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Kinship is one of the universals in human society and therefore plays an important role in both the regulation of behavior and the formation of social groups. Kinship systems depend on the social recognition and cultural implementation of relationships derived from descent and marriage and normally involve a set of kinship terms and an associatedn set of behavioral patterns and attitudes which, together, make up a systematic whole. All societies distinguish various categories of relation-ship by descent or consanguinity, and most societies distinguish relationships by marriage or affinity as well. Although dictionary definitions differentiate these relationships, it is convenient to extend the term “kinship” to cover both kinds. The resulting network of social relations may constitute almost the whole social structure in some of the simpler societies or be a relatively small part of a highly complex structure, as in modern industrial societies. In either case, however, the system of kin-ship and marriage plays an important role in maintaining group cohesion and solidarity and in orienting the individual members to the social maze. The use of the term “system” implies that there is a complex relation of interdependence between the component parts: the social categories and the associated rights and duties.

Kinship systems are found to vary in different societies with respect to a number of characteristics: (1) the extent to which genealogical and affinal relationships are recognized for social purposes; (2) the ways in which relatives so recognized are classified or grouped in social categories; (3) the particular customs by which the behavior of these relatives is regulated in daily life; (4) the various rights and obligations which are mediated through kinship; and (5) the linguistic forms which are used to denote the various categories of kin. Often the domain of kinship is clearly marked off, but there are frequently metaphorical and other extensions which result in related systems or subsystems. [SeeKinship, articles onDescent Groups and Pseudo-kinship.]

The near universality of the nuclear or elementary family and its role in mating and reproduction have made it a focus for studies of kinship. Here are found the “primary” relationships of parent and child, husband and wife, and brothers and sisters, and it is possible to construct a network of genealogical relationships encompassing the whole society by extension from this nucleus. But the processes of mating and reproduction are regulated in all human societies by incest rules and social convention, and although the resulting domestic family group is often based on physiological parenthood, it is the social recognition of parenthood that provides a child with a legitimate position in society. Thus, it is often convenient to distinguish the pater,or social father, from the genitor, or physical father, and sometimes it may even be necessary to distinguish the culturally assumed genitor from the actual biological father. Moreover, in some African societies women may play the role of “social fathers,” marrying and “begetting” children with the aid of a biological father.

The family of orientation into which a child is born is often part of a larger extended family which includes many additional relatives. When an individual marries, he and his spouse may establish a new family of procreation or may join a larger family structure. Normally he acquires a new set of relatives by marriage, but in those cases where marriage is specified in terms of a particular category of relatives, his affinal relations may also be his consanguineal ones. In a few instances, as among the eighteenth-century Nayar of southern India, the family of husband, wife, and children did not exist as a social unit, and kinship was correspondingly modified. These examples indicate that the kinship system may or may not coincide with the genealogical network; in every case, the degree of relationship is a matter for empirical investigation.

The kinship categories found in various societies often cut across the distinctions that seem logical in Euro-American societies. In the latter, lineal relatives are set off from the collateral uncles and aunts, and the relatives through the father and the mother are treated in parallel fashion. But in many societies throughout the world the terms for father, mother, brother, sister, and so on may be widely extended instead of being restricted to the immediate family group. In some cases the extension is by generation, the term for father being extended to his brothers and male cousins as far as genea-logical relatives are remembered, and analogously for other relatives. In other cases the extensions may be vertical, in terms of unilineal descent groups, so that all the members of a particular lineage or clan may be classed as “fathers” and “father’s sisters,” or “mothers” and “mother’s brothers,” regardless of generation or even of genealogical connection. The resulting kinship systems often have a wide range, sometimes encompassing the entire social group, in contrast to the narrow range of many Western systems. The particular patterns of grouping kinsmen show considerable variety, and each must be understood in its own terms before it can be compared with systems based on other principles of grouping.

The patterns of behavior that prevail between relatives define their relationships and as such are an integral part of’ the kinship system. In almost all societies the family is responsible for the care and support of children during their period of dependency and for their education and training for adult life. These tasks involve both love and affection and authority and discipline. The potential conflicts and ambivalences are often resolved by the allocation of authority to one parent or the other or to some relative outside the immediate family. The relationships established in the family group are affected by generation and relative age and by similarities or differences of sex. Those members of the parental generation who are in a position of authority are entitled to obedience and respect; others may share an intimacy without subordination. Friendship and support are expected of brothers and sisters, although often there are restrictions on behavior between a brother and a sister after puberty. With relatives outside the family group there is frequently a greater variety of behavior patterns, some seemingly based on the model of relationships within the family but others representing obligatory joking or teasing, on the one hand, or extreme respect or avoidance, on the other.

During the long period of socialization within the family or domestic group, the child gradually learns the proper attitudes and behavior patterns toward his various relatives. These patterns are present in the society in terms of cultural ideals and as behavioral norms, and their observance is reinforced in a variety of ways. There is considerable evidence that in most societies children learn the essentials of kinship rather early. At marriage an individual normally acquires a whole new set of affinal relatives to whom he must make varying adjustments, depending on the patterns of residence and interaction. Marriage is frequently an alliance between two groups of kin and may be mediated by exchanges of property as well as of spouses. The individual’s relation to his spouse’s relatives is often an intensification of the attitudes of respect or familiarity he has toward his own parents and siblings. Thus he may avoid his mother-in-law for a period and may be required to joke roughly with his brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. Some societies prescribe marriage with a particular category of kin, usually “cross-cousins” (children of a brother and a sister), so that one’s new affines are also consanguineal relatives and the new behavioral adjustments are more easily handled. Such societies intensify the bonds between existing relatives at the expense of securing a new set of relatives by means of marriage. In these societies the opposition between “consanguinity” and “affinity” is often present, despite the formal absence of distinct affinal terms.

In most societies the rights and obligations of members are channeled, in part at least, through the kinship system. Thus, the right to membership in a descent group may depend on the proper marriage of the parents, in which the procreative rights in the wife have been formally transferred to the husband and his lineage. Similarly, rights to the utilization of land or other kinds of property may sometimes be secured only through member-ship in “corporate” descent groups which are both integral parts of the kinship system and units in the larger social structure. Succession to various offices or status positions usually depends on kin-ship, even though the offices are controlled by descent groups or associations. Even the rights to residence in one locality or another may be specified in kinship terms. Rights normally imply obligations or duties and are concerned with the larger society and its continuation, even though phrased in kinship terms. Many center on marriage and the resulting family and involve domestic service, labor, sexuality, procreation, and support, among other things. Where rights and duties are codified in legal or jural terms they are more easily seen, but they are an integral part of kinship behavior.

In all societies, kinship is marked by a set of relationship terms that define the universe of kin and that may be extended metaphorically to nonkin and even to various aspects of the world of nature. Kinship terms have been the center of much interest on the part of both anthropologists and linguists, and considerable progress has been made in their classification and analysis. In most societies, kinship terms are utilized in daily life, both in reference and in direct address, and often their use is required by custom. The terminological system frequently represents a distinctive subset of the lexicon, and the linguist can provide greater understanding of it by componential analysis, formal analysis, and historical reconstruction of earlier forms. There is a basic logic to kinship terminology, in that particular terms do not imply a status position so much as a relationship: the use of a particular term implies its reciprocal. Thus, if you call a man “father,” he responds with “son.” On the other hand, parallel terms in different societies may or may not have the same significance or meaning. Social anthropologists have been more concerned with the set of behavioral patterns between relatives and have tended to consider the terms used as linguistic tags representing or symbolizing the particular expected behaviors and attitudes between pairs or groups of kin. But the two systems are not always in a one-to-one relationship, and it is more profitable scientifically to consider them in a relationship of dynamic interdependence and to examine the discrepancies as possible evidence for social and cultural change.

The kinship system, in turn, has various and complex relations with the other social institutions that together make up the total social system, or social structure. Because kinship enters into economic, political, legal, and ritual relationships in various societies, there is sometimes a tendency to ignore or underestimate its significance. The function of kinship terminology in interaction is a symbolic one. Whenit is used it defines for the participants the general mode of behavior to be followed in particular social situations. The universality andenduring character of kinship suggest its importance in binding men and women together in society and providing a foundation for the building of more specific social structures.

Historical development

The scientific study of kinship systems is only a century old, but in that brief period it has engendered more controversy and a greater variety of theoretical formulations than have most aspects of human society. The early studies concentrated on the terminological systems, for the most part, and utilized them as evidence for historical relationships or as survivals of assumed earlier stages of society based on promiscuity and group marriage. The reactions against such “conjectural” history led to a denial of the sociological significance of kinship terms and to an attempted explanation in terms ofpsychological principles. This, in turn, resulted in a renewed attempt to understand kin-ship in terms of the behavioral system and with reference to the ongoing society. More recently, some progress has been made in studying changes in kinship systems over time. One recurring difficulty has been the limited number of societies for which there is adequate information on kinship systems, but this situation is improving rather rapidly. A further difficulty has been that the preliminary classifications have been based on limited criteria, and there has been a tendency to study kinship piecemeal and to search for simplified formulations in terms of causal relationships rather than to treat the complex whole.

The foundations for the study of kinship were laid by L. H. Morgan in his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family(1871). [See the biography ofMORGAN, LEWIS HENRY.] In this work, the result of more than a decade of concentration on kinship, Morganassembled data on the terminological systems he was able to collect or secure for nearly every major area of the world. He grouped the terminologies into two great classes, the “descriptive” systems, which he ascribed to the Aryan, Semitic, and Uralic linguistic families, and the “classificatory” systems, which he thought were characteristic of the American Indians, the Polynesians, and many of the peoples of Asia. The “classificatory” systems merged lineal with collateral relatives in varying degrees, in contrast to the Euro-American systems, which isolated lineal relatives in theterminology. As W. H. R. Rivers noted later (1914, p. 4), no discoveryin the whole range of science can more certainly be credited to one man than the discovery of the classificatory system of relationship to Morgan.

Morgan’s early interest in kinship systems was a historical one. Discovering in 1858 that the Ojibwa Indians had a pattern of grouping relatives that was almost identical with that of the Iroquois, who spoke a quite different language, he came to the view that kinship patterns were highly stable and set out to collect kinship terminologies in order to demonstrate that the American Indians were of common descent and had originally come from Asia. When he found an almost identical system among the Tamils of India, he felt he had proved his historical hypothesis. But in the meantime, the discovery of the Hawaiian (Malayan) pattern of terminology, which was classificatory to an even greater degree, led him to explain it as a result of assumed earlier forms of marriage for which there was no existing evidence. The resultin evolutionary development of social institutions and cultural stages presented in Ancient Society (1877) aroused extended controversieswhich long obscured Morgan’s important contributions to the study of kinship.

In America, the criticisms by Kroeber in his “Classificatory Systems of Relationship” (1909) were the most influential and far-reaching [seeKroeber]. He found the distinction between “descriptive” and “classificatory” misleading and suggested that kinship terminology be analyzed, instead, in terms of some eight “psychological principles” based on the difference of generations, the distinction of lineal and collateral relationships, the difference of age within a generation, the sex of therelative, the sex of the speaker, the sex of the connective relative, the distinction of blood and affinal relationship, and the condition of life of the connecting relative. Kroeber came to the conclusion that terms of relationship reflect psychology rather than sociology and are determined primarily by language—hence they could be utilized for sociological inferences only with great caution.

In England J. F. McLennan had dismissed kin-ship terms as a mere set of mutual salutations, in the process of defending his own evolutionary formulations for society. But Rivers, who had become interested inkinship during the Torres Strait expedition of 1898–1900, where he had developed the “genealogical method” for collecting accurate data on various aspects of social organization, re-turned to Morgan’s basic ideas as a result of his studies of Melanesian society. In Kinship and Social Organisation (1914) he proposed that kinship terminology is rigorously determined by social conditions and particularly by forms of marriage and hence can be utilized to reconstruct the recent history of social institutions. These hypotheses and the accompanying illustrations have become one starting point for the modern study of kinship systems. [SeeMclennanandRivers.]

Lowie has been the most influential American ethnologist concerned with the study of kinship. Accepting Rivers’ position that kinship terminology is related to social usages, but influenced by Kroeberas well, he sought to test the hypotheses that had been proposed against the available ethno-graphic information. His own comparative studies of the Plateau Shoshoneans and the Hopi Indians led him to the conclusion that the kinship system of the latter is functionally connected with their clan system. [SeeLowie.] He summed up his general position in a statement tha is still valid:

Relationship terms are studied by the anthropologist not merely as so many words inviting philological analysis and comparison, but as correlates of social custom. Broadly speaking, the use of a specific kinship designation, e.g., for the maternal as distinguished from the paternal uncle, indicates that the former receives differential treatment at the hands of his nephews and nieces. Further, if a term of this sort embraces a number of individuals, the probability is that the speaker is linked to all of them by the same set of mutual duties and claims, though their intensity may vary with the closeness of the relationship. ([1929] 1959, vol. 19, p. 84)

In England Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown have been most influential figures in the development of kinship studies. Malinowski, as a result of his study The Family Among the Australian Aborigines (1913) and his extended field research in the Trobriand Islands, emphasized the importance of the family as the “initial situation” for the development of kinship, from which attitudes and terminology could be widely extended. He also called attention to the significance of “sociological fatherhood” in a matrilineal society that did not recognize the genetic role; but he was more concerned with the function of kinship and other social institutions in fulfilling individual needs. [SeeMalinowski.] Radcliffe-Brown, an early student of Rivers, is the central figure in the modern study of kinshipsystems. He was the first to develop the conception of the kinship system as composed of both terminology and patterns of social behavior and to see kinship as an integral part of the larger social structure. As a functionalist he was concerned with the significance of institutions in maintaining the social system, but he went further and attempted to discover basic structural principles that were relevant to a variety of different terminological groupings and social usages. [SeeRadcliffe-Brown.]

By the end of the 1920s the preliminary classification of kinship terminologies was well underway. Morgan’s twofold classification was remodeled by Rivers, and Gifford (1922) had utilized Kroeber’s categories for the classification of Californian Indian terminologies. Spier’s classification (1925) of North American Indian terminologies into eight empirical types, based on the patterns of grouping for cross-cousins, was particularly influential. Lowie (1929) proposed a world-wide classification into four major types, based on the treatment of relatives in the parental generation. These were soon followed by Radcliffe-Brown’s classification(1931) of Australian social systems into two main types, in each of which kinship, preferential marriage, and clan groupings were systematically interrelated.

During the following decade a number of field studies were carried out by students of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown in which kinship received more adequate treatment. Firth’s studies of the Tikopia (1936), Warner’s on the Murngin (1930), Evans-Pritchard’son the Nuer (1951), Fortes’ on the Tallensi (1949), Tax’s on the Fox (1937), Hallowell’s on the Ojibwa (1937), Eggan’s on the Plains and Pueblo Indian groups ([1937b] 1962, pp. 35–95; 1950), and Spoehr’s studies of the southeastern Indian tribes (1941; 1942; 1944) are among those researches that have contributed to the development and modification of the structural-functional approach.

The clearest statement of this approach is found in Radcliffe-Brown’s Introduction toAfrican Systems of Kinship and Marriage (1950), in which he was concerned with the general comparative and theoretical study of kinship organization as an arrangement which enables persons to cooperate with one another in an orderly social life. In this discussion he compared and contrasted the cognatic system of the early Teutonic peoples with the agnatic lineage systems of ancient Rome and many modern African tribes and indicated the relevance of the principles of “the unity of the sibling group” and “the unity and solidarity of the lineage” for various aspects of social life. Here he was particularly concerned with the significance of unilineal descent in bringing about corporate kin groups that continue beyond the life of individual members and may control resources, exact vengeance, regu-late marriage, and engage in ritual. He saw marriage as essentially a rearrangement of social structure and discussed in detail the significance of marriage in various African societies. For a world-wide classification of kinship systems heproposed four types: father-right, mother-right, cognatic systems, and double lineage systems, each of which has a number of varieties.

Current development of kinship studies

In the modern period there have been a number of new directions in the study of kinship which involve both method and theory. Some of these include cross-cultural comparisons involving statistical and correlational techniques; others involve linguistic analyses building on Kroeber’s earlier categories or utilizing formal analyses; still others utilize models of various types, some derived from linguistics and others from mathematics. These studies have stimulated a great amount of new research and promise to broaden our knowledge of kinship phenomena in various directions.

Of particular significance is Murdock’s cross-cultural study of family and kinship organization in about 250 societies throughout the world, presented inSocial Structure (1949). Utilizing the postulational method and statistical analysis he found that kinship terminologies are primarily determined by such sociological factor as descent and residence, with marriage rules of lesser importance. He then established six types of kinship terminology, based in part on Spier’s earlier classification, and combined these with rules of descent and residence to give 11 major types of social organization. A proposed order of social change, beginning with changes in the residence pattern, was then tested against the evidence from linguistic reconstructions and other data and was found highly reliable. “It seems clear,” Murdock wrote, “that the elements of social organization, in their permutations and combinations, conform to natural laws of their own with an exactitude scarcely less striking than that which characterizes the permutations and combinations of atoms in chemistry or genes in biology” (1949, p. 183).

Murdock’s study represents a notable advance in the application of social science methodologies to the study of social organization, but there has also been considerable criticism of the sampling involved, the statistical techniques used, and the data selected for analysis. He responded with the more adequate “World Ethnographic Sample” (1957) and with a revised classification (1959, pp. 135–140) of five major types of social organization, based primarily on descent and residence patterns. He also modified his assumptions about the primary role of residence in bringing about social change.

The contributions of Lévi-Strauss to the study of kinship systems are of a different character, and in Les structures elementaires de la parente (1949) andStructural Anthropology (1958) he presents some highly original views on the nature of social structure in general and kinship in particular. “Social structure,” for Levi-Strauss, is in itself concerned not with the empirical reality of social relations but with models which give rise to them, and he discusses the relevance of mechanical models (those on the same scale as the phenomena) and statistical models (where the elements ofthe model are on a different scale) for various problems, particularly those of communication. With regard to kinship he views the terminology and the system of attitudes as representing quite different orders of reality: “The modalities of behavior between relatives express to some extent the terminological classification, and they provide at the same time a means of overcoming difficulties and contradictions resulting from this classification” ([1958] 1963, p. 310), a dialectic which is responsible for change in both systems. Levi-Strauss also proposes a some-different unit for kinship studies fromthe elementary family, which is favored by Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Murdock, and others. He believes “the relationship between ‘brothers-in-law’ is the axis around which kinship structure is built” ([1958] 1963, p. 46) and thus adds the wife’s brother to the family unit. All kinship structures are constructed on this “kinship atom,” primarily by the organization of a series of oppositions between attitudes of familiarity and reserve. The resulting kinship system “does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals. It exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation”(ibid., p. 50).

The principle of reciprocity, as manifested in various forms of exchange in social life, is central to Levi-Strauss’s view of social institutions. Kinship in human society is established and perpetuated through specific forms of marriage, and marriage as a form of exchange involves the circulation of women. He is, therefore, particularly concerned with what he calls “elementary structures,” or those characterized by preferential marriage with a particular category of kin, usually a “cross-cousin.” In this respect, Levi-Strauss has attempted the analysis of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage systems, which are found in Australia and in southeastern and eastern Asia as well as in a few other regions, and he sees the resulting dual structure of “wife-giving” and “wife-receiving” groups reflected in many other aspects of society and culture.

This complex and original contribution (summarized in English in de Josselin de Jong 1952) has stimulated a number of important studies and engendered considerable controversy. Homans and Schneider, in Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes (1955), essay an alternate explanation based on Radcliffe-Brown’s theory of sentiments. Needham attacked this strongly in Structure and Sentiment ( 1962) and went on to make a number of reformulations of what he calls “prescriptive” marriage systems. Leach, in Rethinking Anthropology (1961), shows the considerable influence of Levi-Strauss, as does Dumont, whose Hierarchy and Marriage Alliance in SouthIndian Kinship (1957) emphasizes the importance of treating certain categories of relatives as affinal rather than consanguineal. [SeeMarriage, articles onComparative AnalysiandMarriage Alliance.]

In recent years a number of anthropologists and linguists have returned to Kroeber’s analysis (1909) of kinship terminologies and have developed a more sophisticated approach, called “componential analysis.” The general framework for componential analysis derives from linguistic theory, and the kin-ship vocabulary is regarded as constituting a paradigm which can be analyzed in the same manner as other paradigmatic sets in a language. Currently Lounsbury and others are attempting to construct theories using a limited numbe of ordered roles similar to those of “generative grammar.” The resulting “formal account” specifies (1) a set of primitive elements and (2) a set of rules for operating on these to generate a model which represents the empirical data (see Lounsbury1964).

Goodenough (1956) treats Kroeber’s categories as essentially social components, but Lounsbury’s (1956) and Buchler’s (1964) analyses are based upon strict genealogical reckoning and operate in terms of the primary relations in the nuclear family and their extensions to more distant relatives. Lounsbury assumes that “the primary function of kinship terminologies is to delineate therelation of ego to the members of his personal kindred in such a way as to express some socially and legally important aspect of each of these relationships” (1964, p. 382). Friedrich, in “Semantic Structure and Social Structure: An Instance from Russian,” is concerned with seeing their interrelationships: “The semantic network symbolizes and is generated by the social network. Covariation between both net-works is significant because it can lead to yet more general inferences about native concepts” (1964, p. 132). And H. C. Conklin, in “Ethnogenealogical Method,” illustrates the steps which may be taken from ethnographic descriptionto final analysis:

The sequence I have followed has led us from specific-to-general-to-abstract-to-correlational substatements of Hanunoo ethnography. We have moved from individuals occupying established genealogical positions in a well-recognized kin net, to the examination of types of kin classes, to the analysis and articulation of the defining features, or significata, which underlie the whole category system; and finally to a brief consideration of one set of significant nonterminological correlates of the more highly structured parts of this system. (1964, p. 50)

In this procedure he finds that the natives own “model” of their system is an important part of the data.

The utilization of mathematical models for the elucidation of kinship structures has had a long history, beginning with Galton (1889) and continuing with Weil’s appendix (1949) to Lévi-Strauss’s monograph and, most recently, H. C. White’s application of matrix algebra (1963). White is particularly concerned with prescriptive marriage systems, such as the Kariera, Arunta, Murngin, and Purum, but it remains to be demonstrated whether the logical manipulation of kinship categories and marriage rules adds greatly to ourunderstanding of kinship systems. [SeeComponential Analysis.]

Comparative studies

The comparative study of kinship systems as wholes, and in relationship to ecological and historical factors as well as to other aspects of social structure, has had a more limited development. The initial model for such studies was Radcliffe-Brown’s Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931), which has been carried further by African Systems of Kinship and Marriage (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde 1950). For North America, Eggan (1955; 1966) has been concerned with the classification and interpretation of kinship systems in a number of regions, utilizing the method of controlled comparison and attempting to study changes over time, and P. Kirchhoff has provided a preliminary survey of the kinship systems in South America (1931; 1932).

