Kinship Systems

Richard R Jones. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Humans in every culture structure a set of social relations that classify its members within the framework of a family. The notion of what constitutes a family can be fairly extensive in some groups, and more narrowly defined in other groups. For example, the concept of family is restricted to a smaller number of people in American culture than in Egyptian culture. When asked, students in the United States typically write down the names of 80 to120 relatives when asked to name all the members of their family, while Egyptian students can usually write down over twice that number. Likewise, categories of classification—kinship terms, such as father or mother—can be extensive and incorporate a number of different social relationships, as for example, when the term father in some kinship systems, refers simultaneously to one’s biological father, one’s father’s brothers, and one’s mother’s brothers. Or kinship terms can be more narrowly defined, as in our own system where father refers only to one particular social relationship.

Kinship terms are also relative categories that classify according to one’s position in the overall system of relations. Consequently, while a certain female might be classified as daughter by her mother, she may also be differently classified as mother by her son. These variant classifications are simultaneous, so that every person can potentially be every possible category at the same time, the only limitation being that some categories are specific to one’s sex. Additionally, kinship classification is reciprocal. For example, a person who classifies another as sister will be referred to by that person as “sister” or as “brother” depending on their sex. A person who classifies another as son will be referred to as either “mother” or as “father.”

Kinship systems are structured by a variety of marriage practices but can also make allowances for the dissolution of structures through divorce. Kinship relations continue to persist even after the death of members of a society. Additionally, systems of bridewealth, brideservice, and dowry are an integral part of kinship systems, as are post-marital residence patterns. Most kinship systems are also malleable enough to allow the creations of “fictive” relations, that is, to allow for the incorporation of nonfamily members into the family.

Anthropologists are interested in studying kinship systems because such systems are found in every culture, and because a society’s kinship system articulates in some way all other aspects of the culture, such as politics, religion, worldview, marriage practices, economic behaviors, and so on. Due to the pervasiveness and surprisingly small range of variability in kinship systems across cultures, and because kinship systems are easily accessible for study in most cultures, such studies seem to offer, perhaps more so than some other areas of study in anthropology, an opportunity to say something universal about humanity. Consequently, many studies in anthropology have devoted a lot of effort to understanding kinship systems.

This chapter offers an overview of the history and different approaches to the study of kinship; a discussion of the application of kinship studies in ethnography; a discussion and overview of what is known in anthropology about kinship systems, family, marriage, and related topics; and some speculation on the future of kinship studies in anthropology.

Development of Theory in Kinship Studies

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, scientific inquiry in a number of disciplines became focused on the natural history of humanity. In order to understand how kinship studies emerged in an intellectual context in anthropology, it is necessary to briefly review a few works from that time. During this time, biology, history, and the then emerging disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology all attempted to address various “origin” questions related to humans. Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, first published in 1871, provided breaking ground for answering questions about human biological origins. Around the same time, the historian Fustel De Coulanges, in The Ancient City(1873), explored the origin of Greek and Roman cities and civilization. Sigmund Freud then, in 1913, attempted to explain the psychological origin of incest taboos in Totem and Taboo. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life(1915), the sociologist Émile Durkheim sought to explain how humans came to classify the world, prefaced by his work with Marcel Mauss in Primitive Classification (1903/1963). In anthropology, Lewis Henry Morgan wrote two books, Ancient Society (1877/1912) and Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870/1997), in an effort to explain the origin and development of culture. Throughout all of these works, concepts such as family, race, descent, incest, lineage, clan, tribe, marriage, agnation, and others frequently occur, all of which are in the domain of kinship studies.

Biology, history, psychology, sociology, and anthropology all recognized that human kin relations were connected in significant ways to other social phenomena. Darwin (1871/1952) found it necessary to discuss polygamy as one manifestation of human sexual selection (p. 369); Fustel de Coulanges (1873) had to elaborate on the family system of the ancient Romans and Greeks in order to explain the organization of ancient cities (pp. 40-116); Freud (1946) could only understand incest taboos within the framework of kin relations (pp. 3-25); Durkheim (1915) believed the elaborate kinship structures of “primitive” people gave rise to the earliest religions; and Morgan (1870/1997) saw the study of kinship as a way to illuminate the evolution of culture from the primitive to the civilized (p. xxii).

