic practices in the colonial ‘contact zones’ (Pratt 1992). Drawing on a postcolonial and history-of-knowledge approach (e.g. Purtschert et al. 2012), the project will reveal in how far kinship diagrams might rather have to be understood as ‘pidgin knowledge’ (Fischer-Tiné 2013).

Thus, the project will open new perspectives on the history of the ethnography of kinship on the basis of the diagrammatic approach, as well as due to a postcolonial perspective, which suggests that kinship studies might not have been a purely Western product but the result of a more entangled history. The rich archival basis includes the Henry Lewis Morgan Collection (Rochester), the Torres Strait Expedition Papers and Collection (Cambridge), the Rivers Collection (London), the Claude Lévi-Strauss Collection (Paris), and the Hildred and Clifford Geertz Papers (Chicago).

Postdoc Project: lic. phil. Lea Pfäffli

Subproject: Diagrams of ‘Race’ in Human Population Genetics and Critical Theory

Doctoral Project: Ruth Amstutz

Main Project Research Group Simon Teuscher: Diagrams and Law in the Service of Social Purity, Middle Ages to Enlightenment

  • 'Diagrams and Law in the Service of Social Purity, Middle Ages to Enlightenment'
    Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Simon Teuscher, University of Zurich

Main Project Research Group Staffan Müller-Wille: The Construction of Diagrams of Relatedness in the History of Natural History and Genetics, 17th to 20th Century

Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Staffan Müller-Wille, University of Exeter

Main Project Research Group Caroline Arni: Genealogical Diagrams in an Urban Society, 19th and early 20th Century

Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Caroline Arni, University of Basel