On the basis of a detailed analysis of the Cheyenne and Arapaho kinship systems, Eggan ([1937k] 1962) proposed a preliminary classification of the kinship systems of the Plains region of North America into two major types: (1) a “generational” type and (2) a “lineage” type. The tribes of the High Plains, who wereorganized in terms of bi-lateral bands composing a camp circle and lived as seminomadic hunters, were—with one exception —also organized in terms of a wide-ranging “classificatory” kinship system, in which generation and sex were emphasized. The tribes of the Prairie Plains to the east, on the other hand, were organized in terms of unilineal descent and lived in permanent villages, from which they went on periodic buffalo hunts; but they depended on horti-culture for their basic subsistence. Their kinship systems were also “classificatory,” in that lineal and collateral relatives were merged in the terminology, but they utilized the lineageprinciple to provide a wide extension to the system. There were two sub-types: (a) the “Omaha” system, associated with patrilineal descent, and (b) the “Crow” system, associated with matrilineal descent.

A comparison of these two major types indicated that each represented an adjustment to the eco-logical and social conditions of their respective regions and that the “generational” systems of the High Plains were based on the relationship of brothers, which was functionally of great importance in Plains life; whereas the Prairie Plains tribes utilized the lineage principle to provide greater stability and continuity over time. By examining the historical backgrounds of the High Plains tribes it became evident that tribes coming into the Plains with different social systems ended up with similar systems. The Crow Indians are a test case. They split off from the Hidatsa several hundred years ago and gave up their village-dwelling, agricultural life in North Dakota for the seminomadic life of the High Plains. Their social system and kinship organization are intermediate, partaking of both types. It seems probable that the conditions of life in the High Plains favored a more amorphous and mobile type of social organization, which could vary to meet changing ecological and social conditions. As Prairie Plains peoples moved out onto the High Plains to take advantage of the greater efficiency of the horse in hunting buffalo, they modified their kinship systems in the direction of a “generational” type.

North and east of the Great Lakes, the Algonkian-speaking peoples have been shown by Hallowell (1937) to have had kinship systems basedon cross-cousin marriage, and he has proposed that the con-temporary variants are intelligible as a result of modifications resulting from acculturative processes and local conditions. Eggan (1955) has extended this hypothesis to northern Algonkian groups moving into the Plains region and to the Dakota groups. The central Algonkian tribes have been shown by Callender (1962) to have shifted from an earlier kinship system based on cross-cousin marriage to a lineage-based system of the Omaha type, as these tribes moved southward into the Prairie Plains and expanded in population with the adoption of horti-culture.

The Omaha and Crow subtypes of kinship systems are not limited to North America but are seen there in their most typical form. The Omaha systems are generally associated with patrilineal line-ages or clans, and often with a dual division of the society, while the Crow systems are associated with matrilineal lineages or clans. In either casethe essential feature is that the lineage or clan is treated as a unit for kinship purposes, an individual considering all his kinsmen through the mother or father as of the same kind. This utilization of de-scent groups for kinship extensions results in both a wide range and a continuity to the social system.

In the southeastern region of North America, where all the major tribes were organized in terms of a Crow-type kinship system, preliminary studies of the Choctaw terminology collected for Morgan suggestedto Eggan (1937a) that changes due to acculturation has been underwayin all of the south-eastern tribes up to 1860 and that the degree of change in kinship terminology was related to the degree and type of acculturative pressures. A field study of the modern descendants by Spoehr (1941; 1942; 1944; 1947) not only confirmed these hypotheses but provided demonstrations of the processes by which the Crow type systems shifted to a generational pattern over the period of a century of acculturation.

In the southwestern region the Western Pueblos have all been foundto have a simple specialized type of social structure based on matrilineal line-ages and clans and a Crow type of kinship system. The Eastern Pueblos, however, though participating fully in the general Pueblo culture patterns, have a quite different social structure, based ona dual organization and a bilateral “nonclassificatory” kin-ship system which emphasizes generation and relative age (Eggan 1950). A number of hypotheses have been advanced to account for this major difference in a single culture type. Here, Dozier’s (1954) study of the Hopi-Tewa, a group of Eastern Tewa who migrated to the Hopi region around A.D. 1700 and who have rearranged their kinship system to conform to the Hopi model, analyzes an important instance of acculturation between Indian groups. The southern Athabaskan groups, made up of the Navajo and the various Apache tribes, show a furtherseries of changes in kinship, not only from their northern relatives in Canada but from one another as well.

These brief summaries can only suggest the kinds of comparative regional studies of kinship systems which have been developed on the basis of structural-functional assumptions, with the added controls of ethnohistory, linguistic reconstruction, and ecological factors. Along with them have been such studies as Bruner’s (1955–1956) on the actual processes of change in Mandan-Hidatsa kinship terminology under contemporary reservation conditions, where certain of the factors affecting choice of Indian or Euro-American kin-ship models have been clarified.

A different type of comparative study is exemplified by Schneider and Cough’s Matrilineal Kinship (1961), which grew out of a cooperative Social Science Research Council summer seminar organized by Schneider, with the additional participation of Colson, Aberle, Fathauer, Basehart, and Sahlins. The distinctive features of matrilineal descent groups are first stated in theoretical terms and in contrast to their patrilineal counterparts. They are then examined against nine matrilineal systems which are presented in detail, and more broadly, against a larger number of cases available from Murdock’s “World Ethnographic Sample” (1957). Here, with descent held as a constant, the variations in group structure, residence, kinship, and marriage are examined in terms of structural theory, cultural ecology, and evolutionary development. Of particular significance for kinship theory is the discussion of the strength of the brother-sister relationship in matrilineal societies as against the husband-wife bond, and its manifold effects on the kinship structure, especially with regard to the tensions between a man and the matrilineal descent group over control of his wife and children, which had earlier been analyzed by Richards (1950). The considerable variety of types of kinship structures associated with matrilineal descent (and the cor-responding variety associated with patrilineal and cognatic descent) indicate problems for future research.

Future developments

Kinship theory is set in the broader framework of social and cultural anthropology, as is indicated in the article on culture, where Singer discusses the structural versus the cultural analysis of kinshipsystems in terms of the controversies between Kroeber and Radcliffe-Brown. [SeeCULTURE.] In the perspective of modern kinship studies the position of Radcliffe-Brown has been the more productive, and Kroeber has partly modified his original position : “As part of language, kin term systems reflect unconscious logic and conceptualpatterning as well as social institutions” ([1901–1951] 1952, p. 172). The current interest of linguists in the componential analysis of kin term systems has clarified certain aspects of terminology but at the expense of rejecting the advances made by treating kinship as a social system. One promising move in this direction would be to include social components, such as locality and lineage grouping, along with those of generation, relative age, sex, and so on (see Leach 1961; Friedrich 1964). Levi-Strauss has been impressed with th relevance of structural linguistics to the study of kinship:

Like phonemes, kinship terms are elements of meaning: like phonemes they acquire meaning only if they are integrated systems. “Kinship systems,” like “phonemic systems,” are built by the mind on the level of unconscious thought. Finally, the recurrence of kin-ship patterns, marriage rules, similar prescribed attitudes between certain types of relatives, and so forth, in scattered regions of the globe and fundamentally different societies, leads us to believe that, in the case of kinship as well as linguistics, the observable phenomena result from the action of laws which are general but implicit. ([1958] 1963, p. 34)

But granted that the principles of duality and of reciprocity may be basic, their relevance to many social systems has not yet been demonstrated. For Radcliffe-Brown the recurrence of particular features in the diversity of kinship systems throughout the world was evidenceof a limited number of general structural principles, such as the equivalence of siblings and lineage solidarity, which were combined in varying ways.

But if Kroeber’s reformulation is to be more than a compromise, it will be important to relate systematically the linguistic, cognitive, and sociological aspects of kinship in order to develop a more comprehensive theory. Thus, the formal rules by which Lounsbury generates Crow- and Omaha-type terminological systems are related to Radcliffe-Brown’s sociological principles, as Lounsbury notes (1964, p. 357). And the principle of duality may find more general expression in the relations of ego to alter and in the attitudes of respect and familiarity than in the more specific matrimonial arrangements and dual organizations of society.

The emphasis on descent systems with reference to kinship has been balanced in recent years by a greater concern with bilateral or cognatic systems, but the precise relationships between these two types are not yet clear. Both lineage-based and bi-lateral kinship systems are faced with similar problems but solve them in somewhat different ways. The historical changes noted above suggest that greater efficiency in adaptation to particular ecological situations may be an important factor. Whether there are broad evolutionary changes is not yet clear. The early formulations of Morgan have been discredited but no large-scale evolutionary sequence with regard to kinship systems has been developed to take their place. L. A. White (1939, pp. 569–570) has proposed a more limited development to account for the Iroquois-Dakota kinship terminology in relation to the Omaha and Crow types: “When the clan system is young and weak the kinship system will be of the Dakota-Iroquois type, regardless of the sex in which descent is reckoned. As the clan system develops, however, and comes to exert its influence more and more upon the social life of the tribe, the Dakota-Iroquois terminology will be transformed into the Crow type in a matrilineal society and into the Omaha type in a patrilineal society.” Murdock’s study (1949) lends considerable statistical support to this view. It is clear, however, that the Dakota type of kinship system can develop in association with cross-cousin marriage without the presence of any clan organization (Eggan 1955). Where we find the classic Omaha and Crow kinship systems they are generally associated with well-developed “corporate” patrilineal and matrilineal groups, respectively, but not all societies with well-developed corporate lineage groups have Omaha or Crow kin-ship systems. For North America there is some evidence for a cyclical oscillation between kinship systems based on a generational principle of organization and those based on a lineage principle. These are thetwo major axes for the classification of kin, and Murdock has provided a theoretical formulation of change in social structures to be tested against the empirical evidence. Here, studies of the type made by Krader (1963) with regard to the Turkic and Mongol kinship systems and by Friedrich (1963) with regard to the historical development of the Russian kinship system will be particularly important.

Studies of Euro-American kinship systems have so far been concerned primarily with terminological patterns and their historical development. However, Schneider and Firth are engaged in a large-scale comparative study of kinship in Chicago and London, respectively, which should both yield new and important results and bring our knowledge of kin-ship systems in contemporary industrial society up to the level of those of nonliterate groups.

Our knowledge of affinal kinship—the relationships established through the marriage tie—has been seriously neglected in most studies of kinship systems. Some societies, such as the Ifugao inthe northern Philippines, reduce the significance of the affinal tiealmost to the vanishing point, in contrast to consanguineal relationships; others build much of their social structure on the relationshipsbetween spouses. The contributions of Levi-Strauss, Dumont, and Needham to our understanding of affinity in cases of preferential or prescriptive cross-cousin marriage, where affinal terminology is disguisedin the consanguineal system, have been mentioned. But there is as ye no comprehensive classification of affinal kinship terminology, nor any general theory of the nature of affinity, although Aginsky (1935) long ago called attention to the importance of the problem. Friedrich(see Goodenough 1964, pp. 131–166) has provided a beginning with his detailed analysis of the Russian affinal system.

We can look forward to a continued flow of empirical data on kinship and to a continuing dialogue between studies utilizing analytic variables and statistical methods, on the one hand, and intensive studies of a more limited range but concerned with kinship systems as wholes and in their ecological and historical contexts, on the other. Outof this dialectic should come more adequate concepts and classifications, as well as a greater under-standing of the phenomena of kinship and the processes relevant to its development. At a more general level, such studies also furnish a body of data to clarify the relations between culture, as a set of ideas and symbols, and social structure,as a system of social interaction. Kinship organizes social relationsin terms of cultural patterns.

Fred Eggan


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The analysis of descent groups is a special aspect of the study of kinship. In the majority of preindustrial societies, kinsfolk are more than a narrow category of persons linked to an individual actor by filiation and siblinghood. They constitute a series of social groups that dominate the domestic organization and the process of socialization, the use and transfer of property, the settlement of disputes, religious activities such as ancestor worship, and certain political relationships. Because these kin groups influence so many aspects of social life, their structure and recruitment are highly important variables in the organization of technologically simpler societies. It is not surprising there-fore that in the last thirty years descent groups have been intensively studied by comparative sociologists and that there has been much discussion of the meaning of the term descent.

Comparative sociologists have generally accepted Rivers’ distinction between inheritance, the trans-mission of property; succession, the transmission of office; and descent, the transmission of kin-group membership. These three aspects of the authorized transmission of property, office, and group membership from one generation to the next are not entirely parallel. Inheritance, as usually understood, refers to transmission after death; the total process of transmission between holder and heirs, which includes certain types of transfer of property at marriage (as in the dowry), is referred to as devolution. Second, whereas succession and inheritance (or devolution) do not necessarily imply transfer between kin, descent does; it signifies group membership of a special kind, handed down, like property and office, from generation to generation.

Looking at the process of intergenerational trans-mission, from the standpoint of the junior generation, an individual can receive any particular set of rights in the following ways: (1) agnatic trans-mission, deriving exclusively from paternal kin; (2) uterine transmission, deriving exclusively from maternal kin; (3) bilateral (ambilateral) inclusive transmission, deriving from paternal and maternal sources; and (4) bilateral (utrolateral) exclusive transmission, deriving from either the paternal or maternal kin, depending on extraneous factors such as residence.

In any particular society, the inheritance of property, succession to office, and recruitment to kin groups usually follow the same mode of transmission. Indeed, the importance of descent groups lies in the fact that membership usually entails a claim upon basic productive and reproductive resources, as well as channeling succession to roles and offices. But this is not always the case. More-over, some differences arise in the transmission of these various rights from the fact that office is rarely divisible and its transmission is necessarily selective, whereas all members of a society usually belong to one of the series of kin groups. Property may be partible or impartible, and certain objects, such as weapons and cooking pots, are, like office, often sex-linked; on the other hand, the membership of kin groups is, in a sense, always partible and very rarely sex-linked. Moreover, it is allocated to individuals at birth (or soon after), not simply through birth.

Unilineal descent groups

Rivers used descent to refer only to kin groups whose members are recruited unilineally (or “unilaterally,” to use his own term); that is to say, groups such as clans, which are recruited either through male (agnatic) or through female (uterine) links. However, unilineal descent groups (UDGs) of this kind are not defined by the manner of recruitment alone; all the members of a particular group are also related to one another by common unilineal descent. A military regiment like the Fanti asafo company in Ghana or an occupational group like the widespread groups of Numu blacksmiths in west Africa may be recruited exclusively by ties of paternal kinship; they do not constitute a UDG unless the members are themselves linked with one another by similar ties and see themselves as having a common ancestry.

When these links are demonstrable and can be genealogically plotted, the group is known as a lineage; when the links are not demonstrable and descent is “putative,” the group is known as a clan. Some authors have attempted to establish the Roman term gens for a patrilineal UDG and clan for the matrilineal type, but most authorities prefer patrician (or patrilineage) and matriclan (or matrilineage ).

Distribution of UDGs

UDGs are found in all types of preindustrial economy and in all regions of the world; they occur among the aboriginal hunters of Australia and among the pastoralists of central Asia; among the shifting agriculturalists in Africa and among the irrigation farmers in India. They occur most frequently in pastoralism, then in agriculture, then in hunting and gathering, and only marginally in industrial communities. Ethnographic samples (Murdock 1957; 1963; Aberle 1961) support the hypothesis of those writers (for example, Lowie 1948; Radcliffe-Brown 1950; Forde 1947) who pointed to a positive association between the presence of descent groups and the amount and type of property to be transmitted. Forde (1947) observed that only when a certain threshold of stability and density of settlement is reached do the tendencies for unilineal transmission give rise to UDGs. Like other large-scale kin groups, they tend to have less importance where membership no longer provides rights in the means of production (i.e., when economies have become commercialized or industrialized). Descent groups also lose importance when their function in offense and defense is minimized by a highly centralized political system, and they no longer serve as a focus for ongoing local ties when spatial and social mobility increases.

As with all the wider ties of kinship, the disappearance of UDGs is linked with the growth of economic and social individualism in industrial societies, where a person tends to have direct ties with the political and economic agencies, mediated by specialized associations such as trade unions and political parties rather than by multifunctional units such as kin groups. In general, the role of UDGs diminishes with the importance of governmental institutions. Patricians were important within the state systems of the Zulu, early Rome, and China; matriclans played a significant part in the kingdoms of Ashanti and the Congo. But their characteristic functions of defense and retaliation were subsumed under central administrations. For example, homicide, a matter for self-help by the kin group in stateless and weakly centralized societies such as the bedouin tribes or Anglo-Saxons, became a criminal offense, dealt with by the king’s court.

Corporate groups

The functional importance of UDGs and similar social groups is sometimes expressed by the use of the term “corporate.” Following legal usage, Sir Henry Maine described the early Roman gens as a corporation in order to indicate its character as a property-holding unit that “never died.” But the word has also been used (a) to translate Weber’s Verband (a group with a hierarchy of legitimate authority); (b) for a group that regularly meets in either plenary or representative session; and (c) for a compact, localized group (as distinct from either a dispersed, or a non-localized, group, which often has few functions). The need for differentiating the part played by kin groups in different societies is recognized in the recent study of matrilineal systems edited by Schneider and Gough. The authors refer to UDGs as “descent units,” while the term “descent group” is used for “that descent unit or portion thereof which engages as a whole in activities with respect to which decisions must be made from time to time and in which all adult male members do not have equal authority” (1961, p. 4); the descent group, essentially a decision-making, or “organized,” group, is compared with what has elsewhere been called a “corporate descent group.” Murdock (1960) makes a similar distinction between corporate, occasional, and circumscriptive kin groups. The criteria that various writers have used to define “corporate groups” appear too general and too con-fused for most analytic purposes. The term can be restricted to certain aspects of the property-holding function, or else set aside altogether.

Subdivision of UDGs

While UDGs are usually segments of the society, in the sense that they are exclusive and exhaustive parts, they are rarely monolithic. Clans are often divided into smaller units (subclans) and into genealogically based units of at least five generations. In a patrilineal society, this basic lineage usually consists of a man’s father, grandfather, son, and grandson—that is, the forebears and descendants whom he actually encounters during his lifetime; it is this five-generation unit around which most systems of kinship terminology are constructed. But lineages may have a much greater generation depth; among the Nuer of the Sudan, twelve to fourteen generations are reported, and lineages of similar spread occur among other pastoral peoples of the Middle East, such as the contemporary bedouins and the Hebrews of the first millennium B.C.

The genealogy of a lineage differs in function from a chiefly pedigree. The latter acts as a validation of rights to an exclusive office; the former serves as a calculus for the relationship of group members. Consequently, a correlation exists between depth and span—that is, between order of segmentation and number of living members. Adjustment between the two is made by “telescoping” and similar mechanisms. Those ancestors whose presence in the genealogy is inessential for the reckoning of contemporary relationships gradually disappear from memory.

Morphologically, order of segmentation equals depth of genealogy, all levels of which have some importance for social action. But certain levels act as points of reference for specific subgroups of greater functional significance, for example, in the context of ceremonial food sharing, or landholding, or payments of compensation for homicide. The terms maximal lineage and minimal lineage are used sometimes for the morphological, and sometimes for the functional, differentiation of groups; terms for intermediate units, such as major lineage, minor lineage, and nuclear lineage, refer to the functional ordering of groups.

In such a merging series of subgroups of increasing inclusiveness, two groups that stand in contraposition at one level of segmentation merge when opposed to a group of a higher order of segmentation. This process of segmentation is one of opposition and identification and occurs in any series of “nesting” groups, whatever the political system; counties and cantons conflict on many local issues but unite when national interests are involved. But these processes have a greater importance when centralized administration is absent; hence, stateless societies that have a polyseg-mental structure (i.e., an extensive merging or nesting series), and particularly those based upon a developed lineage organization, are often known as segmentary societies, although the term acephalous is less ambiguous.

Some lineage systems extend to the limits of the society itself: the Tiv of eastern Nigeria all regard themselves as descendants in the male line of an eponymous ancestor, and the genealogy of his progeny lays out the complete outline of descent group structure. Sahlins (1961) sees the function of these all-inclusive lineages as one of predatory expansion. It is clear that the deeper the genealogy, the larger the lineage and hence the greater the possibility of mobilizing support on particular issues. But this mobilization may be equally as necessary in situations of defense as of offense. Extensive lineage ties are of particular significance where the population is sparse, and where local groups are bound to be small and therefore able to provide little support in emergencies. They are often important in pastoral societies where ecological conditions demand transhumance and thus the passage of flocks through the territory of one’s neighbors; the existence of ongoing ties of descent between such groups facilitates the movements that such a way of life demands.

Systems of double UDGs. UDGs are found in 60.6 per cent of the 483 societies in the “Ethnographic Atlas” (Murdock et al. 1963). In some societies (4.6 per cent), two sets of UDGs (patrilineal and matrilineal) are found side by side. In certain cases, one set of UDGs has relatively little significance. In others, both sets of UDGs have important functions; among the Yakö of eastern Nigeria, both sets are vehicles for the transmission of property (Forde 1950) and are therefore corporate, in Maine’s sense. Some writers have confined the term “double descent system” to those cases where both sets of UDGs are seen as property-holding corporations and refer to other systems where two sets occur as unilineal systems with secondary (or complementary) UDGs (Goody 1961).

In such full-fledged double descent systems, the two sets of UDGs have more or less differentiated roles. While both sets are exogamous at some level, rights to particular kinds of property are split. By this division, the basic means of production are vested in the patricians, while other wealth (money, livestock) is linked to the matriclans. Thus, in agricultural economies with full double descent systems, land passes within the patrician and movable property within the matriclan. As women marry out, the core of the local group consists of male agnates.

Systems of matrilineal descent. The “Ethnographic Atlas” shows a considerable predominance of patrilineal over matrilineal systems of UDGs: patrilineal UDGs (40.4 per cent), matrilineal UDGs (15.7 per cent), double UDGs (4.6 per cent), UDGs absent (39.3 per cent).

From many standpoints, agnatic transmission is more straightforward than uterine transmission, since dominant sex roles and descent links coincide. For the dominant sex (i.e., for males), the links are direct, running from father to children. Daughters move away at marriage, for virilocal residence overwhelmingly prevails where patrilineal UDGs occur. In this case, offspring belong to the UDGs of the husbands.

On the other hand, in matrilineal systems the sex that counts in the reckoning of group member-ship is nevertheless the inferior one in most social situations. It is men who hold the major positions of authority in domestic and political activities; yet socially the UDG reproduces itself through its female members, who, because of the incest taboo, must take outsiders as husbands or lovers. In the UDG, there is a greater interdependence of brothers and sisters.

If brothers and sisters remain together, as they traditionally did among the Nayar of southwest India, the elementary family cannot exist as a residential unit. But more usual than this duolocal solution to the “matrilineal puzzle” (the problem of combining exogamy and local descent continuity) are two other alternatives: (1) the woman joins the man (virilocal marriage); or (2) the man joins the woman (uxorilocal marriage). In the uxorilocal solution, as among the Hopi Indians of the southwestern United States, members of the dominant sex are living with affines and hence separated from their own matriclansfolk and “estate.” The virilocal solution leaves the men with their own clansfolk, but the children are now separated from their UDG. In societies with localized matrilineal UDGs, this form of marriage must be accompanied by “child return,” i.e., change of residence at adolescence or the uxorilocal marriage of at least one male member of the group of full siblings.