Morgan and Durkheim

A few particular works of Morgan and Durkheim have had a significant impact on the study of kinship systems in anthropology and will be briefly reviewed here.

In Ancient Society, Morgan (1877/1912) described the complexity of the kinship system of an Australian group called the Kamilaroi. The Kamilaroi have a totemic kinship system. The society is organized into two clans that are in turn subdivided into three lineages each. Each lineage has its own totem, an animal that symbolically represents the group. The purpose of describing the complex kinship system of the Kamilaroi was to establish a description and overview of the evolution of culture.

In Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, which, more than any other single work, established the foundation for kinship studies in anthropology, Morgan (1870/1997) systematically collected and organized a large volume of data from many different culture/language groups. These data were arranged in tables that display the names given to one’s various kin relations in all the different groups. In Table I of Systems, Morgan compared 196 different kin relations among 39 different languages/cultures—an impressive display of scholarship for the time. For example, the following is a portion of the list in Table I for Arabic, slightly rearranged and shortened and using a different system of transliteration for Arabic than that used by Morgan (pp. 77-127):

My great grandfather: jidd abii

My great grandmother: sitt abii

My grandfather: jiddii

My grandmother: sittii

My father: abii

My father’s brother: ‘ammii

My father’s brother’s son: ibn ‘ammii

My father’s brother’s daughter: bint ‘ammii

My father’s sister: ‘ammtii

My father’s sister’s son: ibn ‘ammtii

My father’s sister’s daughter: bint ‘ammtii

My mother: ummii

My mother’s sister: khaltii

My mother’s sister’s daughter: bint khaltii

My mother’s sister’s son: ibn khaltii

My mother’s brother: khalii

My mother’s brother’s daughter: bint khalii

My mother’s brother’s son: ibn khalii

My son: ibnii

My daughter: bintii

My grandson: ibn ibnii/ibn bintii

In the above data, there are immediately discernible patterns. For example, ibnii means “my son,” and khalii means “my mother’s brother,” and ibn khalii means “son of my mother’s brother.” (The suffix, -ii, is the first person possessive pronoun and means “my.”) Likewise, bint khalii means “daughter of my mother’s brother.” Morgan called kinship-terminology systems that narrowly describe kin relations, like this one, “descriptive” (p. 50). He believed that descriptive systems contrasted with another group of systems that he labeled “classificatory” (p. 143).

Classificatory kinship terminology, for Morgan, comprises a system that does not repeat core terms, such as daughter or son, for the categorization of more distant kin, and because of this, classifies multiple relationships under one category. For example, the kinship terminology used by most North American English speakers has the categories aunt, uncle, and cousins to indicate the collateral relationships on both the father’s and mother’s side of the nuclear family.

As it turns out, Morgan’s distinction between descriptive and classificatory does not stand close scrutiny. All kinship systems are classificatory. The term aunt classifies under one category, four relationships, two of which are consanguineal (i.e., blood relationships), and two of which are affinal (i.e., created by marriage): father’s sister, mother’s sister, father’s brother’s wife, and mother’s brother’s wife, respectively. Likewise in Arabic, the term bint ‘ammii, my father’s brother’s daughter, can refer to all the daughters of all of my father’s brothers, and in so doing classifies more than just one relationship.

Systems generated a vigorous intellectual reaction, raising an important question for anthropologists. Was kinship terminology a psychological or a social phenomenon? This is an important question. A. L. Kroeber, in a 1909 article titled “Classificatory Systems of Relationship,” argued that kinship terminology is a linguistic phenomenon, hence psychological in nature, and not useful for the study of other social concerns. On the other hand, W. H. R. Rivers, inKinship and Social Organization, published in 1914, argued that the study of kinship contributed significantly to understanding other social relations. Determining whether or not kinship terminology is merely linguistic classification, or whether it is causally linked to other social behaviors—such as marriage, descent, residence patterns, and so on—became, and remains, an important issue for anthropologists. It is clear that all these aspects of kinship are connected somehow, but to what degree one affects the other, and exactly how they influence each other, is not totally resolved.

Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, in an essay first published in 1903, called Primitive Classification, argued that social classification is the basis for all primitive classification. Because humans form groups, the social structure of the group becomes the template for other classification by the group. Durkheim and Mauss argued this from the ethnographic literature of the time about how primitive people classify the world. The primitive people they analyzed in Primitive Classification were native Australians, Zuni, Sioux, and Chinese. Durkheim and Mauss claimed that primitive classification was quite different than most modern and scientific forms of classification in that the categories of primitive classification are inclusive, not exclusive. By this, Durkheim and Mauss meant that primitive people classified according to categories that lumped things together, rather than according to categories that distinguished things. Specifically, they referred to totemic systems in which, for the primitive person, “There is a total lack of distinction between him and his exterior soul or totem” (1903/1963, p. 6). Myth and much of the religious thought that still existed in modern societies was seen by Durkheim and Mauss as survival of an earlier way of thinking, and modern scientific thought was an evolution away from it. In essence, according to Durkheim and Mauss, primitive people had a different way of knowing and thinking about the world that originated in the structure of kin relations in human groups. Of course, later scholars, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963, 1949/1969), would challenge the notion that primitive thought was significantly different than modern thought, but the basic observation is significant: Kinship systems provide the model on which the world can be classified for some human groups.

In Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, published in 1940, Durkheim extended the ideas put forth in Primitive Classification by arguing that primitive religion is the ultimate product of primitive classification. He argues that totemic clans abstract symbols of their totems and place those symbols on objects, which become the focus of various rites; these rites in turn make those objects sacred. Beliefs, which are explanations of the rites directed at sacred objects, make the system understandable. Consequently, religion is society worshipping an abstraction of its own social order.


In the mid-20th century, the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss brought a new perspective to the understanding of kinship systems. Applying structural theory to kinship studies, he examined the nature of the relationships between different kinship categories in an effort to explain, for example, why many societies had different kinship classification systems, and why different descent systems had the same avunculocal postmarital residence pattern. In the avunculocal post-marital residence pattern, a man and his wife go to live with his mother’s brother. His analysis of the avunculate focused on the relationship between the individuals directly involved in the practice: a man, his mother, his father, and his mother’s brother. He referred to such a group as the “atom of kinship” and suggested it as the starting point for analyzing kinship structures (1963, p. 72). In structural analysis, focus is shifted away from the categories and is placed on the relationship among the categories. This approach is borrowed from modern structural linguistics.

Lévi-Strauss, in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949/1969), assumed that kinship classification, at least in some societies, is connected to marriage practices, and by doing some comparative analysis, he offered an answer to the question about the relationship between kinship systems and other social behaviors. He began by discussing incest and its origins. To him, incest prohibitions are manifestations of the transition from blood-relatedness (nature) to social alliances (culture) (p. 30). As a consequence, he suggested that the incest prohibition itself, by virtue of limiting what is possible in marriage relations, brings about the organization of social relations. He further argued that this organization takes the form of exogamous marriage practices that are, in reality, reciprocal systems of marriage exchange (p. 51). He concluded that “the rules of kinship and marriage are not made necessary by the social state. They are the social state itself” (p. 490).

So, for Lévi-Strauss, kinship and marriage are the fabric of human society, consisting of social relations woven together by the warp and woof of marriage possibilities and marriage prohibitions.

The Elementary Structures of Kinship, as the title suggests, was only concerned with societies where there were preferred marriage patterns, such as preferences for matrilateral or patrilateral cross-cousin marriage. The work explicitly did not deal with complex structures of kinship, where the determination of eligible marriage partners is a result of other social processes, and not a result of the kinship classification itself.

