The Study of Kinship in Fields of Anthropology other than Cultural Anthropology

4th January 2011

That child there is my son, and that girl is my daughter. The young woman over there is my sister and the man next to her is her husband. Of course my father over there [poining to a man splitting open coconuts] is my mothers brother. ‘
(Kelly, R., 2010, p. 270)


The relationships present in kin groups and within small family groupings effect social interaction in every culture of the world and as such are one of the more important, pervasive and complex systems of culture. Cultural anthropologists study kinship because it is the relationship between people through marriage, family, or other cultural arrangements, but its study is not limited in use to cultural anthropologists only. Prehistoric social and political organizations are difficult for archaeologists to reconstruct, because they consisted of rules and customs and not artifacts. In archaeology kinship studies have been proven to supply a wealth of information that can be inferred by the study of the physical remains within the fossil record. Archaeological study of kinship provides the opportunity to study a wide range of ethnographically unobservable relationships.

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The relationships present in kin groups and within small family groupings effect social interaction in every culture of the world. Think of the members your own family. There is a special bond between which exists parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, aunt/uncle and niece/nephew, and those between siblings and cousins. These bonds create a unique atmosphere, which allow for certain behaviors to be deemed as acceptable while at the same time disallowing others. There is an perceived understanding that it’s all right to be yourself when you’re with family and a myriad of perhaps socially unacceptable behaviors are tolerated because of the intimacy created by these bonds within the family unit.

While constructing a ‘comfort’ zone, family intimacy can also increase the behavioral expectations placed on each member of the group. A grandchild is expected to respect and obey their grandparent more than they would be expected to respect or obey an elderly person in the supermarket. An older child is more likely to be required to have to help regularly with household duties, or take care of younger siblings. Obligations between members of the same family can be numerous and play a direct role in determining the behaviors of the individual.

As a result of these bonds, kinship can be thought of as consisting of decent or the vertical relationships between generations, siblingship which is the links between brothers and sisters and affinity, links by and through marriage. Selected authors such as, Leach, Fortes and Goody, for the purposes of this essay will be ignored since they excluded marriage from kinship on the grounds that only unilineally bounded groups may be called decent groups (H. W. Scheffler, H.W., 1966). They implied that the latter was somehow external to the former, thus making kinship a simple system of consanguinity. This is in contrast to the French emphasis on alliance theory over descent theory, which has largely effected the determination in how kinship is used in anthropology today. According to Kelly and Thomas, “kinship refers to the socially recognized network of relationships through which individuals are related to one another by ties of decent (real or imagined) and marriage.” (Kelly, R.L., 2010, p.270) They go on further to say that through the construction of this social network, kinship systems blend the rules of relations by mixing the biological decent with those of the predominant culture in order to define the difference between close kin, distant kin and others. This combination and blending results in making kinship one of the more important, pervasive and complex systems of culture.

All human groups have distinct kinship terminology or a set of terms that are used to refer to and define kin relationships. The impact that these relationships have on societies are diverse and in most societies influence things like who can and can not marry, levels and order of respect, who can be joked with, and who can count on during times of crisis. Anthropologists therefore, examine kinship structures because they are the relationships, which exist between people through marriage, family, or cultural organization. Kinship studies are the greatest commonality between the different branches of anthropology since “it appears to be the one area of anthropological discourse where the ground rules are clearly laid down…” (Barnard, A., & Good, A., 1984, p. 2). Anthropologists, when analyzing data relating to kinship, begin with a set of models, ideas and representations, which, if not agreed upon, will at least provide familiarity to others referring to their work at a later date.

Two types of kinship exist; these are consanguinial (blood relationships) and affinal (marital or legal relationships). Kinship, through these can be defined simply, as a sense of being related to a person or people through descent, sharing or marriage. Because of this it allows for an exchange of goods, ideas and behavior, and provides the foundation for the examination of different patterns in partnership, community and reproduction around the world.

Fox writes that kinship structures can be seen as the wide variety of possible social solutions to the facts of “birth, and copulation and death” (Fox, R., 1967, p 27). This mode of thought provides birth, parenthood and the resulting offspring as a balance to death, and copulation as a means to provide the relationship between couples as a foundation for marriage and parenthood. Fox hints at the idea that other than the singular idea of social self-perpetuation that perhaps another reason for the continued fascination in kinship rests in a post-enlightenment recollections, in that “these unthinking, familistic, kinship-centered loyalties run in opposition to the laws of church and state and the demands of an expanding industrial society” (Fox, R., 1967, p. 15)

Further subdivision of these two broad classifications of kinship is frequent as discussed by Kottak. He argues that people perceive and define kin relations differently depending upon their culture. A simple approach to kin classification would be analyze the parental generation, which can best be understood by classifying it into four major groupings, ‘Lineal Kinship Terminology’, ‘Bifurcate Kinship Terminology’, ‘Generational Kinship Terminology’ and ‘Bifurcate Collateral Kinship Terminology’. Kottak (2009, pp. 448-451) O’Neil on the alternately claims that here are 6 major terminology groups, (O’Neil, 1997) since each of the three North American systems display differences between each other.