The nonresidential Nayar solution is rare (4 per cent of the matrilineal systems in the 1957 sample); residence with the wife’s kin is the most common (49 per cent), followed closely by residence with the husband’s kin (avunculocally—with his maternal kin—26 per cent; patrilocally—with his father—18 per cent). There is some tendency for avunculocal residence to be associated with the more stratified societies. However, it should be added that these residence types are rarely found in “pure” form; different patterns predominate, depending upon the position in the developmental cycle of the domestic group (e.g., Ashanti), the order in the sibling group (e.g., Yao), the relative status of husband and wife, and upon other factors.

Comparative studies show that matrilineal UDGs are associated with horticulture more frequently than with other types of economy. Although they are often found in stable fishing communities, they are virtually absent from pastoral economies— “the cow is the enemy of matriliny, and the friend of patriliny” (Aberle 1961). Matrilineal UDGs tend to disappear with the development of plough and irrigation agriculture; and, like all UDGs, they are absent from industrialized societies.

Secondary recruitment. We have so far assumed that descent groups are recruited according to a single criterion, which derives not simply from the observer’s classificatory schema but also from the ideology of the group itself. But probably all societies use additional modes of entry to increase the size of the group, to provide a particular member with an heir, or to regularize an individual’s change in domicile when this becomes anomalous in terms of the organization of UDGs. This last procedure is comparable to changing one’s nationality.

Various methods other than birthright are used to assimilate an individual into a descent group (Maine’s “legal fictions”). Assimilation may occur directly by the adoption of members of the relevant sex (i.e., males in patrilineal descent groups) or by the purchase of slaves. More often the assimilation is indirect: a woman in a patrilineal descent group is used to recruit personnel by contracting a form of limited marriage whereby all, or some, of her offspring are attached to her own natal UDG rather than to her husband’s (the “appointed” daughter of China, India, and the Middle East); alternatively the daughter may simply stay at home and produce children by a lover (“institutionalized illegitimacy”); a woman may “marry” another woman, who in turn takes a cicisbeo and breeds children for the female husband (as in Dahomey); or a servant or slave girl can substitute for the infertile wife (as Bilhah did for Rachel).

However, assimilation is rarely complete, and social situations such as sacrifices to ancestors may resurrect the differential status of members recruited by secondary means. Where the secondary mode of recruitment is by complementary filiation (that is, through the parent excluded from the reckoning of descent), and where this is widely practiced, the group is, in fact, recruited bilaterally, although de jure group ideology may impose a fiction of common unilineal descent upon the members. But, like recruitment itself, ideology is also a variable. In some societies, patrilineal attachment to the group may be expressed as a preference rather than an imperative, while other modes of recruitment are openly accepted, although of lower status. Here, we come close, de jure as well as de facto, to kin groups of a cognatic kind; neither in terms of recruitment nor of ideology (and this is as true of function as of form) can a hard and fast line be drawn between descent and other kin groups.

Monosexual kin groups

In the discussion of UDGs we have assumed that recruitment of the sibling group is inclusive; in other words, in patrilineal systems both male and female children be-long to the father’s UDG. But this is not the only way in which kin groups may be recruited and organized. Logically, the sibling group may be differentiated according to sex and age. Such mono-sexual groups may be differently organized for men and women; among the Apinayé of central Brazil, the brother belongs to a group of agnatically related males, the sister to a group of women linked by uterine ties. Or men may be linked cross-sexually to their mothers, and women to their fathers, to produce the alternating or cross-sexual system of the “rope” described by Mead for the Mundugumor of northern New Guinea. But such arrangements seem always to be ancillary to other more important sets of kin groups (Maybury Lewis 1960). Monosexual groups do not stand on their own, since the continuity of all kin groups must depend upon both sexes; and, therefore, the most significant kin groups in a society demand control of both sexes to ensure their character as ongoing units.

A further possibility exists, at any rate for agnatic systems: only one sex is organized on a monosexual basis (i.e., the males), leaving the females as a free floating element. But such an arrangement appears to run counter to the importance of the sibling group (brothers and sisters) in childhood and adolescence, and particularly to the sexual and marital prohibitions placed upon full and, commonly, classificatory sisters (i.e., sisters of fellow clansmen). The closest approximation to this logical possibility is the situation reported to exist in some agnatic systems of east Africa, socie-ties in which a woman is “incorporated” in her husband’s kin group, either immediately upon marriage or after she has borne children (Southall 1959). In early Rome, according to Maine, the wife was considered in manum viri and was, in law, the daughter of her husband. The resultant unit would correspond to a segment of what Murdock calls a “clan,” a compromise as distinct from a consanguineal kin group, for which he uses Lowie’s term “sib.”

All patrilineal systems transfer some rights in the woman from the bride’s to the groom’s kin group, i.e., rights in genetricem (over her procreative powers) and usually the right of bride removal. The very fact of virilocal residence is bound to place her in a structurally ambiguous position. Rather than using a simple dichotomy between UDGs that “incorporate” spouses and those that do not, it seems better to treat the degree of transfer of rights as a continuous variable and to make some assessment of the extent of formal assimilation and alienation of spouses, and the degree of their participation in the activities of the two groups involved. The limiting case would be the complete severance of a spouse from his or her natal group, but except in slave marriages it seems doubtful if this situation occurs in practice. Certainly the evidence from Africa, Rome, and China is equivocal here. The construction of such a scale would make it easier to interpret the divorce statistics of patrilineal systems where incorporation has been linked with rare divorce and nonincorpo-ration with higher divorce rates (Fallers 1957). But unless the concept of “incorporation” is broken down, one cannot be sure that it does not already involve a consideration of the ease and frequency of divorce.

Cognatic kin groups

Unilineal descent is not the only means by which kin groups are organized and recruited. Societies lacking UDGs are frequently referred to as bilateral (or cognatic). In such societies (and in unilineal systems) we find groupings based upon ties traced unrestrictedly, through both males and females at one time, or restrictedly through one parent or the other, with the particular selection depending upon nonkinship factors.

Ties traced through both males and females give rise to fluctuating personal kindred and descending kindred. The first is based upon the network of ties that radiate out from any individual, through kin of both sexes, and then descend from these ascend-ants to collateral kin. The most inclusive of these circles coincides with a man’s relatives, i.e., the whole field of consanguineal kinship, but less inclusive groups may emerge as significant social units. Personal kindreds, such as the sib in Anglo-Saxon England, are necessarily ego-orientated; each man’s grouping differs from the next (except a full brother), and the units are not true segments of the society. There is some discussion as to whether affines should be included in the definition of a kindred as such (see Freeman 1961, who uses “kindred” for the category of cognatic kin and speaks of the sib as a “kindred-based group”); for cross-cultural analysis, the problem is simply a matter of selecting a verbal tool, but for the analysis of a single society it is a question of establishing what happens in a particular case.

Like other cognatic kin groups, personal kindreds do not consist only of persons linked to a central actor by specific genealogical connections; two individuals may regard themselves as cousins simply because their respective fathers did. The distinction between genealogical and derived kinship is the basis of the formal distinction between lineage and clan.

The descending kindred is quite a different kind of unit. Unlike the personal kindred, membership is traced from an ancestor, ancestress, or an ancestral pair. Since ties are reckoned through both males and females, the resultant groupings are overlapping in terms of membership; but the members all see themselves as belonging to the same unit (“the descendants of X”). In the first respect, they resemble kindreds, in the latter a UDG.

Goodenough (1955) refers to such groups as “unrestricted nonunilineal descent groups” (Bohannan’s “omnilineal descent group”) and points out that they emerge mainly in the context of claims on fixed resources, especially ancestral land. Such nonunilineal descent groups (NDG, or Murdock’s “cognatic descent group”) become restricted by the introduction of additional criteria of entry, such as residence, parents’ residence, or the use of land rather than claims on land. If these alternatives are exclusive (as usually with residence), then the result will be a restricted kin group that is a true segment of the society; each individual is normally allocated to one such unit and one alone, as with UDGs.

Where membership of a restricted NDG is either nonexclusive (i.e., plural membership is allowed) or reversible (i.e., a man may alternate between the kin groups of his father and his mother), then the group is said to be ambilateral (Firth 1957). It is utrolateral where membership is exclusive and irreversible, as in the case of the Iban bilek.

Where the membership of a restricted UDG is organized around a geneaology, the group (a ramage) is, from this standpoint, the morphological equivalent of the lineage.

On the question of the similarities and differences between UDGs and restricted NDGs has turned the discussion as to whether groups of the latter type are properly called descent groups. Most American scholars adopt the wider usage, but some British authorities, such as Fortes and Leach, follow Rivers in making unilineality an essential criterion. They do this because first, “bilateral” groups may involve additional nonkinship criteria of eligibility. Second, these criteria involve choice or optation. It should be remarked that it is the existence of prescribed alternatives, rather than choice, that is important here; the selection of alternatives may derive from factors outside the control of the individual involved as in the case of parental residence. Third, the membership of these bilateral groups may overlap. Last, the processes of segmentation, fission, etc., are very different where the genealogical links consist of both males and females.

Whether descent is taken to refer only to UDGs or to include other ancestor-oriented kin groups is, however, not of great importance. What matters is that groups of this kind are of basic significance in the social structure of a large number of non-industrial societies. Because of their importance in the domestic, political, economic, and religious spheres, an understanding of the way they work and a knowledge of the principles of recruitment and organization are central not only to the under-standing of particular societies but of human his-tory itself and of the problems arising from the rapid social change of recent times. Their importance is explicitly recognized by the fact that pre-industrial societies are often classified by the types of kin group present, in particular by the presence of patrilineal or matrilineal descent groups, of both (double descent), or of neither (bilateral). This typology, while requiring much refinement, has had considerable relevance for explaining differences in such fields as domestic groups (Fortes 1958), incest rules (Goody 1956), rates of divorce (Gluckman 1950), relationship between adjacent generations (Malinowski 1927; Goody 1962), and developing agricultural organizations (Hill 1963).

Jack Goody

[Directly related are the entriesFamily, article onComparative structure; Marriage, article onComparative analysis.]


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Freeman, J. D. 1961 On the Concept of the Kindred. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 91:192–220.

Gluckman, Max 1950 Kinship and Marriage Among the Lozi of Northern Rhodesia and the Zulu of Natal. Pages 166–206 in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde (editors), African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. Oxford Univ. Press.

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Pseudo-kinship includes those relationships in which persons are described or addressed by kin terms (or terms derived from the idiom of kin) but do not stand in such a relationship by virtue of the principles, however they happen to be conceptualized, of descent or marriage. It has been suggested that any relationship which employs a kin term is kin, and in that case there would be no pretext for the notion of pseudo-kinship. Nevertheless, such a viewpoint does not evade the need to distinguish between such relationships and consanguineal or affinal kinship. Every society has rules for ascribing kin status to its members, but these do not determine a relation of pseudo-kinship, which depends always upon the individual will of, at least, the initiator.

Three types of pseudo-kinship can be distinguished. (1) There is, first of all, the figurative usage of kin terms, which may be little more than a convention of speech or which may, on the other hand, designate a status within the society or within a specific context. (2) There are also customs whereby a person is given the status of kin by attribution rather than by birth—and this is commonly called “fictive” or “artificial” kinship. (3) There are also institutions which, in some ways, resemble kinship and are named by analogy with it, yet which possess a separate nature and accord a distinct status. These are sometimes regarded, rightly, as ritualized forms of friendship.

These three categories merge into one another; a figurative usage becomes an attribution of status when it enjoins behavior appropriate to kin, while the fiction of attributed kin status is no more than an analogy once the pseudo-kin are differentiated from the genuine. Again, ritualized friendship can exist without any analogy to kinship at all, as in the bond-friendship of Tikopia (Firth 1936), and the institutionalized “best friend” is sometimes no more than a trading partner. Trading partnership, on the other hand, may involve a relationship which carries the analogy with kinship to the point of imposing a bar to the intermarriage of descendants (Gorer 1938).

Figurative usage

Kin terms are used figuratively in many societies for the purpose of stressing some particular quality associated with kin. They may be employed momentarily, as when an old man is addressed as “grandad” in order to imply intimacy and age difference and when “son” or “daughter” is used to underline the seniority of the speaker. They may be particular to a given relationship, as when children are encouraged to address friends of their parents who adopt an avuncular role as “aunt” or “uncle.” Usages similar to all of these are found in other parts of the world.

Such usages are clearly distinguished from genuine kinship even when they are required by convention, since the kin relationship to the person addressed is irrelevant. They are mere expressions of attitudes, part of the common currency of personal relations. They imply a quality of behavior rather than a status, fraternity rather than the relationship of sibling. Kin terms may also provide a conventional title, as in the case of the Catholic priesthood, lay brotherhoods, or guilds, or in connection with a role in a festival, as in the Pawnee Hako (Fletcher 1904). Here the quality of the role begs an analogy with kinship.

Fictive or artificial kinship

Whether kinship is a purely social tie or whether it has any necessary biological basis is a question which has been much discussed, and the point of view taken necessarily affects what is to be regarded as pseudo-kinship. However, it seems advisable to consider as genuine kin those to whom the custom of the society ascribes such status, whatever the criteria for ascription may be, and to regard as pseudo-kin those who achieve the role otherwise. The distinction is not always easily made in societies such as the Eskimo, which appear to ascribe kin status on the basis of residence in a given household. When a person is adopted into a kin status to which he was not born, the definition of kinship becomes even more complex. He may acquire the status permanently and thus be established as a member of a kin group. The adopted individual becomes almost equivalent to one who was born into that status, is linked to all its members through ties of kinship, and addresses them by kin terms. In Western as in Far Eastern civilization, the desire for an heir is the common motive for such adoptions.

In Japan, the mukoyōshi, “groom-foster-son” as it has been translated, is adopted as a husband for the daughter when there is no son or no suitable son to whom the patrimony can be entrusted. Such an institution is reminiscent of the custom of the French peasantry, expressed in the phrase entrer gendre (to go in as a son-in-law), which defines the position of the bridegroom who joins the family farm in order to succeed his father-in-law. In Japan, however, there are other forms of adoption: the adoptive daughter who is later married to a “groom-foster-son,” even the kaiyōshi, “buyer-adoptive-son,” who takes over the patrimony of a bankrupt family and acquires kin status in it. A tenant can also become an adoptive son, and his descend-ants form a branch of the family which adopted him (Nagai & Bennett 1953; Norbeck & Befu 1958; Befu 1962). It must be pointed out that the fiction here is not complete, in the sense that the adoptive child does not become equivalent in every way to one born into the status. Though he uses the terminology of kinship to all the members of his adoptive parents’ kin, he is distinguished from the natural legitimate progeny in that his rights of inheritance are not always equivalent to theirs, and he retains his ties to his natural kin. Moreover, the very fact that he marries the daughter of his adoptive parents demonstrates that the groom-foster-son is not equated to a natural son with regard to the prohibition of incest. The oyabunkobun complex is to be distinguished from adoption in that it sets up a whole system of artificial kin-ship, quite separate from natural kinship, which endows a structure of patronage in economic and political life with the ritual and terminology of kinship. Bennett and Ishino (1963) have termed this “simulated kinship.”

Slaves of warlike tribes in Africa and North America were often adopted into the lineage of their captor and thereby acquired kin, but they did not by the same token acquire the status of son in all its aspects. Such a custom can be viewed as a way of providing a kin affiliation for those who have none in a society where this is essential for the conduct of social relations. Fictive kinship is also established for specific purposes, as for example in Islam, where it allows a man access to women who are not kin.

On the other hand, adoption may establish a person as a member of the family equivalent to its offspring, as commonly in Western civilization. In some societies, however (e.g., M. G. Smith 1962, p. 90), upbringing from infancy defines the status of child rather than procreation; filiation has dispensed with the supposition of physical maternity. In other societies, paternity is defined by social rather than genetic criteria—a fact which has led anthropologists to distinguish between “pater” and “genitor.” In neither case could one speak of fictive kinship, since by definition the kinship is genuine. The genitor may at the same time receive recognition as kin.

Genealogical relationships frequently involve a certain number of fictions whereby the record of descent is adapted so as to conform with the reality of the groups who believe themselves to share a common ancestor. In certain cases all the members of a single small community are addressed and referred to by a kin term, and their behavior is modeled upon that appropriate for kin, regardless of any putative cognatic tie. The tie of neighborship is thus given the value of a tie of kinship. This may be maintained even across differences of caste in India, as Freed (1963) has shown.

Finally, we may describe as fictive kinship the instances where persons who are related genealogically in one way adopt the forms of address and behavior prescribed for a different relationship. This is commonly the case where their roles in a household have constrained the members to mutate their kin ties to conform to their mutual behavior.

Ritual kinship

There exist, throughout the world, institutions which establish ties analogous to kin ties. The participants recognize a bond which is likened to, though it is not confused with, kinship. These are commonly defined under the headings of blood brotherhood and ritual coparenthood, or compadrazgo, and they are all best classified as ritual kinship. To refer to them as “fictive kinship,” as many authors have done, is to invite confusion, since no fiction is involved; these institutions are conceptually distinct from and frequently contrasted with natural kinship (Tegnaeus 1952, p. 13). Too often the ethnographer has written that persons tied by ritual kinship are “as brothers,” yet a closer look at the ethnography shows that they are not “as brothers” in any real sense (cf. Beidelman 1963). In order to use the word “fictive,” we must ascertain that the pseudo-kinsman does in fact acquire, at least in a relevant context, a status similar to that of the natural kinsman. Moreover, just as there are fictive forms and usages of consanguineal kinship, so there are of ritual kinship—and we can hardly speak of fictive “fictive kinship.” In fact, the role of the ritual kinsman often resembles that of the brother-in-law rather than the brother.

Blood brotherhood. Early studies of blood brotherhood (e.g., W. R. Smith 1885, pp. 47–58) were dominated and obscured by the assumption that primitive peoples regarded kinship, just as Westerners do, as a matter of blood. Even those who perceived that it was the magical associations of blood which accounted for its use in rituals continued to class together, as blood brotherhood, types of relationship which have in common only this detail of the rite which initiates them. Thus the discussions as to whether blood brotherhood was to be explained as a form of kinship, a legal contract, or a political alliance reinforced by a magical curse, a private pact, or a peacemaking ceremony were fundamentally confused, for blood can be used in many different rites (Evans-Pritchard 1933). The intimate identification implied by the exchange of blood represents a bond between two persons which gives each a mystical hold over the fidelity of the other. This bond does not as a rule entail the acquisition of ties with his kin. Indeed, in some instances the pact thus established remains secret; this is particularly the case where it is made for the purpose of political conspiracy or entry into a secret society. Such a pact is also found in certain marriage ceremonies and in love pacts (Sousberghe 1960).

On the other hand, such pacts are frequently a means of cementing peaceful relations or economic cooperation. They are therefore made with potentially hostile strangers, such as those early explorers of Africa who are often pictured entering into blood covenants, and between tribal chiefs whose followers are thereby committed to refrain from hostilities. The pact of blood may also be used to end a feud or a personal enmity. Depending upon the recognized extension of the tie engendered in this way, it serves to guarantee amicable terms between tribes, kin groups, families, or individuals. In this sense the blood pact may be put to the same purpose as alliance through marriage, as it is commonly a means of formalizing an instrumental or a purely affective relationship between two men. It is rarely found between two women, since the status of women commonly precludes such independence of action.

Covenanted comradeship depends upon the individual will of the participants (though they may be subject to their parents’ approval in this, or they may be committed to such a relationship in infancy by the parents). Yet it is almost always irrevocable. It prescribes reciprocal gifts and mutual trust, feelings of amity and the obligation of mutual assistance. In some instances it imposes an incest prohibition between the children of the comrades and even between their descendants; in others it enjoins a preference for their union. This type of comradeship is initiated by a rite which commonly involves the invocation of divine powers who bear witness. The rite itself consists in exchanging some personal substance, which is very frequently blood but also may be saliva, semen, and the like, or in the ingestion of some sanctified substance in common, a “loving cup” of blood or wine, for example, or an exchange of sacrifice. Foster brotherhood may sometimes create a similar tie. Thus, by analogy, a man could establish a tie of sacrosanct amity among the Caucasian tribes by pressing his lips to the breast of the mother of his enemy, an act which obliged the latter to forgo vengeance. Among the Plains Indians of North America, men who had sexual relations with the same woman thereafter called each other “brother,” a custom which may not be unconnected with the levirate.

A relationship similar to blood brotherhood may be initiated by a rite which centers upon the role of sponsor to certain persons, festivals, or celebrations, the passage together through a religious rite, or the exchange of sanctified gifts. Thus, ritual kinship may be established in central India when groups of young people “hear Ram’s name” together from a teacher (guru); they are then considered to be ritual brothers and sisters (Mayer 1960, pp. 139 ff.). The tie thus established bears a resemblance to Christian coparenthood. It is a particular form of a relationship which exists throughout India between a guru and his disciples, who are regarded as spiritual children to him and spiritual brothers and sisters to each other.

“Compadrazgo,”, or coparenthood. The most fully documented form of ritual kinship in the literature of anthropology is coparenthood. It derives from the Christian notion of spiritual kinship, one of the three kinds of affinity, the other two being affinity through blood and through marriage. Spiritual affinity originated in the sacrament of baptism and grew to be separate from natural affinity in the early Middle Ages, when parents were forbidden to stand as sponsors to their own children. The dogmatic basis for this development was provided by the opposition between natural generation, through which the sin of Adam was transmitted, and spiritual regeneration, through which it was cleansed. A corresponding opposition is found in those customs in which a spiritual parent must replace the physical parent. Spiritual kinship involves ties of two sorts, both of which impose an impediment to marriage: that which is established between godparent and godchild and that between godparent and natural parent, the co-parents, who address each other and are referred to as compadres (Spanish), compari (Italian), koumbari (Greek), kum (Serbian and Russian). The pretexts for establishing such ties vary. The Roman Catholic religion now recognizes spiritual affinity only as arising from the rites of baptism and confirmation, and only between the officiant and the child and between the godparent and god-child. Wider extensions of spiritual affinity are still recognized by the Eastern Catholic rites and by the Eastern Orthodox churches. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) greatly restricted the range of this regard to the persons between whom spiritual affinity was recognized (two spiritual parents of the same child, the children of compadres) and to the number of godparents. Spiritual affinity between coparents has lapsed in twentieth-century dogma in the Roman church, though not in the Eastern churches.