Of course, Lévi-Strauss was careful to point out later, in Structural Anthropology (1963), that correspondences between behaviors, such as marriage patterns, and linguistic categories, such as kinship classification systems, will always be difficult to determine, especially in complex societies, unless another approach is adopted. That is because the relationship between language and culture is mediated by the human mind, which structures both language and culture (p. 71). He saw the study of language, on the one hand, and behavior, or culture, on the other hand, as two separate levels of analysis. Hence these were not directly comparable, but the fact that the human mind, and the way in which it works, underlies both language and culture suggests that by understanding the processes of the human mind, the relationships between language and culture can be better understood.

Recent Thought

There are currently many challenges to developing a more comprehensive approach to the understanding of human kinship systems. One recent book, Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies (2001), edited by Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon, surveys many of those challenges. Relative Values “attempts to shift the terms of anthropological debate about kinship onto more contingent and productive terrain” (Franklin & McKinnon, 2001, p. 7). With this, the editors meant that it is necessary to remove kinship studies from the framework imposed by biology, that is, to focus more on gender, as opposed to sex. It is clear that the assumptions underlying much traditional work in kinship studies have implicitly unified sex and gender identity and have treated the two as one, when it is clear that the two are distinct. That being the case, traditional theories and approaches have failed to account for the emergence of new family forms, new conceptions of certain social relations, and the new dimensions that reproductive technologies have brought into being.

Feminist anthropologists and gay and lesbian anthropologists have brought a new perspective to kinship studies that appreciates the malleable nature of kinship systems and the contexts within which they are articulated. Same-sex unions/marriages, single-parent families, cross-cultural/cross-ethnic adoptions, and surrogate parenting have all brought about reformulations of what it means to be “family.” Certainly, kinship systems have always been malleable, and have always been undergoing some degree of change in all times and places, but anthropologists have tended to use the ethnographic present when describing the kinship systems of the groups they study; until relatively recently, this has framed almost all kinship studies in the eternal present, making it appear as if they never change.

More contemporary studies in anthropology must also take into account the systems within which kinship systems and related behaviors are articulated. Conceptions of family, ethnicity, descent, marriage, and so on, exist within contexts of political power and technological ability. “Family values” are a familiar topic in American political discourse, and political power is brought to bear on determining the definition of exactly what constitutes a family. For example, consider current attempts to legally define marriage as being only between one man and one woman. Likewise, the technological ability to physically alter one’s body from male to female, or from female to male, has created social and legal conundrums in traditional thought and law. Power and technology have significantly impacted the nature of kinship systems and how they are now playing out in societies. In a truly holistic approach to the study of kinship systems, cultural context and power cannot be ignored.

Application of Kinship Theory

Kinship theory has found successful application in the ethnographic literature of anthropology. One characteristic of every well-written ethnography is a detailed description of a group’s kinship system and how that kinship system articulates into other aspects of that group’s culture. Kinship classification, descent system, and marriage practices have provided a focus for most of the classic ethnographic works in anthropology. In fact, most ethnographies reveal that kinship is intimately connected to all other aspects of a culture.

  1. W. M. Hart and Arnold Pilling did ethnographic field-work among the Tiwi in Australia, 1928 to 1929, and 1953 to 1954, respectively (1979, p. vii). In their bookThe Tiwi of North Australia, the entire first chapter is devoted to discussing household organization, marriage, naming rules, levirate, sororate, and cross-cousin marriage—all of which provide the framework for discussing everything else in Tiwi society in the remainder of the book. So important was kinship to the Tiwi that they had great difficulty interacting with people not related to them. To illustrate, Hart relates how he came to be accepted as a relative of the tribe. An old Tiwi woman kept harassing him for tobacco. He frequently told her to “Go to hell,” but she persisted in her efforts and, on one particular occasion, said, “‘Oh, my son … please give me tobacco,’” to which Hart replied, “‘Oh, my mother, go jump in the ocean’” (Hart & Pilling, 1979, p. 124). This exchange resulted in Hart being known as this woman’s son. The downside of being “adopted” into the Tiwi kinship system was that sometime later, Hart and all the woman’s other sons were asked to give their consent to “cover up” the woman who was getting too ill to take care of herself. This meant taking her out and burying her with only her head left above ground and thus causing her to die in the course of a few days. Hart gave his permission, and the woman was covered up, but he did not participate in the actual burying (pp. 125-126). The pervasiveness, social significance, responsibilities, and consequences of being a member of a kinship system are illustrated well in this ethnographic example.