‘Lineal Kinship’ , sometimes referred to as the Eskimo system (O’Neil, 1997), is found mainly in societies, such as Great Britain, Australia and America that use the bilateral principle of descent and that strongly emphasize the nuclear family over more distant. Members of the nuclear family are given terms of reference based only on their gender and generation. Lineal relatives are those on the direct line of decent that leads to and from ego, grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren. Siblings and all other kin are known as collateral kin while those who are related by marriage are grouped together as affinals (Kottak 2009, p. 449). The Eskimo system is used today by about 10% of the world’s societies (O’Neil, 1997).

‘Generational Kinship’ , also known as the Hawaiian system (O’Neil, 1997), uses only two terms used for the parental generational and makes no distinction between maternal and paternal kin ties. Mother’s brother and father’s brother under this system are known by the same term, like wise Mothers sister and Fathers sister too share a single term. This system suggests a closer bond between aunts and uncles in this system then seen in a lineal system. (Kottak 2011, pp. 450-451). According to O’Neil, the Hawaiian terminological system is used by about a third of the world’s societies, though they are relatively small ones and is found widely in the islands of Polynesia where it is usually associated with ambilineal descent (O’Neil, 1997).

‘Bifurcate Collateral Kinship ’, or Sudanese system is the most specific and complex of the systems. Each relative is given a distinct term based on genealogical distance from ego dependant upon the side of the family. The Sudanese system is found in Sudan, Turkey, and some other societies with patrilineal descent and considerable social complexity. The fine distinctions made between kinsmen mirrors the society’s desire to distinguish people on the basis of class, occupation, and political power (O’Neil, 1997).

‘Bifurcate Merging Kinship’, often termed the Iroquois system however also includes both the Crow system and the Omaha system, splits both the mother’s and father’s sides while merging same sex siblings of the parents. This means that the “mother and mother’s sister are merged under the same term (1), while father and father’s brother also get a common term (2). There are different terms for mother’s brother (3) and father’s sister (4).” (Kottak 2009, p449) These societies use unilineal descent rules, which follow either the mothers or fathers descent, and unilocal post marital residence rules either residing in husband or wife’s area.

When these ideas of kinship terminology are examined within global society it can be noted that kinship provides stability and influence in areas other than simple family. It can be seen as directly influencing the society founded around its grouped members.

Kinship and Politics:
The idea of royalty and the royal families, whether they are King, Queen, Prince or Princess is one that is generally accepted. The role, title and authority they hold have been passed from generation to generation through a succession of powerful individuals granting them the right to rule a country, and/or enjoy fabulous fame and wealth as a direct result of this kinship relation.

Kinship and Subsistence:
The Aymara people, a native ethnic group in the Andes and Altiplano regions of Peru, rely heavily on the assistance of kin and neighbors to cultivate crops. As subsistence farmers they practice a process known as ayni. The word Ayni means, ‘today for you, tomorrow for me, it refers to a form of reciprocal labor in which kindred help each other out in exchange for receiving the same kind of help at a later date. They depend on each other to plant, harvest, and preserve the crops they grow.

Kinship and Marriage:
The Yanomamö tribe of the Amazon between Venezuela and Brazil can be regarded as an example of the influence that of kin relationships have on marriage. In the Yanomamö culture a woman’s marriage partner is selected for her by either her father or another close male relative in order to build political alliances with other kin groups. Although bride wealth is a concept that is utilized an exchange for a woman in the other group is often also negotiated. In such a society, where isolation from outsiders is preferred, not only does kinship determine who is marriageable, but it also determines which of those men who are eligible will become a woman’s spouse. Marriage and politics are often closely related.

Archaeological studies of kinship in recent scholarship have been scarce. Social archaeologists have centered their studies on household, gender, age and individuality, often focusing on the data, without considering the mechanisms through which these social identities were established. In part this is as a result to the awkward relationship that exists between archaeological data and anthropological terminology. In Archaeology, prehistoric social and political organization is difficult for archaeologists to deduce, since they consisted of a combination of rules and customs rather than artifacts. However, by using available artifacts, or rather, artifact patterns, it is possible to reconstruct both the political and social organization of the time and era. Patterns, it should be noted, are not only indirect indicators of organization, but they are often hard to recognize because they have been disturbed by the passage of time. Despite the difficulties, social and political organization is important archaeological considerations since they both, provided structure to society and shaped the lives and actions of the community. In the same way that religion was used to explain the relationships between people and the unknown, social and political organization not only explained interpersonal relationships, kith and kin, leader and led, friend and foe, but also bracketed specific groupings of people as cultures.