The social functions of this institution are to be distinguished from its spiritual function. In many parts of the world, popular custom ignores dogma and institutes the social bond of compadrazgo through rites which give rise to no spiritual affinity in the eyes of the church, though in the eyes of custom they may imply an incest prohibition. Thus in Spain the marriage godparents have no liturgical significance but have considerable social significance (except in Catalonia); conversely, the god-parents of confirmation required by the church frequently have no social functions. The baptismal godparents should act as godparents in the first communion and, according to the custom of certain regions, at the godchild’s marriage. A variety of preferential rules governs the selection of the godparents; sometimes they prescribe a member of the family of one or other parent. Sometimes the landowner is viewed as the appropriate godfather for the tenant’s child, and sometimes simply a friend becomes godparent (Foster 1953; Pitt-Rivers 1958). The significant differences are that in Italy and the northern half of Spain the tie between compadres is generally regarded as less important than that between godparent and godchild and that in Italy the godparent of confirmation is given more importance than the baptismal godparent (Anderson 1957).

On the whole the quality of the relationship of compadre is similar, although in Italy the spiritual rather than the material aspect is stressed; it is even regarded as preferable to choose someone with whom there will be no business entanglements. In both countries it is a relationship of trust, mutual assistance, affection, and respect— coparents traditionally use the formal third person in address. It is said that one can deny one’s compadre nothing, but the reciprocal duties are not stipulated. The duties of the godparent are more explicit, though they vary from place to place. In sum, they involve payment for the ceremony of fiesta, gifts of amulets and first articles of clothing, aid in starting out in life, and special duties in the case of godchild’s death during childhood—in fact, whenever the individual destiny of the child is at stake. The godparent also has the theoretical obligation to act as guardian in the case of the death of the parents. In exchange, the godchild owes only respect, obedience, and affection. The relations between compadres, on the other hand, are always conceived of as relations of equality, even where they cut across class barriers. Indeed their significance in such cases is precisely that they provide a tie of intimacy between persons of different classes which is not otherwise possible. Thus within the compadrazgo there are ritual relations between superior and inferior (godparent–god-child) or between equals (coparents), and there are social relations of ritualized friendship between equals and also of patronage between social classes. (Mintz & Wolf 1950). Therefore it is not surprising that the terminology of the compadrazgo should have acquired a slang usage to describe the maneuvers of intrigue, particularly in politics.

Coparenthood (kumstvo) in southeastern Yugoslavia establishes a lasting bond between two extended families (zadruge) through the customary obligation to renew the relationship, which is inherited from father to son. In this way a collective tie is maintained from one generation to the next. Ritual kinship is recognized, and the appropriate term used, between all members of the two families.

The bond of compadrazgo takes on its widest extension and its fullest significance in Latin America, as Tylor (1861, p. 251) was the first to note. The tie between compadres is generally of greater importance than that between godparent and god-child. It is sometimes recognized not only between the compadres, as hitherto defined, but also between each one of them and the ascendants of the other (certain Indians regard it as a relationship involving all the members of each family). In addition, the occasions on which compadrazgo is formed are many more than in Europe. Thus, baptism may provide the infant with up to three or even more pairs of godparents (padrinos de pila, de ceremonia, de arras, de vela, or de evangelios), all of whom become compadres of the parents. Fresh godparents are chosen for other occasions, particularly the rites de passage of the child. Compadrazgo may be formed on such pretexts as the first hair or nail cutting of a child, the ceremony when it is first carried astride the hip of an adult, a daughter’s ear piercing (this is found in Italy also), the dedication of a house, an altar, a religious image, a rosary, or a new truck, a healing ceremony, or simply the cosponsoring of a fiesta.

There are degrees of seriousness attached to different forms. Compadrazgo with the godparents of the font (padrinos de pila) tends to be treated as the most serious and sacred, while that which is established with the sponsor of a fiesta or the “godparent” at the blessing of a truck is no more than fictive compadrazgo which entitles the participants to call each other“compadre” as long as they feel well disposed but which is unlikely to be recognized by their ascendants. An influential man often has more compadres than he can remember. The degree to which compadrazgo implies a genuine affective tie whose sacred character is respected, rather than a perfunctory affability—and the distinction is inevitable in communities where middle-aged people are nearly all compadres of one sort or another—is sometimes expressed by the term “compadres de corazón” (compadres of the heart), which is reserved for relationships of true friendship and is usually ritualized by one of the more serious forms.

It is not easy to determine where to draw the line between genuine ritual kinship and fictive ritual kinship. Seen from the liturgical point of view, all the customary forms which do not involve spiritual affinity are fictive, but, if the authority of custom is accepted, then any form of compadrazgo established on a generally recognized pretext is genuine. Nevertheless, custom recognizes that some pretexts imply a more binding relationship than others, and it is wiser perhaps to regard the distinction here as a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

The structure of ritual kinship

All the forms of ritualized friendship, whether or not they use the terminology of kinship, derive not from birth but from the mutual feelings of individuals, guaranteed by the magical power of blood or the sacrosanctity of the rite. Even where there are preferential rules as to the choice of ritual kinsmen, it is subject always to the existence of the appropriate sentiments. This is true even in the extension of the compadrazo to the parents of compadres; the relationship is established only when they exchange the ritual embrace, and it is always there-fore possible to avoid. Ritual kinship commonly forms a series of dyadic or triadic ties, not an extended structure (cf. Foster 1963, p. 1285). Unlike natural kinship, it has no origin in descent from the past and no projection into the future where kin relations grow apart and realign themselves in the course of the domestic cycle. Even in the few cases (mainly blood brotherhood) where children take over the ritual kin ties of parents and the tie possesses a collective aspect, ritual kinship does not become part of the structure of kinship. This is illustrated by a provision concerning the collective Serbian kumstvo: a marriage between two families linked in this way brings the relationship to an end. Its restricted range and independence of other ties render it apt for the purposes of assuring or restoring peace, for when two of a man’s ritual kinsmen fight each other, he must remain friendly with both, since his ties with each are equivalent and independent. Equally, ritual kinship avoids being implicated in the internal dissensions of the kinship structure, for it involves no structural issues. It does not depend upon a network of rights and duties, but upon a reciprocal claim to favor and benevolence; it makes requests (not demands) and gifts (not payments) even where custom may define what these should be, and it is reinforced by supernatural sanctions only. The quality of the relationship differs from that of kin relations; “All that is mine is thine,” is the principle which inspires both the blood brother and the compadre, as in fact they say on occasions, but, even where rights are collectively vested in a kin group this is not the language of kinship. Indeed, where ritual kinship is superimposed upon natural kinship it endows the relationship between the two persons with a sacredness which it did not previously possess; for this reason blood brothers are sometimes said to be “closer than real brothers” and compadre frequently replaces a kin term in address, even, in parts of Latin America, brother or father.

We may ask why ritual kinship so often employs the language of consanguineal kinship, especially brotherhood. It does so by analogy with the ideal of brotherly love rather than with the reality of brotherly behavior, which opens with sibling rivalry and becomes in time subject to the dissonant demands of new families of procreation and the disintegration of the family of origin. By contrast, the tie of ritual kinship is immutable and free of ambivalence. Hence we can see that while adoptive kinship supplements the kinship structure, becoming, thanks to a fiction, what cognatic kinship is, ritual kinship complements it; it is what cognatic kinship aspires to, but cannot, be.

This statement should not blind us to the fact that ritual kinship is not always what it is thought it ought to be. It is as liable to exploitation as any form of friendship. Like friendship, it depends upon a balance of reciprocal favor. Its function is to provide through the attachment of personal feelings a basis for trust between individuals, which may or may not be put to the service of political or economic ends.

The institutions of ritual kinship do not flourish in modern urban society. In Europe, they lost their significance, save in the south, before the industrial revolution; “god-sib” became gossip, and commére came to mean the same. The south of Europe uses the words in the same figurative sense, and the institution retains its full significance today only in the rural areas. The same is true in principle of Latin America, though the influx of peasants into the cities has obscured the fact. Blood brotherhood is rapidly vanishing in Africa. Considering the varied social functions which the different forms of ritual kinship fulfill, it would be hard to enumerate all the causes of this development, but it appears that ritual kinship requires the environment of the closed community and particularistic rather than universal relations (Eisenstadt 1956). The oyabun-kobun system of Japan is exceptional in this regard in representing an adaption of a traditional form of ritual kinship to fulfill a function in modern industrial organization.

In summary, pseudo-kinship is a residual category that includes a number of very different institutions which have in common only the fact that they are likened to kinship by the people themselves. To sort out this rag bag into sociological categories the following distinctions were required: whether the relationship is universal or particularistic; momentary, temporary, restricted as to context, or continual and permanent; dictated by custom or voluntary; extended to the kin of the primary participants or purely individual; and whether it entails a role within the kinship system or one contrasting with the role of kin.

The analytical distinctions may be clear, but the facts are sometimes ambiguous, and this occurs especially when the institution is found in transition. Pseudo-kin relations change their nature, and those which were once sacred are abused and devaluated; words which once denoted ritual kin extend to senses in which the original meaning is lost.

Julian Pitt-Rivers

[See alsoAdoption; Paternalism.]


Anderson, G. 1957 II Comparaggio: The Italian God-parenthood Complex. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 1:32–53.

Befu, Harumi (1962) 1963 Corporate Emphasis and Patterns of Descent in the Japanese Family. Pages 34–41 in Pacific Science Congress, Tenth, Honolulu, 1961, Japanese Culture: Its Development and Characteristics. Edited by Robert J. Smith and Richard K. Beardsley. Chicago: Aldine.

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views updated May 18 2018


Kinshipwhich can be initially described as the study of the links between people established on the basis of descent, marriage, or adoptionhas been a defining domain of anthropological investigation since the inception of this discipline in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. The detailed description of the complexities of kinship systems was for many decades considered essential to the understanding of non-Western societies. This field went through an intense phase of restructuring from the end of the 1970s to the late 1990s as a result of major paradigmatic shifts within the discipline of anthropology, such as the cultural turn, feminism, and political economy. In the early twenty-first century kinship studies, profoundly redefined, have experienced a revival, also in light of tremendous technological changes, such as the emergence of new reproductive technologies, the development of genetics, new family forms, the gay and lesbian movement, immigration, globalization and such correlated phenomena as transnational adoption that have opened new frontiers to anthropological investigation.

The publication of Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1870) and Ancient Society (1877) by Lewis Henry Morgan have traditionally been recognized as steppingstones in the history of anthropological kinship. In line with his evolutionary thinking, Morgan saw kinship as a social institution identifying the earlier steps of societal organization. In other words, kinship was presented as the epicenter of so-called primitive societies' social organization. According to this line of reasoning, kinship was less central in modern societies. Territoriality, the social contract, and the state dominated modern society. As a result, politics and the economy, as distinct fields of social action, regulated important aspects of modern women's and men's lives. Morgan's work is representative of a certain understanding of what were then called primitive societies. He saw them as societies based on blood (kinship), a view that dominated anthropology until the early 1970s. Morgan also established the approach that would characterize anthropological studies of kinship for several decades; that is, the emphasis on kinship terminology and the partition of kinship as a field in a number of constitutive "blocks"that is, descent, marriage, postmarital residence, inheritance, and so on.

Kinship maintained its centrality in the history of the discipline until the cultural turn in anthropology in the 1970s. Kinship was indeed a central theme of investigation within functionalist and structuralist paradigms. Kinship allowed scholars to answer some fundamental sociological questions. It offered a plausible explanation of the problem of the maintenance of social order in the absence of state-based organizations. Indeed, anthropological knowledge came to question a well-established tradition of Western political thought that had identified in the state the only viable solution for the maintenance of social order and discipline.

One major systematic trend within the traditions of kinship studies is represented by descent theory, the dominant paradigm until the mid-1960s (Kuper, 1982). Classic examples of this approach are African Political Systems, The Nuer, and The Political System of the Anuak. Proponents of descent theory presented non-Western societies as based on their kinship organization. According to this view, a person's place in society was largely determined by his or her position within the kinship system. Crucial was the determination of an individual's position within the line of filiation privileged by a given society (descent). Anthropologists singled out various principles of descentunilineal with its patrilineal (through the father's line) and matrilineal (through the mother's line) variants and double (through both lines of descent). Non-Western societies were seen as emphasizing one particular line of descent whose analysis was believed to unpack their social mechanisms and account for the maintenance/reproduction of the social order. Thus in the classic studies of the Tallensi (e.g., Fortes, 1949) or the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer, 1940), the modalities of kinship organization and the functioning of descent as a structuring principle were presented as central to understanding these societies, their boundaries, and their internal equilibrium.

Key within functionalist and structural-functionalist approaches was the distinction between de facto descent (biological descent) and de jure descent (the lines of descent a society effectively recognized). In other words, anthropologists distinguished between facts of nature and the selection or play with natural facts of which each kinship system was the recognized expression. Each society was seen as characterized by an emphasis on certain genealogical links and a disregard for others. Thus in a matrilineal society a father's position was generally perceived as marginal. Meanwhile a mother and her relatives, in particular the mother's brother, were seen as the center of a child's social life and largely determine his or her future prospects.

Many functionalists and structural-functionalists claimed to investigate the domain of the social as separate from other domains of social analysis, namely the biological and the psychological. Building on the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim, they were concerned with the delimitation of objects and methods of enquiry exclusive to the social sciences (with some notable exceptions, of course, such as Bronislaw Malinowski and his theory of needs and corresponding cultural institutions). Despite their intentions, later research has demonstrated that they were often unaware of the biologism that tainted some of their own theoretical constructions. As David Schneider and other anthropologists after him have highlighted, the realm of nature (natural kinship) was left out from traditional anthropological accounts. Yet each kinship system, with varying degrees of adherence, was seen as reflecting certain aspects of the natural order, but the latter was taken as a given and thus unquestioned realm. However, conceptions of nature and its relations to culture vary and change over time, across and within societies. An important contribution in this direction was constituted by the publication of Nature, Culture, and Gender by Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern in 1980, which showed the inapplicability of Western dichotomies between culture and nature, men and women cross-culturally, and the historical variation of such constructs within the West.

As Janet Carsten (2004) has highlighted, anthropologists' study of kinship did not entail an interest in domestic life or other forms of connectedness aside from genealogical links, thus excluding the study of women, children, alternative forms of solidarity, or the more intimate aspects of sexuality from anthropological accounts. This gap can also partly be explained by the belief that non-Western people were deemed not to have an individualized Western sense of self but were seen as identifying with the collectivities they belonged to (read descent groups), with the latter seen as corporate entities (which found collective expression in their male elders). In addition, only the more public aspects of kinship (the so-called politico-jural aspects) were of privileged interests to anthropologists. Within kin-based societies, kinship defined people's economic, religious, and political rights and obligations.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, the leading proponent of the structuralist turn in French anthropology and beyond, introduced in the 1960s a conflicting paradigm known as alliance theory. Influenced by structural linguistics, Lévi-Strauss turned his attention not to descent but to marriage, the latter interpreted as a system of exchange and communication. In his theoretical constructs marriage is presented as the matrix of the kinship social order. Marriage produces at once two fundamental classes of kin, consanguineal kin (blood relatives) and affinal kin (in-laws). In the course of marriage transactions, women "serve" as the vectors via which social alliances are established (a perspective whose androcentric bias feminist anthropologists will readily point out). By renouncing to marry their own sisters (via the imposition of the incest rule) and by agreeing to marry other men's sisters outside of their own biological family, men establish the foundations of human society.

According to Lévi-Strauss, kinship marks the overcoming of the state of nature (determined by the rule of the biological) and the imposition of the cultural order by humans. In this sense kinship is a cultural universalthat is, something shared by all societiesalthough its content varies across cultures. By unpacking the systems of marriage and unveiling their deeper logic, Lévi-Strauss came to complement British anthropologists' privileged attention on descent. However, his reliance on linguistic structuralism enabled him to further capture the symbolic quality of human life and distance himself further from the biologism of functionalist and structuralfunctionalist accounts.

An important turn in kinship studies was marked by the publication of David Schneider's work. In American Kinship: A Cultural Account (1968) and A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984), Schneider developed an important critique of the study of kinship, one that ultimately laid the foundations for contemporary approaches to the study of kinship. According to Schneider, kinship studies were mostly the expression of anthropologists' ethnocentric biases and disciplinary preoccupations. The centrality of biological reproduction was indeed a character identifying Western perspectives on kinship. Indeed, within a number of other societies, such as the Yap of the West Caroline Islands, it is "hard work" that cements what we would call kinship ties, not biology. It followed that kinship as a field of study was the outcome of the biases of Western scientists who once carved out a predefined interpretive scheme based on their own experience of kinship and then proceeded to investigate other societies, thus missing local understandings of kinship and the relationship between social and natural aspects of kinship (as well as the usefulness of such categories in the analysis of a specific society/culture).

A number of lines of research emerged from this initially seemingly devastating critique. This of course happened after a critical reassessment of Schneider's symbolic theory. Indeed, several aspects of this have been questioned by successive generations of anthropologists. Schneider's view of culture as an integrated whole and his exclusive focus on symbols are now seen as too schematic and limited (Stone, 2004). Twenty-first century anthropologists typically share a more complex and less bounded understanding of culture, an attention to practice and processes in addition to meanings, and a keen interest in the social construction of science (a topic left unresolved in Schneider's writings as Carsten [2000] clarifies). Post-Schneiderian kinship is characterized by the inclusion of the study of Western kinship systems. This is partly due to the realization that an increased understanding of a researcher's own cultural assumptions and social practices is a powerful strategy to come to terms with researchers' biases, as well as changes in the object and methods of anthropological studies. In addition, nature is no longer taken for granted. Indeed, changing conceptions of nature and the varying relationships between culture and nature are regarded as central topics in order to understand kinship within Western and non-Western societies.

Post-Schneiderian kinship studies are often characterized by the insertion of kinship into a wider analytic field. Indeed, kinship studies have benefited from the insights of feminist anthropology, historical anthropology, and postmodern anthropology.

The feminist turn in anthropology in the mid-1970s (that is, the study of the much-neglected study of gender in a cross-cultural perspective) brought new life to anthropology as a discipline and to kinship studies in particular. The relationship between gender and kinship was the topic of Jane Collier and Sylvia Yanagisako's edited collection Gender and Kinship: Essays Towards a Unified Analysis (1987). These authors argued for a unified theory of gender and kinship. Indeed, they suggested that gender relations and gender asymmetries are central to the understanding of kinship systems cross-culturally (see also Yanagisako and Delaney). For instance, how would one understand, within the patrilineal Bamana families of Mali, women's differential positions and their limits and possibilities as mothers, daughters, and sisters if gender and kinship are not taken into consideration. The coupling of studies of gender, kinship, power, and inequality has contributed much to a renewed interest in anthropology. These studies also reflect the decline of the traditional separation between social studies and social activism, disclosing indeed a well-formulated agenda for the expansion of human rights. (See, for instance, the 2004 statement by the American Anthropological Association in support of gay and lesbian marriage at

Particularly rich is the study of new reproductive technology (NRT) (Strathern, After Nature, 1992 and Reproducing the Future, 1992; Ginsburg and Rapp; Ragone and Winddance Twine). The study of NRT has led people in Western societies to begin to deconstruct traditional distinctions between nature and culture/choice, given that NRTs have widened human possibilities of intervention and modification of what were once believed unchangeable biological phenomena. Similarly, the growing body of literature on gays and lesbians cross-culturally has led to a more complex understanding of the complexity of gender, which once were viewed more simplistically (see, for instance, Weston). It has also promoted new understanding of people's mediations with Western dictates of kinship.

Political economy and later developments (for example, historical anthropology) have added an important dimension to the study of kinship. From the path-breaking work by Jack Goody (1958) that included attention to the temporal dimension in the study of kinship, as well as the work of Esther Goody on marriage as a process (1962), the work of Claude Meillassoux on kinship and the formation of social inequalities (1981) to more recent accounts of political and economic processes that look for more satisfactory mediations between neo-Marxist and interpretive analyses (for example, work by McClintock; Cooper and Stoler), that kinship phenomena do not stand in a vacuum; instead they simultaneously reflect and affect wider societal trends. Kinship is indeed a privileged site for societal reproduction and the construction of local, ethnic, and national identities. (See, for instance, Kahn on NRT in Israel or De Jorio on kinship and politics in postcolonial Mali.)

In sum, early-twenty-first-century studies highlight the importance of local conception of kinship and the impact of such constructs on people's identity formation. Some anthropologists look at kinship as conceived in the West as a specific network of relatedness whose generality and interest should be ascertained in the course of open-ended fieldwork. Other trends also consist of broader approaches to the study of kinship (e.g., in the context of larger paradigms such as political economy), the inclusion of relatively recent developments (NRT), or traditionally excluded phenomena such as sexuality and third genders, thus contributing to new understandings of different lifestyles and cultural traditions.

See also Anthropology ; Family ; Gender Studies: Anthropology .


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Gottlieb, Alma. The Afterlife Is Where We Come from: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women : The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Hutchinson, Sharon Elaine. "Identity and Substance: The Broadening Base of Relatedness Among the Nuer of Southern Sudan." In Cultures of Relatedness, edited by Janet Carsten. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kahn, Susan Martha. Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Kelly, Raymond. Constructing Inequality: The Fabrication of a Hierarchy of Virtue Among the Etoro. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Kuper, Adam. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformation of an Illusion. London: Routledge, 1988.

. "Lineage Theory: A Critical Retrospect." Annual Review of Anthropology 11 (1982): 7195.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated from the French by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, editor. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

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Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon, 1987.

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Needham, Rodney. Rethinking Kinship and Marriage. New York: Tavistock, 1971.

Ortner, Sherry. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Gender. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

. "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture." In Woman, Culture, and Society, edited by Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974.

Peletz, Michael. "Kinship Studies in Late Twentieth-Century Anthropology." Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 34372.

Ragone, Helena, and France Winddance Twine, eds. Ideologies and Technologies of Motherhood: Race, Class, Sexuality, Nationalism. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Rosaldo, Michelle, and Louise Lamphere, eds. Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974.

Schneider, David. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

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Rosa De Jorio


views updated May 11 2018


KINSHIP is both a social phenomenon found in all human societies and one of the most central and contested concepts in anthropology. It is a pervasive symbolic practice of creating socially differentiated categories of people and the relationships among them, especially those relationships that concern the reproduction of people and that constitute human "being." A significant aspect of kinship relationships is that they apply not only to contemporaries, but transcend the living to include predecessors and ancestors as well as descendants and future generations.

Who is a relative and how relations of kinship are defined varies from culture to culture. But the ideas and principles underpinning these different kinships systems are often closely associated with religious ideas, addressing existential questions for all human beings, such as: What makes people humans? How do people come into the world? What constitutes a person? What happens to persons when they die? Wherein consists the continuity of social relationships that transcends generations?

The Concept

Early anthropologists noticed that the various peoples they studied differed greatly in the ways they named and categorized kin, defined appropriate behavior among kinspeople, reckoned descent, regulated marriage, and organized succession among the generations. Kinship and its diversity became the central issue in anthropology for much of the twentieth century, mainly for two reasons. First, both an explanation for the diverse systems of kinship and, in the face of such diversity, a universal definition needed to be found. This taxing issue led to most of the central debates in anthropology until quite recently. Arguments over what the term kinship designates, and what its analytical validity is, resulted in a robust reconfiguration of kinship studies since the 1970s. Second, many of the societies anthropologists studied were societies without state organization, and one of the leading questions was how social order and political structure were defined and maintained in such societies.