Richard B. Lee had an experience similar in many respects to Hart’s on a different continent, Africa, and some three decades later, in the 1960s. Lee was “named” by the wife of a headman’s son. She referred to him as /Tontah (the /is a dental click), which was the name of her deceased uncle. The naming stuck and defined Lee’s relationship to the group (1993, p. 61). In The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, Lee devotes two chapters to kinship, social organization, marriage, and sexuality. Those chapters are essential to understanding Ju/’hoansi conflict, politics, exchange, religion, worldview, and relations with their neighbors.

It was also during the 1960s that Napoleon Chagnon first studied the Yąnomamö, a forest people living along the border between Venezuela and Brazil. In Yąnomamö: The Fierce People (1983), Chagnon found that simply asking genealogical questions can be problematic because of taboos against speaking the names of the dead, the mischievousness of some villagers, and the fact that some wives are obtained by raiding neighboring villages. Chagnon was routinely lied to during the first five months of his field research and said, “I had to throw away almost all the information I had collected on this the most basic set of data I had come there to get” (p. 20). Chagnon eventually figured out how to work around those obstacles to get the data he sought, but those obstacles also opened up many other productive avenues of ethnographic inquiry.

The examples chosen from these three ethnographies, which were selected from among many other possible examples, demonstrate clearly the importance of kinship as an organizing principle in culture. The description and analysis of kinship systems is the starting point for most ethnographic work. Describing and understanding kinship systems is still a primary activity in anthropological inquiry, and the development of a comprehensive theoretical framework is still an important epistemological goal.

What Anthropologists Know About Kinship Systems

What do anthropologists know about kinship systems? What are some of the generally accepted concepts in kinships studies? What follows is a brief summary of thought in the discipline. This knowledge is a product of the seminal contributions of the anthropological works just discussed and the intellectual stimulus that those works, and others, have provided to many other scholars who have refined and extended the understanding of kinship systems.

Kinship Systems

All humans are classified, at birth, within a system of kin relations. This system of relations organizes a society in a systematic way, such that it provides for the continuity of those relationships, and for the continuation of the society, through time. Ideally, the kinship system is perpetual and classifies all children at birth and maintains those classifications even after death; people continue to be sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers, and so on. The depth of the genealogical memory of groups varies tremendously, however. In some groups, the knowledge of the genealogy of one’s ancestors can go back many generations, as in the lists of ancestors found in biblical genealogies. On the other hand, such knowledge in other groups may only go as far back as grandparents or great-grandparents, as is common in North America. The depth of genealogical knowledge is, however, not as significant as the idea that kin relations persist through time.

There are all sorts of rituals found in human societies that occur to bring about the incorporation of a baby into the social structure of the society into which it is born. Baby showers, infant baptisms, and the naming of the infant herself are some of the ways that the social position and classification of the new member of society are recognized and reified.

Kinship systems are also flexible regarding the formal incorporation of nonkin into kinship systems. For example, adoption, in various forms, exists in most human societies. Though the establishments of such relations are “fictions,” they are very powerful fictions. Other fictive kin relations include such practices as choosing godparents, calling religious affiliates brothers or sisters, using the title of “Father” for priests, and the practice of female husbands among the Nandi of Kenya—where a “woman pays bridewealth for, and thus marries (but does not have sexual intercourse with) another woman. By so doing, she becomes the social and legal father of her wife’s children” (Oboler, 1980, p. 69).