As such, kinship terminology has often been invoked in explanations for organizational changes observed archaeologically. Birch writes, “if overly generalized models of kinship are employed to explain the archaeological record we risk masking the variable and contingent nature of social relationships as they existed in practice (Birch, J., 2008). Risk of suppressing the reality of past social organization is observed when ethnographic models of kinship systems based in the present are used to explain archaeological data. Sullivan noted that archaeologists provide valuable insight into anthropological problems when they “focus on (1) how variation in the archeological record arises and (2) suppressing the degree to which the discipline is dependent on cultural anthropology for theoretical and methodological inspiration”(Sullivan, A.P., 2005 p. 55 in Birch, J., 2008 p. 206). The advantage gained through examining the archaeological record is that it provides the opportunity to study a wide range of ethnographically unobservable pasts. There is a greater chance of explaining the complex realities of social structure in the past if during investigation the focus is not on the use of ethnological survey information based in the present.

When the use of kinship is applied in archaeology, during excavation, the material remains that are studied can be used to make inferences about the non-material aspects of the culture being studied. “For example, the finding that all women and children were buried with their heads pointing one direction whereas the heads of adult males pointed in a different direction, could lead to the possible explanation that the society practiced matrilineal kinship. (that is, children follow their mothers line of decent rather than their fathers)” (Ferraro, G., 2008 pp. 8-9).

Societies in which there is less complex specialization, interdependence and stratification are seen as more reliant upon kinship status in allocating roles to their members. Early anthropologists posited that primitive societies as hunter-gatherers or itinerant populations at some point assumed a sedentary lifestyle. During this period men were engaged in working the land resulting in property becoming a more significant consideration. This acted as a catalyst in a shift toward patrilineal descent. The concept that kinship systems act as an archaeological record of the past is the underlying foundation of many claims and is explicit in Morgan’s reasoning that “the experience of mankind has run in nearly uniform channels” (Morgan in Barnard, A., 2002 p. 244) implying that “systems of consanguinity” are non progressive facets of culture reflecting earlier socio-cultural forms without significant alteration and that people who shared such traits as kinship terminology had to be members of the same racial stock, even if over time that had become they were geographically dispersed.

According to Morgan observations of Iroquois kinship, the tribe is the basic unit of social organization (Morgan, L.H., 1851 p. 78) and inclusion within the tribe is based on descent through the maternal line (Morgan, L.H., 1851 p. 80). This means that, all of a woman’s children would remain members of the same tribe their mother, but only her daughters could transfer tribal membership to their offspring. Each tribe is “in the nature of a family” (Morgan, L.H., 1851: 78) which resulted in the bridging of geographically isolated groups. Within the tribe all possessions and hereditary titles were passed through the maternal lineage, this meant that a man’s nephew in the female line would inherit his position rather than the man’s own son (Morgan, L.H., 1851, p. 87). By gaining a basic understanding of the rules of Iroquoian kinship, further observation of communal composition led Morgan to perceive a preference for matrilocal rules of residence and how these concepts relate to the spatial dynamics of longhouses. From these studies further deductions have also been made about tribal affiliation when examining and interpreting patterns structural environment of village communities.

According to Kiesslich, the detection and characterization of organic compounds, especially DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid), in both historical and archaeological remains has become an important field among other scientific techniques applied to ancient findings (such as radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology or isotope analysis). Reading the DNA sequence of genetic material preserved in biological materials provides the ability to gain information on anything that normally expressed through the DNA sequences such as sex, species, kinship, diseases, etc.

Although kinship studies is frequently viewed as the domain of cultural anthropologists the evidence that points towards its usefulness for research in other fields of anthropology is consistently increasing. Archaeology is one of these fields where the study of kinship outside the traditional boundaries imposed by cultural anthropology and ethnographic survey has provided a wealth of information.


Barnard, A., & Good, A., 1984, Research practices in the study of kinship, Academic Press, USA.

Barnard, A., & Spencer, J. (Eds.), 2002, Encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology, Routledge, London. UK.

Birch, J., 2008, Rethinking the Archaeological Application of Iroquoian Kinship, Canadian Journal of Archaeology, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp. 194-213

Ferraro, G., 2008, Cultural anthropology: an applied perspective, 7th Edition, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, Belmont, USA.

Fox, R., 1967, Kinship and Marriage, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Scheffler, H.W., Gray, R.F., Leach, E., & Plotnicov, L., 1966, Ancestor Worship in Anthropology: or, Observations on Descent and Descent Groups, Current Anthropology Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 541-551 The University of Chicago Press, online, Accessed: December 20 2010

Kelly, R.L., & Thomas, D.H., 2010, Archaeology, 5th Edition, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, Belmont, USA.

Kiesslich, J., et al. DNA Analysis on Biological Remains from Archaeological Findings – Sex Identification and Kinship Analysis on Skeletons from Mitterkirchen, Upper Austria Accessed: December 20 2010

Morgan, L.H., 1851, League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or, Iroquois, Gould & Lincoln, Boston, USA.

O’Neil, D., 1997, Kin Naming Systems, Palomar Community College, USA, Online, Accessed: December 21 2010





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