Kinship was considered to play the key role in providing a basic structure for the organization of the social life of stateless and, as they came to be called, as a type, "primitive" societies. Their social structure, Meyer Fortes stated in The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi, was "kinship writ large" and "kinship is one of the irreducible principles on which their organized social life depends" (1949, p. 340). At the time, this was a progressive approach, emphasizing the rationality, functionality, and essentially human creativity of such societies. But it became untenable, both because it is too reductionist and because of the inherent evolutionist dichotomy between "primitive" and "civilized"the former designating a more natural state of social life and the latter higher cultural development and social institutionswhich suggested a great, substantive divide among all forms of human society. Rather than substantive, the differences and contrasts of sociality between societies came to be seen as relative. Although research in "civilized" societies revealed many structural similarities with "primitive" societies, reducing the social structure of more egalitarian societies to the principles of kinship disregards influential factors such as the division of labor, gender, or inequality. The link between kinship and social structure is critical in some societies, but it cannot be made at the expense of disregarding the dynamics of religious or political or economic factors.

At the same time, the ethnographic evidence across cultures does not uphold the typologies of social order proposed on the ground of a supposed correlation between kinship constructs such as descent, kinship terminology, or marriage patterns and aspects of social organization such as gender relations, social roles, the allocations of rights and obligations, or the distribution of power. In this regard, studies that combined the analysis of kinship and gender since the 1970s contributed critically to dismantling formal models that linked kinship institutions to social organization. The way kinship is conceptualized and structured in a society does not predict the totality of social life.

Kinship and the Natural

For much of the twentieth century, anthropologists defined kinship as genealogical relatedness, that is, as relationships based on consanguinity (the idea that related people share blood or biogenetic substance) and affinity (relationships forged as a result of marriage). This meant that the diverse ways in which people in different cultures define who is a relative and organize their systems of kinship relationships were explained by falling back on the notion that this diversity nevertheless must have a referent in the natural facts of life, the natural processes of human sexual reproduction. A critical distinction, between social kinship and biological kinship, was introduced. Biological relations were considered given in nature, and therefore kinship could be singled out as the primary structure ordering social relations in simple societies. The social relations of kinship were regarded as cultural constructs and representations that more or less recognized and interpreted biological ties and the given facts of life.

In the 1960s and 1970s a debate erupted concerning what kinship is all about and engendering a rethinking of the concept. It resulted in the analytical separation of physical kinship from biological kinship. The cultural notions of physical procreation and consubstantialityhow people considered themselves to be related through shared physical substance, whether it was blood, or semen, or foodshould be seen as separate from true biological facts and as cultural interpretations of genealogical ties (see Holy, 1996 for a useful discussion). A major turning point in the still ongoing reconfiguration of kinship was A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984) by David Schneider, who targeted the analytical distinction between biological and social kinship, which he identified as stemming from a European and American cultural bias, from Western folk models of kinship which are embedded in what he called the "general characteristic of European culture toward what might be called 'biologistic' ways of constituting and conceiving human character, human nature, and human behavior" (1984, p. 175). Reflecting a general shift in anthropology from function to meaning, Schneider's pioneering work on kinship in American culture analyzed "the distinctive features which define the person as a relative" (1968, p. 19), examining American kinship as a symbolic system in which biological relatedness and sexual relations play a fundamental role as symbols for social relationships. In many non-European traditions, kinship relationships are not necessarily conceptualized as an elaboration of natural processes or as the tracing of genealogical connections (and where biological ideas have gained purchase in the course of the global spread of Western culture, they are often being reworked and innovatively amalgamated with existing cultural ideas). Cultural concepts of procreation may involve critical religious elements unrelated to biological processes.

The people of the Micronesian island of Yap, for example, single out human existence as categorically different from the existence of animals such as their domestic pigs. In Yap culture, human procreation and descent involve not only bodily processes but also a spiritual component, the reincarnation of ancestral souls. Descent only exists in humans. It charts the reincarnation of ancestral souls and is distinct from reckoning parentage for the breeding of pigs. Anthropologists have always insisted that descent is a concept of social organization, referring to relatedness based on common ancestry, which may include people not related biologically and only those genealogical relationships that are socially recognized. In the Yap definition, however, descent and the relationship to ancestry is part of the process of conception.

Since Schneider's critique, anthropologists approach kinship cross-culturally, with an increased reflective sensitivity to preconceived ideas about what kinship is. As Ladislav Holy points out in Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship (1996), "the most significant development in the study of kinship has been the growing awareness of the cultural specificity of what were previously taken to be the natural facts on which all kinship systems were presumed to be built" (p. 165). The resulting challenges made kinship again one of the most innovative areas of study, connecting research across diverse disciplinary, analytical, theoretical, and ethnographic sites. Recent studies of local and specific conceptualizations of kinship foreground the questions of what kinship means and who is a relative and why, and they seek to answer them empirically rather than take them as given by definition.


If the defining moment of kinship is not referenced to biology, what kind of definition can be put forth that enables cross-cultural comparison but avoids the pitfalls of previous definitions? Current working definitions of the conceptand there is no single agreed-upon definitiontend to go back to first principles. They focus on those relationships that in any given cultural context are considered constitutive of personhood and social human being, of how people come into being, achieve personhood, and attain a socially recognized afterlife. There may be exceptions, but in most human societies these constitutive relationships are marked as distinct among all social relations. They often articulate fundamental ideas about relationality itself, about how social relationships can be forged, maintained, and properly dismantled. They also tend to articulate a temporal component so that such constitutive relationships provide a person with a past, with relationships to predecessors, such as ancestry, descent, and collective history.

Raymond C. Kelly offered a comprehensive and cross-culturally useful definition of kinship in Constructing Inequalities (1993). Significantly, he connects kinship to the concepts of the body and the person :

Kinship relations are social relations predicated upon cultural conceptions that specify the processes by which an individual comes into being and develops into a complete (i.e., mature) social person. These processes encompass the acquisition and transformation of both spiritual and corporeal components of being. Sexual reproduction and the formulation of paternal and maternal contributions are an important component of, but are not coextensive with, the relevant processes. This is due to the ethnographic fact that a full complement of spiritual components is never derived exclusively from the parents. Moreover, the sexually transmitted ingredients of corporeal substance are frequently transmitted in other ways as well. (p. 521)

These further processes of manipulating and modifying substances and spiritual components involved in attaining full personhood and in forging kin relations should not be disregarded because of a biologically based definition of kinship. As Kelly points out, "there is no analytic utility in artificially restricting the category of kin relations to relations predicated on some but not all the constitutive processes of personhood because these processes are culturally formulated as components of an integrated system" (1993, p. 522).

By dissociating the concept of kinship from biology and integrating it with the process of how persons come into being, the investigative focus shifted to ways in which kinship is embedded in the social life of people and to its connections to aspects of culture such as religion.

Kinship, Person, and Body

The approach to kinship and social organization through the concepts of the person and the body was most powerfully developed by Marilyn Strathern in The Gender of the Gift (1988), a comparison of social life across the diverse cultures of Melanesia. She generalized the Melanesian person as "a microcosm of relations" and the body as "a register, a site of interaction composed of the specific historical action of others" (pp. 131132), and both concepts are keys to understanding social organization and social units such as descent, group formation, exchange, and marriage arrangements. The approach echoes well beyond that region, inspiring studies triangulating kinship, the person, and the body elsewhere, including the West. Examining kinship in conjunction with personhood also sheds new light on the structuring of rituals, particularly life-cycle rituals such as initiation, marriage, and mortuary rituals in which the body often takes center stage. As Kelly's definition suggests, life-cycle rituals modify and complement the composition of the body and the constitution of the person, which began with procreation. Death rituals often involve the dismantling of the network of relationships centered on the deceased and the final repayment of contributions towards the deceased person by others. This history of relationships, contributions, and obligations is literally embodied in the deceased person, and, with the body gone, the person and the obligations need to be discharged by the surviving kin of the deceased. Kinship and life-cycle rituals are analyzed here in a combined approach, and such rituals, which often articulate and realize religious ideas, are part of the process of attaining personhood.

Some recent kinship studies reveal the importance of feeding and nurture to the process of kinship. Janet Carsten showed that while the people of Langkawi (Malaysia) regard blood as a substance with which a child is born and which differentiates kin, blood as a kinship substance is modified and transformed by breast-milk which the child ingests, and later by the food the child eats; through the daily food that was cooked on the hearth of the house and that members of a household share, they have a substance in common which has qualities similar to blood. The body of a Langkawi person undergoes a social process that reflects the relationships of commensality, the sharing of food, and cohabitation that the person maintains. One consequence of this processual conceptualization of kinship is that birth siblings and adopted siblings are not socially differentiated if they were nursed by the same woman and fed from the same hearth, because the substance that makes them related to others is considered to be the same.

The cultural understanding of procreation and personhood among Trobriand Islanders (Papua New Guinea) incorporates significant religious and relational concepts that structure social organization. Trobriand procreation not only involves bodily substance and the reincarnation of spirits, but also the creation of form. The Trobriand model of human reproduction preoccupied many observers and was debated as an instance of virgin birth, or denial of physiological paternity and sexual intercourse as a condition for procreation. This is based on a fundamental misconception of Trobriand traditional belief that conception takes place when an ancestral soul enters the womb of a woman who belongs to the same landholding descent group with which the ancestor is associated. Souls thus retain the descent and kin classification they had as living beings, and they are reincarnated into the same kin group. Sexual intercourse is critical to this process because it provides the soul with a material human form, the body, which is made from blood, a kinship substance provided by the mother, and which is shaped by the father's activities during sexual intercourse with the mother. Both the maternal and paternal contributions are vital to this process. The mother's contribution consists of providing blood (essence) and spirit, and the father's of forming the child's body, which takes an appearance that resembles the father, and of enabling the child's growth and eventual separation from the maternal body. A Trobriand father will contribute to feed and shape his child's bodily form and appearance by affectionately taking care of the child, in what is expressed by Trobrianders as paternal nurture and which remains a vital factor in the course of a person's life. The different maternal and paternal contributions to the making of a child are symbolized in the relationships between the child and wider sets of maternal and paternal kin. They also shape the relationships between different descent groups who maintain relations of paternal nurture with each other, expressed in various exchange events. These collective relationships acknowledge their mutual interdependence from each other for the regeneration of the descent group. Like an ancestral soul, they depend on paternal nurture to be able to exist in a material, bodily form.

Recent scholarship on kinship and new reproductive biotechnology, international adoption, and gay and lesbian families shows that a more flexible concept of kinship, emphasizing relationality and process, may be at work significantly in European and North American practices. At the same time, these new contexts for kinship raise new questions about how relatives, especially parents, are defined, challenging traditional Euro-American notions that human reproduction is a natural process through which the ties of kinship emerge unproblematically. The new reproductive technologies manipulate what were deemed to be natural processes so that biological relatedness no longer figures as a given ground for kin relations. Marilyn Strathern succinctly states the problem as "what is interfered with is the very idea of a natural fact" (1992, p. 41); nature assisted by technology becomes part of culture. Shared substance, rather than biology, may also be a powerful connection for members in families created through adoption. These innovative ways of making kinship suggest that, in the European tradition, the ground for relationality as it is experienced by people is no longer, or may never have been, simply biology and nature after all.

Ancestors and Descent

Ancestors are important in most kinship systems. Shared ancestry can be the basis for the classification of kin into social categories, particularly descent categories. Ancestors are, by definition, remembered kin, but not all kin are remembered as ancestors, and which kin become ancestors varies. Among some Amerindian peoples only personally known kin become ancestors, whereas in many African and Asian cultures ancestors and their relationships are remembered for many generations. In yet other cultures ancestors may be remembered as names rather than as deceased kin, but as names associated with land and people who, by bestowing the names to children, forge descent as a relationship between ancestral name, land, and kinspeople. Among the Dobu Islanders of Papua New Guinea, the physical remains of ancestors are the focus of descent. Dobuans return their dead kin to their village of origin and bury them in the center of the village. The burial mound thus symbolizes lineal descent unadulterated by affinal relations. Among Australian Aboriginals it is often the memory of the ancestors' journeys in the country, and their activities and experiences at places in the landscape, that is the content of descent and connects people to ancestors, the landscape, and their past.

Ancestors may be the focal point for the definition of kin categories and groups, in the case of lineages and clans for example, which comprise persons related through descent exclusively through either the male (patrilineal) or the female (matrilineal) line. In societies with a strongly developed patrilineal descent structure, such as the Lugbara of Uganda, different categories of patrilineal male and female ancestors are distinguished depending on their descent status and whether they contributed significantly to the polity of the descent group during their lifetime. In these societies, genealogies record effective ancestors.

In community-based religions the offices of ritual experts and access to esoteric knowledge may be organized by kinship statuses and succession through descent. Only people categorized as descendants of a particular ancestor may be permitted to have certain knowledge or the right to perform rituals. Such experts often employ this knowledge and perform rituals on behalf of the whole community or society. In many Australian Aboriginal, lowland South American, and Native American cultures of the Southwest, the kinship system involves a form of dual organization in which people are classified into moieties (halves into which the total society divides), which are part of a dual cosmology. Moiety organization is related to kinship and descent, but it is often relatively flexible and may involve multiple differentiations, which enables cooperation between the moieties. Depending on the specific system, a person may belong to one or several cross-cutting moieties. Moiety affiliation may be strictly through descent, or it may change according to the specifics of marriage exchanges or of residence. Some moieties are not linked to kinship, but are ritual moieties. Among Yolngu, an Australian Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, there are named matrilineal and patrilineal moieties as well as ceremonial nonlineal moieties. Moieties own certain cults and rituals which they perform for the whole community, which in turn supports these services by organizing the performances.

Extending the Morality of Kinship

Many communities extend the use of kinship termsthe specific names for the different kinship relationships and those used to address kinto refer to non-kin. This is a metaphorical or classificatory use of kinship which is significant, because it extends the morality of kinship to other people and sometimes to other beings. In Christianity, God is addressed as Father, and Jesus is addressed as the Son of God. Similarly, members of Christian faith communities and monasteries use kinship terms to express relationships within their communities. In doing so they express their separation from their families of origin and their commitment to the social relations of the community. It has also been suggested that the sharing in the Holy Spirit serves as a basis of essence for the social relationships of kinship in Spirit. From an anthropological point of view, one understands such uses in different Christian communities across the world as reflecting cultural diversity and diverse views of God as Fatherdepending on the way in which the role of father is culturally conceived, for example.

In some societies, kinship and ancestry is extended to animals and other beings who live together with people in the same environment. The Nayaka, a people living in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu (South India), regard the forest in which they live as a parent. Nurit Bird-David (1999) reports that Nayaka refer to features in the forest such as hills or rocks in the same terms they use to refer to the spirits of those who were their immediate predecessors (their recently deceased ancestors)as "big father" or "big mother"and they refer to themselves as children. In relation to their forest they see themselves as children of the forest, and they maintain relationships of sharing. The morality of kinship, specifically the sharing morality and intimacy of the parent-child relationship, extends to the environment. As Tim Ingold notes, "the environment shares its bounty with humans just as humans share with one another, thereby integrating both human and non-human components of the world into one, all embracing 'cosmic economy of sharing'" (Ingold, 2000, p. 44).

Such use of kin terms is part of a wider phenomenon by which people attribute personhood to the beings with whom they share an environment (e.g., animals, trees, rocks, places), whether or not they address them by kin terms. Attributing personhood means that one regards other beings as capable of maintaining social relationships among themselves and with other beings. It indicates what Bird-David calls a "we-ness which absorbs differences" (1999, p. 78), and subsumes kinship, or what Roy Wagner (1977) identified among Papuan cultures as the very ground of being rather than merely of humanity, namely the innate capacity for social relationship both with those similar and with those differentiated, which renders all beings of an environment akin.

See Also

Ancestors, article on Ancestor Worship; Community; Family; Genealogy; Marriage; Totemism.


Bird-David, Nurit. "Animism Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology." Current Anthropology 40, suppl. (February 1999): 6779, 8691.

Bloch, Maurice. "Zafimaniry Birth and Kinship Theory." Social Anthropology 1 (1993): 11932. This concise article outlines the processual nature of kinship and marriage among Zafimaniry (Madagascar), where a couple emerges through the children they raise and the increasing solidity of the house they build over their lifetime; the house turns into a family shrine upon their death.

Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry, eds. Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. Various excellent articles dealing with death, kinship, descent, and funeral rituals.

Carsten, Janet. The Heat of the Hearth: The Process of Kinship in a Malay Fishing Community. Oxford, U.K., 1997. A readable and evocative ethnographic account of kinship on the island of Langkawi, Malaysia, and a grounded theoretical discussion of the nature of kinship, especially the concept of substance.

Carsten, Janet, ed. Cultures of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study of Kinship. Cambridge, U.K., 2000. A collection of articles providing detailed ethnographic accounts of various cultural idioms of relatedness in an attempt to rethink kinship theory.

Collier, Jane Fishburne, and Sylvia Junko Yanagisako, eds. Gender and Kinship: Essays toward a Unified Analysis. Stanford, Calif., 1987. A milestone in kinship studies, dismantling the idea of kinship as a separate domain of social life and putting forth the cultural construction of difference as the central issue in understanding both kinship and gender.

Desjarlais, Robert. Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths Among Nepal's Yolmo Buddhists. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. Insightful and beautifully written biographical accounts of several persons portraying the many ways kinship and religion shape a life and are closely interwoven in a person's experience of life.

Fortes, Meyer. The Web of Kinship Among the Tallensi. London, 1949. A classic ethnographic monograph of kinship in the structural-functionalist mode of a culture where kinship is closely linked to ancestral authority.

Franklin, Sara, and Susan McKinnon, eds. Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Durham, N.C., 2001. A major recent contribution towards repositioning kinship studies, particularly in response to empirical and theoretical challenges posed by international adoption, reproductive technology, and genetic projects in a globalized world.

Holy, Ladislav. Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London, 1996. A sensitive and well-argued introductory text on the concept of kinship and its history, and still the best available today.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill. London, 2000. An innovative, highly synoptic approach to understanding human culture through relationality, environment, personhood, and interaction.

Kelly, Raymond C. Constructing Inequality: The Fabrication of a Hierarchy of Virtue among the Etoro. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993.

Kuper, Adam. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London and New York, 1988. A comprehensive and influential critique of the notion of the primitive, kinship-based society representing the origins of human society, discussing different theoretical traditions such as totemism, lineage theory, and alliance theory.

Middleton, John. Lugbara Religion. London, 1960; new edition, Oxford, 1999. A classic account of kinship and ancestor worship in Africa.

Mosko, Mark. "On 'Virgin Birth,' Comparability, and Anthropological Method." Current Anthropology 39, no. 5 (1998): 685687. A short but concise discussion of Trobriand Islanders' cultural theory of conception, including relevant references.

Morphy, Howard. Ancestral Connections: Art and the Yolngu System of Knowledge. Chicago, 1991. A readable ethnography on the complex relations of ceremony, art, land, ancestry, and kinship among an Aboriginal Australian people.

Ortiz, Alfonso. The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being, and Becoming in a Pueblo Society. Chicago, 1969. An encompassing ethnographic account of a system of dual classification, of the dynamic of its inherent division and unity, tracing its application in all aspects of culture.

Schneider, David M. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968.

Schneider, David M. A Critique of the Study of Kinship. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1984.

Schweitzer, Peter, ed. Dividends of Kinship: Meanings and Uses of Social Relatedness. London and New York, 2000. These articles examine kinship as a practice and explore how kinship is embedded in social life through the way people in various cultures make kinship concepts work to address specific opportunities and pursue social strategies.

Strathern, Marilyn. The Gender of the Gift. Berkeley, Calif., 1988. One of the most theoretically innovative and influential comparative works by a leading anthropologist, a synthesis addressing kinship, personhood, gender, and sociality in Melanesia.

Strathern, Marilyn. After Nature: English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1992. An account of English kinship in the context of knowledge production, assisted human reproduction, and consumer society, tracing the wider implications of producing natural ties through reproductive technology for the way human knowledge is conceptualized.

Wagner, Roy. "Are There Social Groups in the New Guinea Highlands?" In Frontiers of Anthropology, edited by Murray J. Leaf. New York, 1974. A seminal essay showing how the exchange of food substances connects with kinship substance in a New Guinea society and how kin groups are elicited temporarily through the use of named differentiations and constitute themselves in the process of such successive exchange events, rather than in a given kinship structure.

Wagner, Roy. "Scientific and Indigenous Papuan Conceptions of the Innate." In Subsistence and Survival: Rural Ecology in the Pacific, edited by Timothy P. Bayliss-Smith and Richard G. Feachem, pp. 385410. London and New York, 1977.

Weiner, Annette. Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives on Trobriand Exchange. Austin, Tex., 1976.

Claudia Gross (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Andrejs Plakans

When used by historians, the term "kinship" and its variants ("kinship ties," "kin networks") commonly point to a domain of social connections individuals had by virtue of birth and marriage. In everyday life these ties generated kinship roles (father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, cousin, etc.) which, if and when enacted, entailed certain rights, responsibilities, and behaviors. The enactment of these roles left various kinds of evidence in the historical record. In earlier research, scholars often drew a line between "family" (parents and children) and "kin" (other relatives), but because of the influence of anthropology on social history, this practice has now faded. Historical researchers usually include within kinship investigations not only family but also types of "fictive" kinship, such as godparenthood. In the study of historical kinship in Europe, most of the questions raised initially about the continent are still very much open: Which persons in a pool of potential kin were socially recognized as such, and how did these practices differ among traditional European societies? What rights and obligations did various kinship statuses entail? Were there "systems" of kinship, and how binding were the "rules" of such systems? Did enactment of kinship roles over time produce a collective "tilt," so that a past society can be characterized as, for example, "patrilineal" or "bilateral"? And how did the kinship domain interact with other social domains such as marital practices, property relationships, friendship circles, and the legal order?

The expectation among historians of Europe that kin ties had significance in historical explanation of both individual and collective behavior is of long standing. With some exceptions, however, prior to the 1960s and 1970s research tended to follow a biographical model, focusing on concrete historical individuals and their kin involvements when the narrative required. Sometimes this thrust was enlarged, as when in prosopographical research (collective biography) a collection of individuals of the same kind were investigated. But in the 1960s the confluence of new research directions changed this approach and produced, within the context of a "new social history," what might be called a new kinship history as well. The research mode identified with the French journal Annales called for an exploration of social (and other) "structures of long duration" (la longue durée); and in England the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure initiated major quantitative projects in what were termed historical sociology and historical demography. A greater openness among historians toward the methods and subject matter of such social sciences as sociology and anthropology (particularly the latter, as far as kinship was concerned) complemented these philosophical and methodological changes. As a result, among historians studying Europe both European and non-European, much more attention than ever before came to be paid to the social relationships that connected people by birth and marriage.