Kin relations consist of two fundamental types: consanguineal and affinal. Consanguineal kin relations are blood relations. When a person is born, he is genetically closely related to his mother, to his mother’s siblings and their offspring, to his mother’s parents, to his father, and to his father’s siblings and their offspring, and to his father’s parents. Consanguineal relations are the primary structuring categories of the entire kinship system.

Affinal kin relations are those created by marriage. When a man marries one’s mother’s sister, he becomes one’s uncle by virtue of marriage, not because of blood-relatedness. Keep in mind, however, that in some social groups, marriage may occur between consanguineal kin, such as when the preferred marriage pattern for a male is to marry his father’s brother’s daughter, as is the case in some areas of the Middle East. In cases like this, the bride and groom would hold simultaneous kin classifications, one consanguineal (parallel cousins) and the other affinal (wife and husband). By extension, all other members of the society would have a dual classification for the two. For example, the bride’s father would simultaneously classify his daughter’s husband as his son-in-law and as his brother’s son.

There are basically five different ways or patterns by which consanguineal kinship relations are classified. Three of those patterns distinguish between parallel cousins (the offspring of one’s father’s brother and mother’s sister) and cross-cousins (the offspring of one’s father’s sister and mother’s brother). The other two systems either classify parallel and cross-cousins as a distinct category (i.e., cousins), or classify parallel and cross-cousins as brother and sister. The five types are called Iroquois, Omaha, Crow, Eskimo, and Hawaiian.

In Iroquois, Omaha, and Crow one calls his father’s brother “father,” and his mother’s sister “mother.” Consequently, in these three terminologies, his parallel cousins are called “brother” and “sister.” Also, in Iroquois, Omaha, and Crow, one’s father’s sister is called “father’s sister” (i.e., roughly equivalent to aunt), and his mother’s brother is called “mother’s brother” (i.e., uncle). Beyond those kin relations just discussed, these three systems vary in important ways.

In the Iroquois kinship-terminology system, as just stated, a person’s parallel cousins are referred to with the same kin terms used for brother and sister. However, cross-cousins are referred to collectively by some other unique term that could be translated as “cousins.”

With Omaha kinship terminology, one calls her parallel cousins brother and sister, but refers to her cross-cousins differently than in Iroquois. In Omaha, her cross-cousins on her mother’s side of the family are called “mother” and “mother’s brother.” One’s father’s sister’s children are “nephew” and “niece,” if one is a male, or “son” or “daughter,” if one is a female. The reason for the different kin terms between males and females is due to the fact that if one is a male, the cross-cousins called nephew and niece refer to him as “mother’s brother” (i.e., uncle), but if one is a female, those same cross-cousins, which she calls son or daughter, refer to her as “mother.”

The Crow kinship-terminology system is a mirror image of the Omaha system. In Crow, one calls his parallel cousins “brother” and “sister.” Cross-cousins on his father’s side of the family are his “father” and “father’s sister.” Cross-cousins on the mother’s side of the family are called “son” and “daughter,” if one is a male, or “nephew” and “niece,” if one is a female. The cross-cousins referred to as son and daughter, or as nephew and niece, will use either “father” or “father’s sister” (i.e., aunt) depending on gender.

The following two systems do not distinguish between parallel and cross-cousins. In the Eskimo system, one classifies all cross-cousins and parallel cousins into one category that can be called cousins. Similarly, one’s father’s brother and sister, and one’s mother’s brother and sister, are classified into two collective categories referred to as “aunts” and “uncles,” depending on their sex. This classification system should be familiar to most North Americans.

Hawaiian kinship terminology classifies all cross-cousins and parallel cousins as “brother” and “sister.” Consequently, one’s father’s brother, father’s sister, mother’s sister, and mother’s brother are all called “father” or “mother,” depending on their sex.

