1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Dionisios Kavadias

PhD Graduate 2017

M.A. University of Chicago 2007
B.A. St. Mary's College of Maryland 2003

Amidst the current national economic crisis, Greeks who predict the end of the olive industry redouble their commitment to growing olives on family-owned lands, incurring personal debts and spurring relatives in Athens to migrate ‘back’ home to labor in the groves. These investments and commitments suggest that, for Greeks, olive cultivation resonates beyond just the monetary, but is getting mobilized in culturally meaningful ways in the turmoil. Preliminary research conducted in the olive growing province of Messinía, Greece, suggests that the production and consumption of olive oil creates two things essential to Messinían family relations: 1) a natural ousía, an essence or substance consumed in the form of shared food, and 2) a ‘cultivated’ peri-ousía, which in common parlance refers to a family’s fortune, property, or wealth. This proposed research suggests that basic assumptions of what it means to produce and share family relations in Messinía also inform common practices of producing and sharing material wealth. What does the cultivation of ousía and periousía mean to Greeks and how does it inform their economic strategies on an everyday basis? This proposed research aims to identify the processes with which Messiníans construct kinship substance and material wealth as analogous concepts, through ethnographic research on olive cultivation and the uses of olive oil in Messinía, Greece.

Specifically, I propose to shadow and learn from 1) olive growers in the groves, 2) mothers and wives in the home kitchen (in both rural and urban settings), 3) men at the coffeehouses, and 4) participants of ecclesiastical and vernacular rituals. This research builds on anthropological literature that pinpoints the intersection of kinship, agriculture, personhood, and the social life of ‘substance’ by taking an ethnographic look into the production, discourses, and uses of homemade olive oil in southwestern Greece. In particular, it bridges a Hellenic model of morality (that stresses boundary maintenance and ‘integrity’) to a well-traveled theory of kinship that stresses behavioral codes and the transmission of substance (especially through food-exchange). I suggest the possibility that a singular, multivocal substance—like Messinían, family-made olive oil—can shift so routinely and purposefully between the domains of kinship-making and wealth-making as to help us better comprehend the dynamic tension between the two.


Kinship, food, agriculture, nationalism; Greece; Public/digital scholarship