This new "agenda" remained highly decentralized, of course, with some researchers seeking to identify kinship structures that persisted over long periods of time, others investigating the "kinship content" of such microstructures as the household, and still others exploring how long-term changes in fertility, mortality, and migration affected the number and types of kin available in particular historical situations. Much of this work was conducted within other specialties of the new social history, such as family history, the history of women, and the history of children. The new kinship history shared the new social history's interest in nonelites ("history from the bottom up"), though a number of prominent researchers continued their work on nobilities. Historians who did not find these new directions compelling continued to work in the older but still very vibrant biographical mode. One might also observe that these new directions were as fruitful to the study of kinship patterns in the medieval period of European history as in the period after the Renaissance.

In the post-1970s decades, researchers of historical kinship have continued to work largely along the lines established in the founding period, while absorbing yet newer emphases. Among the latter have been the stress on such variables as class, ethnicity, and sex—since kin ties may have been understood and experienced differently by the rich and the poor, men and women, German and Swede—and the injunctions stemming from postmodernism, which underline that all social relationships and accompanying vocabularies must be examined within the context of the deployment of power. There has also been a general deemphasis on the search for "kinship rules" and a new stress on the instrumental nature of kinship ties—on the notion, in other words, that such ties can be bent or ignored or treated playfully when situations warrant. With respect to research tools, historical kinship study has benefited from computers, which are of immense assistance not only in compiling and managing databases but also in producing data configurations with lightning speed. Because historical kinship research normally begins with the scrutiny of complex networks of linked individuals, rapid mechanical reconstruction of such configurations has saved countless research hours.

Though four decades of development seem a long time, the operations of kinship in most of the societies of historic Europe still have not received systematic description. Most of the newer research has been conducted in the history of western and northern Europe (England, France, the Scandinavian countries), with central Europe (the German lands, the Habsburg monarchy) next in line. The Balkan Peninsula has long held a special place in European kinship research because of the work of anthropologists on its complex patrilineal household formations (the zadruga); similar work in other areas of eastern Europe did not begin until the 1990s. (Here, the Marxist-Leninist paradigm that controlled historical research for many decades pictured kinship largely as a feudal matter, that was being left behind by a society evolving toward socialist modernity.) Nonetheless, in spite of the unevenness of research, the study of kinship has become an inextricable part of European social history.


In moving from the study of concrete historical personages and their kin to an examination of kinship as a structuring principle of communities and entire societies, historians turned their attention to new ways of merging primary sources. Those that had been used earlier—such documents as wills and testaments, autobiographical accounts, marriage contracts, retirement contracts, letters, and land and court records—had to be supplemented in order for coverage to include not only the classes of people who used such instruments but the common people as well. The new sources included household lists and registers of birth, death, and marriage. Listings frequently contained a profusion of kin terms, while vital registers, if integrated through nominal linkage, by definition could yield examinable networks of related people.

In the analysis of these newer sources, historians were at a disadvantage when compared to anthropologists, who had studied kinship in living communities for about a century. First, anthropologists could question the people whose relations they studied and obtain from them the meaning of kin terms and information about rights and obligations kin statuses entailed. Also, true to the imperatives of their discipline, anthropologists had elaborated a vast body of theory about kinship phenomena, so that results of fresh studies could be, in a sense, fitted into and made sense of by reference to an existing corpus of propositions about how kinship worked. Historians, by contrast, had no such theories about the past, though they were aware of the quasi-historical theories put forth by nineteenth-century sociologists about long-term changes in kinship relations on the European continent—that with increased migration kin networks had become diluted, that kinship had become a spent force with the onset of modernity, that the typical kin cluster of the modern world had become the two-generational nuclear family. These ideas, as it turned out, were, at best, hypotheses to be tested continually; certainly, given their generality they could not help in organizing the close-to-the-ground information to which historians now turned their attention.

The problems of dealing with the new evidence were numerous. To begin with, the most useful sources for kinship research about common people—household listings that used relational terminology, vital registers that listed kin-connected persons over time and in separate volumes—not only did not state the names of all possible kin roles a given configuration could yield, but they also rarely supplied evidence about how kin behaved toward each other. For example, a configuration of terms such as "husband, wife, son, daughter"—all that was usually needed for an enumerator to produce a household list—stated only four role labels but implied at least as many others—father, mother, brother, sister. In evidence culled from vital registration lists, the problem of implicit roles became even more serious because careful linkage of, for example, a series of father-son dyads could implicitly yield such role labels as grandfather, grandson, uncle, nephew, and so on, even though the terms for these roles would not actually appear in the source itself. Moreover, these sources yielded static relationships rather than direct evidence about behavior, leaving it to the historian to impute social significance to an uncovered relationship. In other words, when it came to kinship, even the smallest data set required much inferential thinking, as well as necessitating the linking of these genealogical constructs to sources that would yield evidence about transactions among the named persons.

Continued research at the level of individual persons also raised the question of the representativeness of the communities being researched, in two senses. First, there was the question of how many examples of an enacted kin relationship were needed before the relationship could be judged to be a significant one for the community in question. Second, the question arose of what kind of hierarchies of kin relationships existed, so that certain of them could be judged to be more important than others. Clues to the questions that needed asking could be obtained from anthropological research on kinship, but historians could not—as anthropologists could—ask the people being studied for their views on the matter. Beyond that, it was not at all clear what kinds of kin relations had to be identified as socially significant before an entire community could be described as having an operative kinship rule, or how much variation could be permitted without losing the ability to characterize a region as one that had, say, patrilocal post-marital residence (i.e., newly married couples coming to live in the husband's father's household).

To avoid the problems of imperfect historical sources, some researchers, aided by the computer, made use of the technique of microsimulation. In this the starting point was either a real or an imagined population, the development of which over time was simulated rather than followed in the historical record. The technique required the stipulation of rates of birth, death, marriage, and migration, as well as the stipulation of the mean ages at which these events were likely to have taken place. The exercise was useful for answering such questions as, for example, how many different kin of certain types could a person have in a given demographic regime. Moreover, by comparing real-world findings with simulated results, it was possible to gauge whether a particular community was "normal" or somehow extraordinary. The technique did not call for the substitution of simulated populations for real ones, but it did improve the chances of evaluating the findings about real populations.

A final problem pertained to the evidence that presumably was needed for documenting kinship change over long periods of time—a goal of prime importance to historians. Several choices presented themselves. One could study kinship cross-sectionally at several points in time in many communities and infer long-term change from the nature of the structures present at these points. One could also follow the kinship domain in a single community for as long as the sources permitted, thus obtaining a more reliable record of changes but sacrificing geographical coverage. Beyond that, one also had to choose among the configurations that best manifested long-term kinship change—the lineage, the coresident kin group, the shifting meaning of a particular dyadic relationship—and make the case that these and not others were the best indicators of kinship change in the long term. Alternately, one could invest all research effort in analyzing a community at a single point in the past, in the hope that others would complement the effort by studying similar communities in later and earlier time periods. None of these alternatives has shown itself as being easy, nor as the clear path to unchallengeable characterizations of long-term kinship change.


The origins of the new direction in kinship research during the 1960s and 1970s are to be found in the work of, and the research engendered by, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. In some respects, its innovations were inadvertent, because the group's concerns were focused not on kinship per se but on the comparative long-term history of the domestic group (or family household). In the course of laying out an agenda, researchers found the need to create a system of classification that counted, among other things, the kin of the household head—relatives who were not the spouse and offspring of the head (coresident kin). Though in household listings from northeastern Europe (including Great Britain) the proportion of coresident kin turned out to be comparatively low, in listings from other European sites (particularly eastern Europe), the proportion was much higher. This information provided an important clue to how domestic groups differed across the European continent. In some places, kin-linked groups dispersed, while in others there was a pronounced tendency for kin groups to stay close together—even coreside—as long as the resources of the holding supported them. These differing characteristics were judged to be important because they provided a clue to how groups perpetuated their structures over generations. It was hypothesized that children growing up in groups of certain structures—ranking from simple to complex—were likely to internalize the values of such groups and to recreate the same structures over the course of many generations.

Moreover, anthropological theory suggested that the "coresident kin" were an important clue to general kinship principles active in the community under study. Where no coresident kin were present in the household, the practices of the community endorsed "neolocal postmarital residence" (i.e., newly married couples set up households separate from their parents). By contrast, the presence in the household of married sons and married brothers of the household head suggested patrilocal postmarital residence principles at work. In the developmental cycle of the household, sons upon marriage remained living with the parental couple, but married daughters went to live with the parents of their husbands. Somewhat later in the cycle, after the parental couple had died, a listing of the group would show a structure consisting of married brothers. Moreover, the types of kin who coresided indicated other kin preferences in the community. Coresiding married sons and married brothers (as contrasted with coresiding married daughters and married sisters) suggested that the community, and perhaps the region, valued patrilineality (i.e., males in the father's line staying together as long as possible). The presence of only one married son could be considered a clue to the active use of the stem-family principle, which means that a designated male heir stays with the parents while others disperse. The presence of sons-in-law suggested that in times of crises (no sons, death of designated heir, underage sons), the family could violate postmarital patrilocality and allow a married daughter and her husband to coreside with the current head. In areas where there were no coresident kin or the proportions were very low, the question of how domestic groups worked to perpetuate themselves would have to be sought in other evidence, but where coresident kin did exist, they were an important interpretative resource. In their work anthropologists readily moved from findings about the characteristics of domestic groups to statements about general kinship principles underlying group structures, and researchers following the Cambridge Group's approach tended to adopt this strategy as well.

In order to provide a framework for ongoing research, in 1983 Peter Laslett proposed a four-part regionalization of the European continent in light of the evidence that had been uncovered to date about historical domestic group structures. This scheme, consisting of thirty-three criteria, suggested that "tendencies in domestic group organization" in Europe demonstrated the existence of four broad zones—west, west-central, Mediterranean, and east. With respect to kinship within the household, the proposal suggested that the proportion of coresident kin in the domestic groups of the western zone had tended to be very low, in the west-central zone low as well, and in the Mediterranean and eastern zones high. Married brothers in the western zone had been virtually absent from the historical record of households, while in the west-central zone their proportions had been low, and in the Mediterranean and the eastern very high. Subsequent research on household kinship has not overturned this schema, even while scholars dealing with particular communities have found the formulation problematic, especially as far as the eastern and Mediterranean zones are concerned.

Prolonged comparative research on kin within the household necessarily led to questions about kin who were not in coresidence with each other—a line of inquiry that has yet to run its full course. The main questions were whether dispersed kin maintain relations with each other so that they could be conceptualized as a corporate group; if so, what structures these groups had; and what difference the existence of such groups made for the individuals and families composing the group. The main obstacle to systematic research about non-coresident kin was always the nature of the primary sources, all of which—especially household lists and vital registers—required time-consuming and expensive linkage projects before such broader questions could be addressed. The yield of positive links from such linking projects tended to be socially skewed (the propertied and titled classes having much better documentation than the common people) and problematic (names did not match, and in many parts of Europe population turnover was much more rapid than had been believed). Turnover led to the dispersion of sibling groups, sometimes far beyond the borders of the community and thus beyond the reach of reconstruction. There was no warrant for believing that such far-flung ties were always and everywhere broken permanently, because they could always be reactivated. But it did mean that whereas kin configurations within the domestic group could be described comparatively precisely, those that involved different residences and different communities continued to lead a shadowy existence as far as empirical research was concerned. In principle, through the adept use of precise genealogical information it was possible to reconstruct—at least for the higher social orders—all manner of wide-reaching kin networks, but the act of reconstruction was not in and of itself evidence that the network members used their ties or even recognized them. It remains to be seen what use, if any, was made of such ties, whether some were activated more than others, and whether distance tended to equalize all such kin relationships.

Work on these and related questions produced research strategies to overcome the obvious difficulties. One such strategy has been to choose a defining framework and to define kin ties outside the frame as irrelevant. This strategy is an expanded variant of the study of household kinship, where the household boundary provides the frame. A larger frame can be provided by the community—village, serf estate, neighborhood of a city—and the kin ties deemed important are those which play out within the history of the unit. This choice is analogous to traditional anthropological field research, in which the small community was the focus. Another strategy focuses on a particular time-based kinship formation—a lineage, for example, and most commonly a patrilineage—and uses only its members (individual and families) as objects of study. This strategy can produce results at a point in past time when the relationships of all living lineage members are scrutinized, as well as over time, if the lineage is successful in persisting and has an existence over many generations. If a particular community's past is well documented, it is of course possible to study lineage formation and lineage extinction within a community over a long period of time. A third strategy has been to explicate the kinship ties of a single historical person within and outside that person's place of residence, starting with the information in an exceptionally informative historical document such as a diary. Identifying the composition of personal kin networks has been a normal part of the anthropologists' arsenal of weapons in kinship study, but, in the historical context, this strategy leaves unanswered the question of the representativeness of the individual and the community in which the individual resides.

A fourth strategy for examining kin activity outside the household is to focus on social processes that are not by definition a result of kinship activity but do involve kin. Thus, for example, studies of migration have revealed that kin of migrants could be helpful in the move by providing temporary homes at the point of arrival or a set of temporary residences during the move itself. In such studies, it is not kinship itself that is of interest but the uses to which kin ties can be put. Similarly, the workings of inheritance systems have yielded valuable information about kinship ties. Another example is recruitment to political office in premodern governments, since in these nepotism played a substantial role. In these studies, of course, there is no need to identify all existing kin ties, since the only directly relevant ones are those which the evidence marks as having been used. Yet without information on the ties not used, the researcher remains in the dark about why these ties and not others were activated, since the "population at risk" from which the used ties were drawn remains unknown.

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, investigations of kinship outside the household moved forward at a slower pace than studies of household kinship. Moreover, the same geographical skewing exists in both subfields, with one notable exception. Generally, we know far more about kinship outside the household in western Europe than in central or eastern Europe. The exception is, again, the Balkan Peninsula, which has fascinated anthropologists for several generations. The kin-focused studies of the English nobility have few parallels—in studies of, for instance, the Russian nobility—and, at a different end of the social spectrum, studies of kinship in the villages of eastern Europe remain sparse in comparison with the numerous village studies in France. In the 1980s, German and Italian scholarship began to turn to questions about social microstructures and kinship as well, but in all cases many of the questions this research direction raised at the outset remain only partially answered.


Implicit in kinship research efforts has been the assumption that kin ties bind persons to certain behaviors. If generalized throughout a community, region, and society, and if demonstrated to be operative over long periods of time, such constraints could then be thought of as examples of "structures of long duration," predisposing (or binding) people to act in certain ways, even if only half-consciously. Dedicated empiricists among kinship researchers would have liked to wait for sufficient micro-level research before drawing such macro-level conclusions, but, generally speaking, work has proceeded in a somewhat less ordered fashion. Findings about the operation of kinship in everyday life have confirmed, rather than uncovered, the long-held view that traditional European society placed greater emphasis on relatives on the father's than on the mother's side (patrifocal rather than matrifocal), that Europeans who found lineage reckoning of use tended to favor patrilines rather than matrilines, that in postmarital residence decisions it was the groom's father's household that was favored, and that in many inheritance settlements it was sons rather than daughters who benefited the most. In such matters, kinship research about Europe has brought no surprises. To the extent that kinship ties manifested themselves as long-term practices or structures, these favored males while not always totally disadvantaging females. What kinship research has accomplished, however, is to demonstrate how everyday life, when it involved kinship ties, did not necessarily treat structures as sacrosanct, as a set of hard and fast rules. Thus Laslett's concept of "tendencies" in domestic group characteristics is useful in an even larger sense. Even though research on kinship has repeatedly demonstrated that custom and tradition favored males, it has also demonstrated just as convincingly Europeans' readiness not to disfavor females. This emerges when the starting point of research is shifted from "structures" and "rules" to individual-centered networks and to events in the individual life course.

Existing research has shown that such a shift is not simply a matter of changing research strategies but the logical next step in how historical kinship needs to be studied. It is entirely possible to view a "kinship system" from different positions, with structural features being one position and individual kinship another. The principles demonstrably operating in these different realms may seem to be incongruous, but that is evidence that a kinship system may itself contain seemingly incongruous elements. Empirical research on kinship in the European past has demonstrated quite convincingly that great care must be exercised before assuming that there was one European system or that, within it, we can easily delineate cultural areas in which determinative subsystems with certain characteristics operated over time.

Within the general context of male-favoring kinship structures, it has become obvious that when necessary individuals used kin connections on both the father's and mother's side: ego-based kinship, to use the anthropological term, was bilateral. Assistance, favors, support, and other help of various kinds for a person in trouble could just as easily flow from one's matrilineal as patrilineal relatives. At times, this was dictated by necessity, when demographic cataclysms had reduced the number of patrilineal kin; but even when both sides were thriving numerically, Europeans could count on help on both sides when they needed it.

Certain practices that seemed to favor females over males were profoundly disturbing when brought into play. An example is the in-marrying son-in-law, a kin type that appears in those traditional societies where coresidence of married couples was common. Ordinarily, household succession concerned sons, but when a couple had had only daughters or when sons had died, there was little hesitancy to incorporate into the domestic group a son-in-law as a potential heir. In communities where this was common, the practice was frequently surrounded by loss of face for the parental couple and the son-in-law. In these situations, however, it is clear that it was the survival of the family's base—the farm or holding—that was of principal importance, even though survival was accomplished through a break in the patriline.

A much more direct threat to the perpetuation of kinship structures and rules was the growing significance of the nuclear family unit, a slow process starting perhaps in the seventeenth but definitely present by the eighteenth century. In this shift, wider kin ties were not necessarily severed but were deemphasized. Thus the husband-wife and parent-child ties became more important than the ties between the same husband and his father and other patrilineal relatives. Emphasis shifted from a kind of equality among one's own children and the children of one's siblings and became focused on one's own children. In this situation the wife ceased to think of herself as still attached, even after marriage, to her father's line, and increasingly began to think of herself as the spouse of her husband, irrevocably removed from the father's kin network.

It is very probable that this shift, operating from the eighteenth century onward, gradually equalized kin ties to persons outside the conjugal family unit. Specific kin ties to particular individuals lost whatever force they had had before, and all kin beyond the conjugal family became more or less interchangeable. Such a shift did not invent a new feature of European kinship but simply enhanced the importance of existing bilaterality. In some societies, especially in western and northern Europe, where domestic groups were always small and did not often include coresident married relatives, this shift—judging by the fuzziness of kinship terminology—was already under way before the eighteenth century. Elsewhere, where coresidential kinship was more complex, the specificities of individual links were maintained for a longer time. Demographic trends clearly accentuated the equalization of kin relationships. In the nineteenth century, as levels of intracontinental migration increased dramatically, and as out-migration to North American and other continents increased as well, kin ties were severed and the specificities of relationships lost. Reforms in the law came increasingly to enshrine equal inheritance among offspring, so that it became increasingly difficult to favor sons over daughters.

Several features of these long-term shifts appear to stand out. First, it has not been demonstrated unequivocally that, with the so-called "triumph" of the modern nuclear family, kin ties beyond the family have been permanently abrogated. Repeatedly, research has shown that kin remained an important point of reference, and kin networks could be mobilized to fulfill various kinds of support functions. Kinship obligations to specific persons might no longer be felt as mandatory, but kin continue to be recognized as a group distinct from friends and strangers. This has been particularly evident in European societies in which the twentieth century has brought long periods of social stress. Documentation of familial behavior during the two world wars, for example, shows repeated instances of the use of kin networks for survival, and the collapse of communist regimes and the transformation of state systems in Eastern Europe in the 1989–1991 period has demonstrated again the importance of kin networks for all manner of assistance. Stories associated with continuing insurgencies in the post-1991 Balkan area (e.g., Kosovo) document Kosovo Albanians mobilizing transcontinental networks of relatives to assist in the battle for "national independence." Though there is considerable evidence about the equalization and democratization of kin connections, there is little that suggests that kin have been made equal to friends.

Second, kinship theorists have at times made reference to "modern" European kinship, which carried the implications that "modernity" was a permanently achieved state and that the interchangeability of kin ties had permanently superseded all other kin characteristics. With increasing doubts about the permanence of the "modern," however, it is fair to say that there is no historical warrant for assuming that the present state will last forever. The appropriate assessment would be that the present is a phase—neither higher nor lower—of the continually unfolding social history of the European continent, and that the current configurations do not provide any usable clues to what the characteristics of future phases will be.

Third, some features of "modern" European family life may make kin reckoning more difficult and dethrone lineage reckoning entirely. The high proportion of marriages that end in divorce, the equalization of state benefits to married and unmarried cohabiting couples, the diminishing fertility rate, and the growing popularity of no-child or single-child families all disrupt lineage formation and lineage calculation. The proportion of Europeans involved in such phenomena appears to be growing. If such trends continue, the identification of lineages will clearly become virtually impossible, and perhaps irrelevant.

See alsoThe European Marriage Pattern (volume 2) and other articles in this section.


Anderson, Michael. Family Structure in Nineteenth Century Lancashire. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

Brandes, Stanley H. Migration, Kinship, and Community: Tradition and Transition in a Spanish Village. New York, 1975.

Cressy, David. Coming Over: Migration and Communication between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Flandrin, Jean Louis. Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household, and Sexuality. Cambridge, U.K., 1979

Fortes, Meyer. Kinship and the Social Order: The Legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan. Chicago, 1970.

Goody, Jack, Joan Thirsk, and E. P. Thompson. Family and Inheritance: Rural Society in Western Europe, 1200–1800. Cambridge, U.K., 1976.

Halpern, Joel M., and Barbara Kerewsky Halpern. A Serbian Village in Historical Perspective. New York, 1972.

Imhof, Arthur E. Lost Worlds: How Our European Ancestors Coped with Everyday Life and Why Life Is So Hard Today. Translated by Thomas Robisheaux. Charlottesville, Va., 1996.

Kertzer, David I. Family Life in Central Italy, 1880–1910: Sharecropping, Wage Labor, and Coresidence. New Brunswick, N.J., 1984.

Langham, Ian. The Building of British Social Anthropology: W. H. R. Rivers and His Cambridge Disciples in the Development of Kinship Studies, 1898–1931. Dordrecht, Holland, 1981.

Lynch, Joseph H. Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Macfarlane, Alan. The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, a Seventeenth-Century Clergyman: An Essay in Historical Anthropology. Cambridge, U.K., 1970.

Maynes, Mary Jo, et al., eds. Gender, Kinship, Power: a Comparative and Interdisciplinary History. New York, N.Y., 1996.

Murray, Alexander C. Germanic Kinship Structure: Studies in Law and Society in Antiquity and in the Early Middle Ages. Toronto, 1983.

Plakans, Andrejs. Kinship in the Past: An Anthropology of European Family Life, 1500–1900. Oxford, 1984.

Sabean, David Warren. Kinship in Neckarhausen, 1700–1870. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Segalen, Martine. Fifteen Generations of Bretons: Kinship and Society in Lower Brittany, 1720–1980. Translated by J. A. Underwood. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Segalen, Martine, and Marianne Gullestad, eds. Family and Kinship in Europe. London, 1997.