In the five general patterns covered here, only a very restricted set of kin relations—14 to be exact (father, mother, father’s brother, father’s sister, mother’s sister, mother’s brother, brother, sister, father’s brother’s children, father’s sister’s children, mother’s sister’s children, mother’s brother’s children, son, and daughter)—have been discussed. Remember that Morgan gathered data on 196 kin relationships. Kinship terminology beyond the 14 relations covered here includes a great amount of variability for more distant kin relations among different cultural groups. Nevertheless, these five basic patterns, allowing for some slight variations, underlie the categorization of all human kinship systems.

Note that depending on the kinship classification of a group, there are implications for what marriage patterns are possible. For example, the father’s brother’s daughter preferred marriage pattern is not found in cultures that classify kin in the Iroquois, Omaha, Crow, or Hawaiian systems. That is because marrying a brother or sister violates a universal incest taboo, and in Iroquois, Omaha, Crow, and Hawaiian, parallel cousins are classified as brother and sister. When anthropologists examine particular kin classification systems within the context of particular cultures, many other implications are frequently discovered.


In addition to classifying individual relationships, as we have just seen, kin groups also organize into descent groups, which create a collective identity by classifying a number of people into one group, according to a line of descent that is traced through either the father, the mother, or both.

When descent is traced through the father or through the mother, we refer to such groups as patrilineal or matrilineal, respectively. Collectively, the two are referred to as unilineal descent systems. A unilineal descent system—patrilineal or matrilineal—can have, theoretically, any of the five kinship-terminology systems. Whether someone thinks of herself as a member of her father’s or of her mother’s family is a completely separate matter from the system by which one classifies one’s kin relations.

A significant number of societies have both patrilines and matrilines, creating a more complex kind of descent system, in which identity with regard to both lines of descent is recognized and perpetuated. Such descent systems are called cognatic. Lévi-Strauss (1949/1969) suggests that a third of all descent systems are cognatic (p. 105).

Of course, lineal descent systems, whether unilineal or cognatic, always exist alongside systems of inheritance, status, marriage, and so on. Also, rather than thinking of patrilineal, matrilineal, and cognatic descent systems as three distinct systems that different societies map onto, it is better to think of patrilineal and matrilineal systems as two ends of a continuum along which varying degrees of emphasis on the mother’s or father’s line can be expressed, with full recognition of both lines being in the middle and called cognatic. As a special case of cognatic descent, a few societies allow a certain degree of freedom for individuals to emphasize or affiliate with one line or the other, and those systems are called ambilineal.

Many societies do not have lineal descent groups. Rather, they identify with both parents’ families. Bilateral groups such as this can recognize a fairly large set of relations as family, or, in a special case, called the bilateral kindred, will recognize a smaller set of relations that are only the same for siblings. The bilateral kindred is typical for most North Americans, where a group of siblings recognize their mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and nephews and nieces as their family. The cousins of the siblings in the example just given will have a different set of people in those same relationships, and, consequently, they will have a different bilateral kindred.

What is clear is that how a society structures its understanding of descent has significant implications for how the group defines its identity. Consequently, there are significant effects on many other aspects of social organization.


Marriage creates new social relationships between the family of the bride and the family of the groom. Marriage patterns vary significantly around the world but are reducible to a few general types, with some variation within each type. Those types are monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry.

Monogamous marriages are those between just two people. Traditionally, this has been defined as between one male and one female, and in many communities undoubtedly will continue to be defined this way, but a more contemporary definition incorporates the observation that many same-sex couples are marrying worldwide, and that those marriages are being accepted within some groups. Also, in parts of the Western world and elsewhere, due to the prevalence of divorce—a formal legal and/or religious process for ending a marriage—the practice of serial monogamy has emerged, in which an individual may have several spouses throughout her or his lifetime.

As discussed in the previous chapter, marriage may also involve some form of economic exchange, such as brideser-vice, where a male renders economic service, such as gardening or herding, to the bride’s family, in exchange for the opportunity to marry the bride. Bridewealth is found in other groups, where the economic exchange will take the form of money or other material wealth paid by the groom’s family, either all at once or over a period of time, to the bride’s family. Dowry is another form of exchange linked to marriage, in which wealth is given to the bride by the bride’s family, and in many cases it functions as a sort of insurance policy against the loss of a husband because of death or divorce.