Smith, Richard M., ed. Land, Kinship, and Life-Cycle. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Strathern, Marilyn. Kinship at the Core: An Anthropology of Elmdon, a Village in North-West Essex in the Nineteen-Sixties. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Wall, Richard, Jean Robin, and Peter Laslett, eds. Family Forms in Historic Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Wolfram, Sybil. In-laws and Outlaws: Kinship and Marriage in England. London, 1987.


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All human beings are connected to others by blood or marriage. Connections between people that are traced by blood are known as consanguineal relationships. Relationships based upon marriage or cohabitation between collaterals (people treated as the same generation) are affinal relationships. These connections are described by genealogies and/or academic kinship charts, which trace the consanguineal and affinal relationships among individuals. Theoretically, the kinds of relationships that these charts and genealogies describe are the same for all individuals in all cultures—that is, any person can in principle trace a relationship to a spouse, children, children's children, parents, parents' siblings, the spouses and children of parents' siblings, and so on. However, people in different societies customarily calculate genealogical connections differently, recognizing some kinds of relationships and ignoring others. The culturally determined genealogies turn objective relationships of blood and marriage between people into kinship. In no culture are all genealogical relationships recognized as kin relations. All people have kin relations about whom they know nothing, and everyone knows of relatives who have no importance in their lives. Genealogical relationships that have no social significance, either because the individuals whom they designate are unknown or because they are known but ignored, are not kin in the social sense. Genealogical ties that a culture chooses to recognize are what constitute an individual's kin.

Kinship relations have routinely captured the attention of students of human culture. This is especially true of anthropologists, whose major focus has traditionally been upon kin-based societies. Kinship, once a primary focus of cultural anthropology, has faded in centrality since the 1970s as many traditional societies have been drawn into the world system. The significance of kin relations begins to diminish only in large societies with mobile populations and money-based economies. By contrast, kin relations in most nonindustrial cultures underlie such critical domains as place of residence, inheritance customs, religious obligations, political power, economic relations, domestic life, and choice of spouse. People across cultures are more likely to turn to kin than to nonkin for help and are more likely to give aid and comfort to kin than to nonkin (Broude 1994).

If kin relations are the result of the selective interpretation of genealogies by cultures, how do societies accomplish this transformation of biological fact into social reality? The transformation is achieved in part by the way in which a particular culture establishes recognized kin groups and in part by the way in which a society comes to label relatives with respect to some target person. Recognized kin groups are established by and reflected in what are called descent rules. The labeling of relatives is described by a culture's kinship terminology. Further, in all societies, human beings often reside near or with kin. Different cultures, however, follow different rules regarding which kin will live with whom. The three major elements of kinship are rules of descent, kinship terminology, and residence rules. The incest taboo, rules governing marriage choice, and family structure are also important (Fox 1967).


Descent rules define socially recognized kin groups by tracing connections through chains of parent-child ties. A society may focus exclusively on connections traced through the male parent (patrilineal) or through the female parent (matrilineal). In either case, the culture is employing a unilineal, or single-line, descent system.

When descent is patrilineal, the descent group is composed of people of either sex whose fathers belong to the group. Siblings belong to the descent group of their father, but their mother belongs to a different descent group, the group to which her father belongs. Therefore, a man's children will belong to his descent group, but a woman's children will not belong to her descent group. Analogously, if descent is matrilineal, siblings belong to the mother's group but their father does not. A woman's children will belong to her descent group, but a man's children will not belong to his. Sometimes a society will assign individuals to one unilineal descent group for one purpose and to the other for another purpose, resulting in a system of double descent. For example, the person's patrilineal descent group may be in charge of political functions, while inheritance operates through the matrilineal descent group.

In contrast to societies that trace descent unilineally, individuals in some cultures such as the United States are characterized by bilateral descent rules, tracing relationships through both parents. In these societies, other institutions, such as governments, churches, businesses, and voluntary organizations, provide the structure and perform the functions of other societies' kin-based groups. In some societies, descent is traced through one parent for some people and through the other parent for other people; this is ambilineal descent. For instance, males may trace descent through their fathers, and females may trace descent through their mothers.

Because unilineal descent rules produce bounded and nonoverlapping groups, unilineal descent is a more powerful organizing principle than bilateral descent in that unilineal descent groups are able to act as corporate groups on behalf of their members in a way that bilateral descent groups cannot. Each patrilineal descent group in a society that traces descent through the father has a particular identity and membership that is entirely different from the identity and membership of any other patrilineal descent group in the same society. Where descent is traced bilaterally, by contrast, only full siblings belong to precisely the same descent group because only full siblings have the same parents. Where descent is reckoned bilaterally, a person tends to single out some relatives within his or her kin group as more important than others. This close circle of kin is referred to as one's kindred. Who is included in one's kindred and who is not is a matter of individual choice based upon individual preference and sentiment. What is more, the definition of kindred shifts, depending upon circumstances. For instance, people in the United States are likely to count a smaller number of relatives as close when planning the guest list for Christmas dinner than when they are writing wedding invitations. In either case, because bilateral descent groups fan out indefinitely, it becomes hard to decide where to draw the line between kin who are close and kin who are not. Since each person belongs to a unique descent group and different bilateral descent groups in the same society have somewhat overlapping but also somewhat different memberships, these groups cannot function effectively as representatives of their members.

Unilineal descent, specifically patrilineal descent, is the most common system of reckoning (Ember and Ember 1988). Therefore, the majority of cultures around the world exploit blood and marriage connections to maximize the power and effectiveness of the kin group in supervising a wide variety of activities in which individuals participate. Unilineal descent groups are important sources of political power in many societies. The leaders can arbitrate disputes between individuals within the descent group or between different descent groups. They can go to war in support of a group member and retaliate for wrongs done to one of their own. Unilineal descent groups can delegate land rights and often act as a kind of government vis-à-vis the members. Unilineal descent groups also have important economic roles. Such groups can own land, money, houses, religious places and objects, songs, economic capital, and even personal names. Property is often inherited through the unilineal descent group. Unilineal descent groups can lend money and maintain members who have no other means of support. The unilineal descent group is also commonly the center of religious activity. Often a descent group is identified with supernatural beings who may be ancestors or claimed ancestors of members of the group. Supernaturals may be believed to protect and otherwise affect the members of the group, and the members may, in turn, be required to engage in particular activities in an effort to influence the actions of the supernatural.

Particular descent groups can also be associated with particular sets of taboos that the members of the group are obligated to honor. Marriages, often regulated by the unilineal descent group, may be prohibited or preferred between members of the same descent group, depending upon the norms of the group. Unilineal descent groups may also take over the burden of providing what are sometimes very costly payments to the bride or bride's family when a member of the group is married.

Kinship Terminology

Cultures transform cross-culturally equivalent genealogies into socially defined kin relations by the way in which they name categories of individuals who are members of the kin group. Such naming results in the kinship terminology of the culture. There are two basic sets of kin terms: terms of reference and terms of address. A term of reference is how ego would refer to that relative in communications with others. For example, if ego were asked "Who is that person to you?" he or she might say "That is my father." A term of address is what one calls that person when interacting with him or her—e.g., "Hi, Dad." In all cultures, one or more of nine basic criteria are used in the system of kinship terminology particular to that culture (Kroeber 1909; Murdock 1949): generation, lineality and collaterality, sex, affinity, polarity, bifurcation, relative age, speaker's sex, and address versus reference. In the United States and most other Western societies, the first five criteria are commonly used. North Americans customarily distinguish among kin and assign kin terms on the basis of a person's generation, directness of relationship, sex, ties of blood versus marriage, and the use of different terms by interacting kin.

Different cultures collapse different relatives under one name that allows kinship terminology to transform objectively identical genealogies into different social constructions of kinship. For instance, the kinship terminology employed in the United States uses the term aunt to refer to all of the sisters of a person's mother but employs a different term for the mother herself. In some other cultures, by contrast, a person's mother and the mother's sister are referred to by the same term. Relatives who are called by the same label tend to be identified with similar roles, responsibilities, and privileges with regard to ego. Similarly, relatives who are distinguished from each other terminologically also tend to play distinctive roles with respect to ego. Kin names, therefore, act to reinforce cultural expectations about how kin will behave toward one another. While classificatory kin terms emphasize similarities in the relationships of different kin to ego, individuals distinguish between relatives who are called the same name and respond to them differently in a myriad of ways. Thus, in societies where mother and mother's sisters are called by the same term, children know the difference between their mothers and aunts, treat them differently, and feel differently about them. The collapsing of different categories of relatives under one label facilitates certain kinds of interactions between kin but does not eradicate an individual's ability to appreciate that people called by the same name are, nevertheless, not the same people.

While kin terminology is not uniform across cultures, there are a number of systems of kin naming that appear over and over from one culture to the next. Six such systems of kinship terminology have been identified, based on the manner in which cousins and siblings are classified: Hawaiian, Eskimo, Sudanese, Iroquois, Crow, and Omaha (Murdock 1949). U.S. kin terms are of the Eskimo type. Cousins are distinguished from brothers and sisters, but cousins on the father's side are not distinguished from those on the mother's side—they are all referred to as cousin.

Cultures that share systems of kinship terminology also tend to be similar in residence patterns, descent rules, and family organization (Levinson and Malone 1980). These similarities in important features of social structure are thought to account for shared kin terminology systems. Societies with similar patterns of descent, residence, and family organization are likely to allocate roles, rights, and responsibilities similarly.

A shared system of kin terminology reflects and reinforces these similar role assignments. For example, in societies that trace descent through the father, a greater number of terminological distinctions are made regarding relatives from different generations for kin traced through the father than for kin traced through the mother. This may be because role, rights, and responsibilities depend upon the age of the relative vis-à-vis ego. As the interactions between an individual and the father's kin are more finely enumerated and distinguished in cultures where descent is traced through the male parent, the generation-based name distinctions on the father's side of the genealogy that are typical of these cultures reflect generation-based role distinctions. As interactions between an individual and relatives traced through the mother are not so finely drawn, terminological distinctions also tend to be less finely distinguished.

In societies that trace descent through the father, married couples also tend to live with or near the husband's family. This means that children of both sexes as well as married males will be interacting daily with relatives traced through the father, while no individuals will ever live where there is a concentration of relatives traced through the mother. The finer distinctions between the father's kin on the basis of age may reflect the far greater number of interactions that an individual will have with these relatives and, therefore, the greater need to distinguish these relatives on the basis of age. Societies that reverse this pattern of kin naming, distinguishing between mother's but not father's kin on the basis of generation, tend to trace descent through the female parent. In cultures of this kind, married couples are more likely to live with or near the wife's family. The greater role of the mother's kin in the life of the individual is mirrored in the more clearly differentiated kin labeling with respect to relatives traced through the mother.

Residence Rules

In all known cultures, at least some people—usually the majority—live near or with kin. Which kin live together differs from one society to the next and from family to family within a culture, but one particular kind of household tends to predominate in a given society. This is in part because many cultures have explicit rules that specify where a married couple will establish their new home.

In most societies around the world, newly married people are required or expected to live with or near the husband's family. This patrilocal residence pattern is found in 70 percent of a sample of 1,153 cultures (Levinson and Malone 1980). Residence is matrilocal in 11 percent of these societies, with a married couple living with or near the wife's family. Couples live apart from both the husband's and the wife's families in 5 percent of cultures. Husbands and wives are expected to live with or near the husband's mother's brother in 4 percent, a pattern known as avunculocality, or the uncle's place. Residence rules that require a couple to live with or near the family of one or the other spouse are known as unilocal rules. In 7 percent of cultures, a married couple can live with or near the family of either spouse, based on bilocal residence rules. Sometimes couples change households over the course of their marriage. Patrimatrilocal residence rules require couples to live first with the husband's family and then with the wife's parents. In matripatrilocal cultures, the opposite occurs.

Particular rules of residence seem to occur more frequently in some kinds of cultures than in others. Neolocal residence is most common in societies whose economies depend upon money. The introduction of money into a culture means that individuals can obtain what they need on a flexible schedule, so that a husband and wife are no longer as dependent upon kin for the necessities of life. Further, in money-based economies, people are not as free to remain in one place; they may be required to move to where a job is available. Moving entire households composed of parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins is impractical. Therefore, as money economies make couples more independent and also more mobile, living with relatives becomes less necessary and less realistic (Ember and Ember 1983).

In most cultures, people live with relatives. Some theorists have suggested that the particular choice of relatives with whom to live is influenced by which sex makes the greater economic contribution in the culture (Levinson and Malone 1980; Murdock 1949). Residence would be patrilocal where men make the greater economic contribution and matrilocal where the contribution of women is greater. This theory is intuitively attractive, but in fact residence rules are not predictably related to the roles of men and women in the economy. However, residence rules are predictably related to warfare (Ember and Ember 1983). In particular, where wars tend to be waged between groups who live far apart from each other, interfering with the subsistence activities of the men, residence rules tend to be matrilocal. Perhaps this is because matrilocality allows a closely related and therefore cohesive group of women to take charge of subsistence tasks when the men are away. Where enemies are close to home, societies are more likely to be patrilocal. Perhaps under these circumstances, families wish to keep the men at home as a kind of militia. Bilocality also occurs in particular kinds of cultures. Societies that allow a married couple to live with either set of parents have often been recently depopulated by disease. Dramatic population reductions of this sort may mean that one parent or set of parents has died. The flexibility of the bilocal residence means that a particular couple can choose to live with whichever parents have survived (Ember and Ember 1983).

In most cultures around the world, people live in the company of kin. The particular patterning of household differs dramatically from culture to culture, but in all cultures, households are composed of relatives. This means that the most fundamental challenges of living are met with the help of kin. Human beings give and receive food from kin, accept the support of kin in the rearing of their children, go to kin when in need of help, and help kin who are in need. Human beings also treat kin preferentially and are, in turn, treated preferentially by kin. For instance, among the Philippine Ilongot, kin ties regulate all important interactions between people (Rosaldo 1980). Kin hunt together and cooperate in the performance of other subsistence activities. A man who must make a marriage payment receives contributions from his kin. Relatives visit each other, provide each other with food and medical knowledge, take care of one another, and tend each other's children. A man will request help from his nephew because he views the child as his own, and a woman will give a sister rice for her family because sisters should feed each other's children. This pattern of nepotism is captured in the familiar homily that "blood is thicker than water." Just as kin are favored over nonkin, closer kin are favored over those who are more distantly related. None of this is surprising. Biological evolutionary theory suggests that because relatives share genes, they should be disposed to be good to each other; contributing to the survival and reproduction of a blood relative results in the proliferation of genes identical to one's own. This is entirely consistent with the Darwinian claim that animals, including the human animal, act in ways that promote the representation of their own genes in the gene pool of their kind.

In the United States and other Western societies, the idealized kinship customs are monogamous marriage, neolocal residence, nuclear families, incest prohibitions within the nuclear family, bilateral descent, and Eskimo kinship terminology. However, there are often important intrasocietal variations in the overall importance of kinship and kin and specific customs, with the most notable ones involving social class and ethnic variation (Schneider 1973).

See also:Aunt; Bride-Price; Clan; Cousins; Dowry; Extended Family; Family, Definition of; Family Theory; Fictive Kinship; Genealogy; Greenland; Husband; Incest/Inbreeding Taboos; Indonesia; In-Law Relationships; Intergenerational Relations; Kenya; Migration; Names for Children; Nigeria; Nuclear Family; Primogeniture; Sibling Relationships; Togo; Uncle; Wife


barnes, j. a. (1971). three styles in the study of kinship. berkeley: university of california press.

broude, g. (1994). marriage, family, and relationships. santa barbara, ca: abc-clio.

ember, c., and ember, m. (1988). anthropology, 5th edition. englewood cliffs, nj: prentice hall.

ember, m., and ember, c. (1983). marriage, family, andkinship: comparative studies of social organization. new haven, ct: hraf press.

fox, r. (1967). kinship and marriage. london: penguin books.

holy, l. (1996). anthropological perspectives on kinship. london; chicago: pluto press.

kroeber, a. l. (1909). "classificatory systems of relationship." journal of the royal anthropological institute of great britain and ireland 39:77–84.

levinson, d., and malone, m. j. (1980). toward explaining human culture. new haven, ct: hraf press.

murdock, g. p. (1949). social structure. new york: macmillan.

parkin, r. (1997). kinship: an introduction to the basicconcepts. oxford, uk: cambridge, ma.: blackwell publishers.

rosaldo, m. z. (1980). knowledge and passion: ilongotnotions of self and social life. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press.

schneider, d. m. (1973). american kinship: a culturalaccount. chicago: university of chicago press.

stephens, w. n. (1963). the family in cross-cultural perspective. new york: holt, rinehart and winston.

gwen j. broude (1995)revised by james j. ponzetti, jr. and james m. white


views updated May 18 2018



Kinship refers to relationships among individuals and groups that are based on descent or marriage. The study of kinship covers how different cultures conceptualize these relationships, the linguistic terms by which they distinguish and classify kin, marriage rules and practices, and the social, political, economic, religious, and symbolic uses that human societies make of kinship. Kinship is a human universal, found in all societies, although the cross-cultural variation in all these aspects of kinship is significant.

Anthropologists use a particular set of symbols to represent kinship relations, see Figure 1. These symbols are used to construct kinship diagrams for many different purposes. For example, they can be used to represent an individuals genealogy as in Figure 2, which shows a male (called ego and shaded in the diagram) in relation to an array of relatives. This diagram also shows that egos four grandparents are deceased and that while many of egos relatives are married, his mothers brother is divorced and his mothers brothers son is unmarried but has a sexual relationship with a partner.

The diagram labels egos kin with English terms that follow the Eskimo terminology system (named after the Inuit, who were once called Eskimos). Other terminology

systems classify kin differently. For example, in the Hawaiian system, ego calls all female kin of his parents generation (mother, mothers sister, and fathers sister) by the same term he or she uses for mother. Worldwide, there are only a few major types of kinship terminology systems.

As with kinship terminology systems, societies vary in how they trace descent and how they use it to form important groups. Some societies follow unilineal descent, meaning that they trace membership in descent groups through one gender only. Unilineal descent may be either patrilineal (tracing descent only through males) or matrilineal (tracing descent only through females). In patrilineal descent, both male and female children inherit

affiliation with their fathers descent group, but only males pass on membership to their children. Chinese societies show examples of patrilineal descent. In the matrilineal case, male and female children are members of their mothers descent group, but only females pass on this membership to their children. The Navajo Native Americans are an example of a matrilineal group. Unilineal societies trace descent through one gender only, but in virtually all societies individuals trace many other ties of kinship bilaterally, or through both parents.

Other societies trace descent cognatically, or through both males and females. All descendants of a founding ancestor may be members of the descent group. An example is the Kwaio of the Solomon Islands, where cognatic descent groups control territory and their members have rights to use this land. Most people of Europe and North America perceive descent cognatically but do not use this principle of decent to form significant groups.

Worldwide, patrilineal descent is the most common, covering an estimated 44 percent of world cultures. Societies tracing descent through both genders account for another 36 percent, whereas matrilineal descent covers about 15 percent of world cultures. Another rare descent type accounts for the final 5 percent.

Many societies with unilineal or cognatic descent use these descent principles to form important groups such as lineages and clans. Lineages are kin groupings in which members are cognizant of the paths through which they trace common descent. Clans are kin groups in which the exact routes by which people trace common descent are not known or considered: Individuals simply know their clan affiliations by inheriting a clan name from a parent. Some societies have both clans and lineages, in which case the lineages are subdivisions of the clans. The founding ancestors of clans are often considered to be mythological animals, plants, or special objects. Many clans have origin myths about how they were created from such mythological forces.

In many societies descent reckoning thus links individuals and groups together into larger kinship units in such a way that descent is a fundamental framework for the social and political organization of a people. In some societies descent groups are extremely important and powerful. They can be large corporations, owning property and other resources in common and transmitting rights to such property over the generations. Often descent groups are interwoven with religion, where, for example, members worship their ancestors in common.

One of the ways in which descent groups are important in the lives of individuals is that descent group membership specifies whom one may or may not marry. Very often descent groups are exogamous, that is, marriage is forbidden within them. In these cases, descent groups may arrange marriages with outside groups as a means of forging important social and political alliances with them. In other cases, descent group endogamy, or marriage within the group, is permitted or encouraged; for example, a man in a patrilineal system may be allowed or encouraged to marry his fathers brothers daughter (or a fathers fathers brothers sons daughter). One consequence of descent group endogamy is that the wealth that both brides and grooms may inherit can be kept within the descent group.

Like notions of descent, the institution of marriage is found in all human cultures. Marriage may either be monogamous (two people, usually a man and a woman, are united in marriage), polygynous (a man is married to more than one woman at the same time), or polyandrous (a woman is married to more than one man at the same time). Monogamous marriages are the most common worldwide. Many societies permit polygyny, but in these, polygynous unions may account for only a fraction of all marriages. Polyandry is rare, but is found among some Tibetan populations and a few other groups.

Along with relationships of descent and marriage, anthropologists have studied how societies construct socalled fictive kinship, that is, kin-like relationships locally understood to be apart from standard kinship. Examples include adopted children, ritual siblings such as blood brothers, and godparents. These kinds of relationships are found worldwide.

The study of family relationships is important in many social sciences, but kinship studies developed as a particularly significant specialty within the discipline of anthropology. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the work of Lewis Henry Morgan (18181881) in the United States brought kinship into the fold of the discipline. Morgan focused on kinship terminology systems and interpreted them as reflecting earlier levels or stages of peoples cultural evolution. This evolutionary perspective of Morgan and others was discredited by later anthropologists, but ever since Morgan, kinship study has continued to reflect the currents of the broader theoretical perspectives within anthropology.

By the 1970s anthropology had accumulated a considerable body of kinship data worldwide. But by this time also, some anthropologists contended that anthropological concepts of kinship had grown too rigid, that they did not quite fit with the way local peoples themselves were conceptualizing their own kinship. In this context, David Schneider in the United States and Rodney Needham in England charged that anthropological kinship was seriously flawed. Schneider in particular pointed out that anthropological concepts of kinship were rooted in notions of biological procreation, reflecting kinship as understood in the particular cultural framework of the Western world. However, other cultures often construct kinship relationships on other bases, such as common residence or food sharing. In other words, the anthropological concept of kinship had been an ethnocentric imposition of Western cultural constructs on other cultures.

With this critique, kinship in anthropology suffered a twenty-year decline, although it was kept alive within feminist anthropology, where it was studied in relation to gender. By this time a shift in kinship studies was evident. Over the first half of the twentieth century anthropologists studied kinship primarily as a key to peoples social, political, and economic structures, often drawing comparisons among cultures. Through the 1980s, by contrast, kinship studies were conducted from within each culture separately, in terms of purely local categories and cultural meanings.

Kinship not only survived in anthropology, but, beginning in the 1990s, it revived. Influencing this revival was Janet Carsten, who sought to broaden the concept of kinship to make it cross-culturally valid. The work of Carsten and others also reflected another trend: the view of kinship as process. Their research demonstrated that in many societies kinship statuses or ties are not set once and for all by acts of birth, but rather emerge, strengthen, or fade through the process of human interactions, for example, the giving and receiving of food. Kinship studies of this period also incorporated the idea of kinship as choice. In the United States and Europe, for example, studies of gay or lesbian families, as well as studies of blended families consisting of stepparents and stepsiblings, have shown that meaningful kinship construction can be as much a matter of choice and commitment as biological connection.