Polygynous marriages are between one male and more than one female. Polygyny has been common throughout human history. Various preferred marriage patterns have an effect on the social outcomes of polygyny. For example, there are social implications for a preference for exogamy (marrying outside one’s group), or endogamy (marrying within one’s group). There are further implications associated with a preference for either parallel cousin marriage, or cross-cousin marriage, and whether or not sororal polygyny (marrying a group of sisters) is allowed or prohibited.

Polyandry is very rare compared with monogamy and polygyny. In polyandry, a female is married to more than one male. As in polygyny, there are social implications for the particular preferred marriage patterns in a society.

Finally, many societies have mechanisms, such as polygyny, to ensure that most people, especially women, get married. To ensure that they remain married, many societies have additional practices. In some societies, if a woman’s husband dies, the husband’s brother or one of his other close male kinsmen must marry her. This practice is called the levirate. In some other societies, if a man’s wife dies, her family must find another woman to marry the man. This practice is called the sororate. In both cases, not only is the structure of the marriage preserved, but also all kin relations created by the marriage are preserved.

Households and Residence Patterns

Once a person is married, the couple must live somewhere. There are several patterns found in the ethnographic literature. If the couple lives with the husband’s family, the pattern is called patrilocal residence. If the couple lives with the wife’s family, it is called matrilocal residence. If the couple forms a new household, it is called neolocal residence. Some societies allow for residential affiliation with either the bride’s or the groom’s family, and that practice is called ambilocal residence. Finally, there is the pattern in which a man and his new wife go to live with the man’s mother’s brother. This pattern is called avunculocal residence (or uxorilocal residence in some older sources).

Households are a subset of a family that lives together and cooperates economically. Households can be nuclear, consisting of a husband, wife, and children; patrilocally extended, in which two or more patrilineally related nuclear families reside together; matrilocally extended, in which two or more matrilineally related nuclear families reside together; or ambilineally extended, in which both patrilineally and matrilineally related nuclear families reside together.

Future Directions

Much work remains to be done in kinship studies. Until recently, anthropologists have looked primarily at the larger, or macro, aspects of kinship studies with the goal of applying the comparative method to arrive at conclusions reaching across cultures and saying something universal. At the same time, anthropologists have left the smaller, or micro, aspects of kinship studies, such as family studies, largely to the sociologists. Anthropologists need to bring both the macro- and micro-aspects of kinship studies under scrutiny together. Currently, anthropology is headed in that direction.

Some of the original questions asked in kinship studies remain either unanswered or answered incompletely. Why do kinship classification systems vary? Why are there a small number of types? To what degree and how do kinship classification systems influence other social behaviors? And perhaps the most intriguing question: What is the relationship among the mind, language, and culture? This last question seems one of the most promising for furthering our understanding of kinship systems and the roles they play in human societies.

Just as important as the original questions are the emerging questions about power, cultural context, and group identity in relation to kinship studies. In what way do kinship systems articulate discourses of power? How does cultural context shape and reinterpret kinship systems? What aspects of kinship systems are most important to group identity?

All of those questions, and more that will emerge with additional research, need to be addressed in future kinship studies. New methodologies and new theories need to be developed and adopted in order to analyze kinship as process and to account for the variability that is observed from the micro- to the macrolevel of analysis. Kinship studies will stay a key focus of anthropological research, just as they always have Most likely, kinship studies will become even more important as the place of kinship systems in culture becomes better understood over time.


From the very beginning of the discipline of anthropology, kinship studies have been at the center of the study of culture. Kinship systems structure and influence many of our social behaviors and have a dynamic presence in the synergy among language culture, and the mind. The concepts and understanding gained from kinship studies are essential fundamentals of anthropological knowledge and continue to be applied in ethnographic research today. Future scholarship will undoubtedly generate new theoretical insights and lead to a more sophisticated and holistic knowledge of what it means to be human.