In the opening decades of the twenty-first century the central question of kinship studies became not so much How do kinship systems work? but rather, How do people work cultural constructions of kinship? How do individual human actors confirm, challenge, or change these constructions? With this emphasis kinship studies focused on a wide variety of topics, including the impact on kinship constructions of the new reproductive technologies and new family forms, and the intersection of kinship with political struggles and transformations.



Carsten, Janet. 1995. The Substance of Kinship and the Heat of the Hearth: Feeding, Personhood, and Relatedness Among Malays in Pulau Langkawi. American Ethnologist 22: 223241.

Fox, Robin. 1989. Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Parkin, Robert. 1997. Kinship: An Introduction to Basic Concepts. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Pasternak, Burton, Carol R. Ember, and Melvin Ember. 1997. Sex, Gender, and Kinship: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schneider, David M. 1984. A Critique of the Study of Kinship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Stone, Linda. 2006. Kinship and Gender: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Linda Stone


views updated May 21 2018



Kinship Systems. Scholars have speculated, from the earliest attempts to read hieroglyphs, on the Egyptian kinship system. Much has been written about the importance of matriarchy in ancient Egypt, which modern Egyptologists no longer believe to be true. In fact, recent research has shown that the Egyptian kinship system was not vastly different from later European and American kinship systems. The basic relationships between mother, father, and child are the same in ancient as in modern times. The real difference that led earlier scholars astray was the way kinship terms, such as brother or sister, were used affectionately between lovers or spouses. This use suggested to earlier Egyptologists that incestuous marriages were common.

Terms. Basic kinship terms in ancient Egyptian are mut (mother), jetey (father), sa (son), sat (daughter), sen (brother), and senet (sister). German scholar Detlef Franke points out that these terms really represent four different root words. Sa and sat are merely the masculine and feminine grammatical forms of the same word; the same is true for sen and senet. Thus, the four basic relationships are among the mother, father, male or female child, and male or female sibling. All kinship relations were described using these four words. For example, they can be combined in the form sa senetef (son of his sister) to yield the meaning “his nephew.” Other combinations are known that would be equivalent of niece, cousin, grandmother, and grandfather.

Extended Use of Kinship Terms. Real confusion for modern readers begins with the extended meanings of these terms to other familial generations. Mut can be used, along with its base meaning of mother, for grandmother, great-grandmother, or mother-in-law. The same sequence of father, grandfather, and father-in-law are possible translations for jetey. Sa can refer to grandson, great grandson, or son-in-law and sat can refer to granddaughter, great granddaughter or daughter-in-law. Sen can be an abbreviation for an uncle (father’s/mother’s brother), male cousin (father’s/mother’s brother’s son), nephew (brother’s/sister’s son) or brother-in-law. Senet has a basic meaning, sister,

but also can mean aunt (father’s/mother’s sister), niece (brother’s/sister’s daughter), or sister-in-law. This pattern allows the whole generation of person’s parents to be called brother or sister, and the whole generation of a person’s children to be called son or daughter. But there is no real merging of the kinship relations. The difference between a father and a father’s brother is maintained in inheritance issues. Egyptians also felt definite obligations both to relatives on the mother’s and father’s side of the family.

Matriarchy/Patriarchy. Textual evidence of the kinship system extends to the beginning of Egyptian history. There is no believable evidence of matriarchy (rule by women or through the woman’s line) in Egyptian texts. On the other hand, there is evidence of patriarchy in all periods. Children could, however, inherit property both from their father and mother.

Larger Groups. The Egyptians also had five terms that have sometimes been understood to refer to extended family. Franke’s dissertation describes the way the Egyptians used the terms abut (extended family), weheyet (village community), henu (coresidents), wedjut (coworkers), and khet (group, corporation). The abut included a man and his relatives on both his mother’s and father’s side, his children, and his servants. It did not include his wife’s family. This term went out of use at the end of Dynasty 6 (circa 2350-2170 b.c.e.). The weheyet was a group of families that all lived in the same place; the henu included everyone who lived in a household, whether or not they were blood relatives. This term replaced abut beginning in Dynasty 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.). The wedjut were people who worked at the same place. For example, all the workers in the Temple of Osiris were a wedjut. Finally, the khet was similar to the wedjut, though the former term is much older. Khet was used in Dynasty 2 (circa 2800-2675 b.c.e.) to indicate all the gods. Thus, Egyptians were involved in multiple, important relations based on kinship, hometown, and workplace that all included many mutual obligations.


This papyrus records two different legal actions. First, Nanefer/Rennefer is adopted by her husband, to increase her share of her inheritance of his estate. The second action allows Nanefer to adopt the children of a slave, as well as her own brother, to act as support in her old age.

Year 1, 3rd month of Summer, day 20 under the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ramesses (IX).… On this day, proclamation to Amun of the shining forth of this noble god, he arising and shining forth and making offering to Amun. Thereupon Nebnefer, my husband, made a writing for me, the musician of Seth, Nannefer, and made me a daughter of his, and wrote down for me all he possessed, having no son or daughter apart from myself. [The husband, Nebnefer, speaks] “All profit that I have made with her, I will bequeath it to Nanefer my wife, and if <any of> my own brothers or sisters arise to confront her at my death tomorrow or thereafter and say “Let my brother’s share be given (to me)—” “Behold, I have made the bequest to Rennefer, my wife, this day before Hu-irymu, my sister.”

Year 18, 1st month of Inundation, day 10, under the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ramesses (XI).… On this day, declaration made by the stable master Nebnefer and his wife the musician of Seth of Spermeru Rennefer, to wit:

“We purchased the female slave Dini-huriry and she gave birth to these three children, one male and two female, in all three. And I took them and nourished them and brought them up, and I have reached this day with them without their doing evil towards me, but they dealt well with me, I having no son or daughter except them. And the stable master Padiu entered my house and took Taamon-niu their elder sister to wife, he being related to me and being my younger brother. And I accepted him for her and he is with her at this day. Now behold, I have made her a free woman of the land of Pharaoh, and if she bears either son or daughter, they shall be freemen of the land of Pharaoh in exactly the same way, they being with the stable master Padiu, this younger brother of mine. And the children shall be with their elder sister in the house of Padiu, this stable master, this younger brother of mine, and today I make him a son of mine exactly like them.”

And she said:

“As Amun endures, and the Ruler endures, I hereby make the people whom I have put on record freemen of the land of Pharaoh, and if any son, daughter, brother, or sister of their mother and their father should contest their rights, except Padiu, this son of mine—for they are indeed no longer with him as servants, but are with him as younger siblings, being freemen of the land of Pharaoh—may a donkey copulate with him and a donkey with his wife, whoever it be that shall call any of them a servant. And if I have fields in the country, or if I have any property in the world, or if I have merchants (?), these shall be divided among my four children, Padiu being one of them. And as for these matters of which I have spoken, they are entrusted in their entirety to Padiu, this son of mine who dealt well with me when I was a widow and when my husband had died.”

Before many and numerous witnesses.…

Source: The Adoption Papyrus (Papyrus Ashmolean Museum 1945.96), translated by Janet H. Johnson, in Mistress of the House Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, edited by Anne K. Capel and Glenn E. Markoe (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 183.

Spousal Kinship. Husband and wife did not belong to each other’s kinship group. They were both included, however, in the kinship group of each of their children. Husbands and wives had no control over the property owned by their spouse’s family.


The Declaration of Naunakhte, a Lady of the House in Deir el Medina during Dynasty 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.), was preserved on papyrus. In it Naunakhte explains that only some of her eight children will share in her estate after her death. Naunakhte felt that some of her children had neglected her during the period of her widowhood.

Year 3, fourth month of inundation, day 5 in the reign of… (Ramesses V), given life for ever and eternity.

This day the lady Naunakhte made a record of her property before the following court:

The chief workman Nakhte-em-Mut

The chief workman In-her-kau

(Other names)

She said: “As for me, I am a free woman of the land of Pharaoh. I raised these eight servants of yours, and I outfitted them with every thing that is usual for people of their character. Now look, I have become old, and look, they do not care for me. As for those who put their hands in my hand, to them I will give my property, (but) as for those who gave me nothing, to them I will not give of my property.”

List of the men and women to whom she gave:

The workman Ma’a-nakhte-ef

The workman Qen her khepesh-ef, She said: “I will give him a bronze washing-bowl as a bonus over and above his fellows (worth) 10 sacks of emmer.”

The workman Amen-nakhte

The lady Waset-nakhte

The lady Menet-nakhte.

As for the lady Menet-nakhte, she said regarding her, She will share in the division of all my property, except for the oipe of emmer that my three male children and the lady Waset-nakhte gave me or my hin of oil that they gave to me in the same fashion.’

List of her children of whom she said, They will not share in the division of my one-third, but only in the two-thirds (share) of their father/

The workman Nefer-hotep

The lady Menet-nakhte

The lady Henut-senu

The lady Kha-ta-nebu

As for these four children of mine, they will not share in the division of all my property.

Now as for all the property of the scribe Qen-her-khepesh-ef, my (first) husband, and also his immovable property and the storehouse of my father, and also this oipe of emmer that I collected with my husband, they will not share in them.

But these eight children of mine will share in the division of the property of their father on equal terms.

Source: A. G. MacDowell, Village Life in Ancient Egypt; Laundry Lists and Love Songs (New York Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 38–40.

Social Status. During the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms (circa 2675-1075 b.c.e.), social status was determined by rank at court. Kinship played a less-important role for Egyptians than rank and title.


Delef Franke, “Kinship,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, volume 1, edited by Donald B. Redford (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 245–248.

Sheila Whale, The Family in the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt: A Study of Representations of the Family in Private Tombs (Sydney: Australian Center for Egyptology Studies, 1989).


views updated May 18 2018


In the face of sometimes insurmountable odds, enslaved people made great efforts to maintain family ties. Because men and women were property within the U.S. slave-holding system, they could be bought, sold, or given away on a whim. Slave marriages were not legally binding under the law. Instead, men and women had to establish consensual unions that could be dissolved at any time. Husbands and wives faced constant threat of being sold away from each other. Similarly, enslaved children belonged not to their parents, but solely to the master. However, enslaved men and women did not rely solely upon these familial relationships. Instead, the descendants of African men and women maintained a cultural tradition of intricate extended family networks. Father, mother, and siblings were not the only measure of the concept of family.

Enslaved people maintained a broad network of equally important blood and fictive kin ties. Blood kin were relatives who were directly related to an individual. This extended family consisted of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents and, in the case of the iconic photograph of the family on Smith's Plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, great-great-grandparents. Fictive or "play" kin were non blood kin who were treated like blood kin. These men and women were addressed by names generally reserved for family, such as "Mama," "Papa," "Uncle," "Aunt," "Brother," "Sister," and "Cousin."

Although the terms Uncle and Aunt are the same ones used by whites, they are emblematic of a lack of respect for enslaved men and women. All black men and women were "Aunt" and "Uncle" because they could not be referred to as "Mrs.," "Mr.," or "Miss." However, in the enslaved community, the bonds of fictive kin meant something entirely different. Fictive kin were closer than friends. In some cases, they were able to stand in for blood kin and were respected as such for taking care of children to whom they were not related, and when necessary disciplining them as well. Former slave Allen Allensworth related to his biographer that his fictive aunt Phyllis stood in for his mother when he was sold from the Upper South to the Lower South as a child. She volunteered to care for him like a mother as he had been, for all practical purposes, orphaned by law. As a result, young Allensworth felt an attachment to Aunt Phyllis for the rest of his life. Similarly, Harriet Jacobs spoke fondly of her fictive uncle Fred, who wished to learn to read the Bible. He had no money, but gave Jacobs fruit as payment for her instruction.

Extended families could be maintained because of the housing arrangements of the enslaved on plantations. At Monticello, the enslaved lived in houses along the south side of Mulberry Row. At the Hermitage, the duplex style homes of the Field Quarters housed many family groups. These homes were separated by a thin wall with separate entrances. Family groups lived on either side. Edmund Jenings's plantations had "dwelling houses" and "quarters" both of which housed large groups of enslaved people. On the Sea Islands, a style of enslavement had developed wherein the master of the plantation remained in Charleston during the summer months to avoid the unhealthy atmosphere; the duplex style of home was used to keep large groups of enslaved people together and, with an absentee master, families prospered.

These kinship ties did not stop at the property lines of plantations. Extended kinship groups spread from plantation to plantation. Ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass remembered fondly that his mother, who lived on another plantation, walked 12 miles each way at night to tuck him into bed. She would stay with him through the night and leave early in the morning to walk back to her plantation in time for work the next day. As a result, Douglass recalled that he never saw his mother's face by the light of day.

Historian Herbert Gutman wrote one of the definitions of kin involved being shaped by "[f]amily and kinship patterns of belief and behavior associated with traditional West African tribal societies" (1977, p. 223). Although Gutman did not go into great detail about the topic in his text, he said that West African societies from which the enslaved men and women of America were descended placed high value on extended family and family ties. In the United States nuclear families were disrupted frequently because of sale or other factors, and the extended family was created by enslaved African American men and women using wisps of the West African family structure as a way to maintain family ties.

Recent scholars dispute Gutman's argument. Instead of having a broad-minded way of looking at family and kinship ties—acknowledging that a nuclear family headed by a father is not the only type of family organization that exists—historians have narrowly defined the family. In earlier scholarship, historians were concerned with recreating and identifying all members of the enslaved nuclear family. An unrecorded father was written off as "not listed," and his absence was given as evidence of the weakness of the African American family under enslavement. West African family structures do not look like Western European family structures. In West African cultures there is a long tradition of extended family relationships. Family ties were centered on extended family with male and females as coheads instead of a family group based upon immediate family with a father as head of household. Additionally, as Gutman noted, maternal uncles and aunts were generally at the heads of these family groups rather than fathers and mothers. The West African model of family was secondary to the extended family network.

As a result, contemporary scholarship has suggested that earlier scholars were incorrect in their assumptions that extended families replaced nuclear families for enslaved people. Extended families were not an adaptive form of family groups because the notion of extended family was not a foreign one to people of African descent in America. Their ancestors brought this cultural tradition with them from the West African nation-states from which they came. Therefore the notion of African Americans scrambling to create a family structure as a result of enslavement is not entirely accurate. Europeans could not destroy a family structure that was not the norm for enslaved families of African descent.

These notions of the value of extended family from West Africa and valuing this system over the system of a nuclear family promoted the extended family system, which provided a built-in safety net for enslaved people who could be separated from either blood or fictive kin at the whim of their masters. The bonds of kinship were so sound that to avoid separation, men and women escaping slavery often went to live with kin on other plantations. Children escaped to be with their parents, husbands and wives escaped together, and, in the cases of enslaved people who were particularly skilled at running away, they would frequently return to the plantations from which they had come.

Certain other traditions of kinship were not developed or transformed in America, but instead brought from Africa and manifested in the New World. In traditional West African societies, status comes with age. The older a person is, the more respect they are owed. Elders are closest to ancestors and, because of their life experience, are entitled to esteem. In the New World masters noted that a disapproving look from an elder in the enslaved community was more effective than a beating to keep young people in line. Elders in the community were responsible for maintaining order. Jacobs wrote of her grandmother, who was called Aunt Marthy in the enslaved community, and was well known and respected in among them for her intelligence, skills in food preparation and cheery personality. Moses Roper's grandmother visited him every day and brought him food while he was imprisoned for escaping. Grandy's elderly mother had food brought to her by her children and "other near relations" nightly.

Furthermore, intergenerational bonds were strengthened by naming practices. Enslaved people named their children after fathers, grandparents, and, infrequently, mothers. Children were also given the name of cousins.

Having a large extended family had many benefits and few drawbacks. Family provided refuge from the cruelties of slavery. Kin networks supported and promoted mutual obligations. These obligations ensured that children were clothed, fed, loved, and cherished, the elderly were taken care of, and people of all ages had a sense of connection and nurturing in a community larger than themselves.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, with Related Documents, [1845] ed. David W. Blight. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2003.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Gutman, Herbert George. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Joyner, Charles W. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

                                         Tanya Mears


views updated Jun 11 2018

kinship Kinship is one of the main organizing principles of human society, and kinship systems have been extensively studied by social anthropologists, for whom they are of particular importance because of their primacy in non-state societies. Kinship systems establish relationships between individuals and groups on the model of biological relationships between parents and children, between siblings, and between marital partners. Relationships established by marriage, which form alliances between groups of persons related by blood (or consanguineous ties), are usually referred to as affinal relationships. Some social scientists make a distinction between the study of kinship and the study of affinity. All such studies depend on the assumption that these relationships are systematic, entailing the observation of norms relating to behaviour between those related by kin or affinity. The relationships between parents and children (and by extension between grandparents and grandchildren) determine modes of inheritance as well as the overall political relationships between generations. Like links between siblings, the parent and child dyad can be crucial in establishing incest rules, which determine not only sexual relationships but also the rules underlying affinity, by denoting prohibited or prescribed marital partners. As the social relationships between husband and wife set up relationships between their respective consanguineous groups, the entire complex of kinship and affinal relationships can be seen to be fundamental to the analysis of political, economic, and social relations in non-state societies.

It should be noted that actual biological relationships are not necessary for status within a kinship system to be established. For instance, it may be more important to establish that a child has a social father, who will take responsibility for its welfare and have a right to the product of its labour, than to find out who the biological father might be. Nevertheless, most kinship systems do operate to establish rights in the sexual, reproductive, economic, and domestic services of women. In patrilineal societies, where sons inherit from their fathers, all these rights in women rest with the father until a girl marries, at which point they pass in totality to her husband. Matrilineal societies, on the other hand, focus on the importance of the sibling group. Inheritance passes from mother's brother to sister's son—in other words from uncle to nephew. The variety of ways in which this is organized have been referred to as solutions to the ‘matrilineal puzzle’. In the basic forms it means that brothers have rights over their sisters until they marry. At this point they retain reproductive rights, thus controlling their sisters' sons for inheritance purposes; however, sexual rights pass to the husband, as may rights to domestic services. Economic rights to the products of the sister's labour are likely to remain with the brother or sibling group.

Inheritance apart, kinship and affinity rules may also affect residence, relationships between individuals, modes of address, and various other economic and political behaviours. The rules themselves have been investigated through the study of genealogy, kinship terminology, marriage preferences and cycles of social reproduction. Within social anthropology, kinship theories tend to be grouped according to the relative emphasis they place on rules of descent or rules of affinity. In other words, they concentrate on either parent and child relationship rules or on the bonds between groups established through marriage.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, descent theory was predominant, associated largely with the work of Africanist anthropologists, such as Meyer Fortes, and the theoretical work of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Descent theorists suggest that kinship systems function to make sure that lineage groups persist over time as political entities. This means that relationships within lineage groups must be established and maintained through actual or fictional descent links traced through either or both parents. Parent–child and sibling bonds are therefore the focus of attention. Descent and succession are stressed in these studies, which are also highly empirical and related to functionalist theory, entailing that, for descent theorists, kinship systems exist in order to allocate rights and duties in societies.

Alliance theory is more theoretical, being interested in how the rules setting up links between groups through marriage are generated. Marriage and incest rules are therefore central. This means that, for alliance theorists, kinship systems exist in order to generate marriage possibilities or impossibilities. Much of this perspective is derived from the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who designated kinship systems as being either ‘elementary’ or ‘complex’. In the former case, a spouse is selected according to social rules, whereas in the latter the marriage partner is not determined by structural rules but rather by individual choice. However, these are abstract principles rather than descriptions of empirical reality: in practice, all societies have incest rules that define marriage partners according to elementary structures, and all have complex aspects that allow for a measure of situational choice.

In the 1960s and 1970s, controversy between alliance and descent theorists was heated, being part of the debate between functionalist and structuralist schools in social anthropology. Since then the discussion has cooled, and it is now generally acknowledged that the difference lies more in the level of theory applied, than in either any fundamental difference in concrete kinship systems or necessary adherence to a particular theoretical perspective.

Almost any of the works of Rodney Needham provide a good entry into the relevant anthropological literature (see, for example, Rethinking Kinship and Marriage, 1971
, or Remarks and Inventions: Skeptical Essays about Kinship, 1974


views updated May 29 2018


KINSHIP. All human beings are connected to some others by blood or marriage. While cultural variations shape the nature and meaning of those relationships, sociologists and anthropologists have identified general categories that appear to apply widely to human societies. Connections between people based on genetic ties (such as between parents and children and among siblings) are known as consanguineal or blood relationships. Relationships based on marriage are known as affinal relationships. Individuals also may recognize as kin others who are related neither by blood nor marriage, such as adopted children who are legally defined as kin, fictive kin (godparents, blood brothers), a special family friend who is called "aunt" or "uncle," or a homosexual partner, even though same-sex marriage is not presently recognized as such by the state. The basic components of the kinship system in every society are marriage, family, postmarital residence (where a couple resides after marriage), the incest taboo (rules that prohibit sexual relations and therefore marriage between certain categories of kin), descent (the rules of reckoning one's relatives), and kinship terminology (the terms used to label kin).

In the contemporary United States the idealized kin-ship customs—promulgated through popular culture, religious custom, and the law—are heterosexual monogamous marriage, neolocal residence (residence apart from both families after marriage), nuclear families (one husband/father, one wife/mother and their children), incest prohibitions within the nuclear family, bilateral descent (kin are traced through both the mother's and the father's lines), and kin terms that reflect an emphasis on biological versus affinal ties. In some cultures kinship relations are highly structured and rigid with different categories of kin, such as brothers and sisters or in-laws who are expected to behave toward one another in highly stylized ways. Kinship in America is loosely structured, with considerable individual freedom to pick and choose among kin for different purposes. Thus many kin might be invited to a wedding but only a few are invited to a more intimate family gathering such as a holiday dinner.

Nonetheless, in the late twentieth century there was much variation in some features of kinship within American society. While monogamous marriage was the ideal, millions of people remained unmarried and millions married and divorced. Given the high divorce rate (about one in two marriages formed each year ended in divorce) and high remarriage rate, some social scientists argued that the marriage norm was better described as serial monogamy. In addition, homosexual marriages and families were on the rise, and some employers responded by providing spousal benefits, such as health care insurance, to homosexual partners of employees. While nuclear family households were still common, other family arrangements, such as mother-children families, families composed of parents and their adult children, families with stepparents and children, and blended families formed from portions of two former nuclear families, became common. Beyond these broad variations across U.S. society, there were variations in the structure and nature of kin relations across religions, ethnic groups, and social classes.


Fox, Robin. Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1967.

Levinson, David, ed. Encyclopedia of Marriage and the Family. New York: Macmillan, 1995.

Schneider, David M. American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

DavidLevinson/a. r.

See alsoDemography and Demographic Trends ; Family ; Genealogy ; Marriage .