Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I'm actually taking two anthropology classes this year, but sadly I'm not finding them near as interesting as I thought I would (I do find genetics and human evolution fascinating though).  One area that has proved pretty interesting has been (not surprisingly) the section on kinship and descent groups.  Since this genealogist finds it interesting, I thought some others might as well so I'll share a little about what I've been learning in this area.

One of the most interesting things about kinship is the fact that it and the practices and ideologies associated with it, are held in the utmost regard in just about every culture on the planet, past and present.  A recurring theme with this seems to be that cultures and the individuals in that culture define themselves based on their kinship ties and their family.  Something else interesting about kinship is the fact that the smaller a culture is and the more traditional a culture is, the more importance is placed on kinship.  What does that say about our very urban and very large culture?  Well, I'll write about that below but kinship ties in cultures like the US tend to be longest lasting (of all social relationships we form) and very emotionally charged as with all cultures.  But, kinship ties in this country and similar societies also tend to include fewer people and have less importance than in smaller, less urbanized societies.

Kinship's importance can be easily seen when you take a closer look at it.  How do cultures determine inheritance rules? Kinship.  What is the oldest form of insurance? Kinship (I'll explain later).  What supplies a safe haven to us in our hour of need? Kinship.  Where do we turn to in crisis or for support? Kinship.  How do we learn how to care for children and what behaviors are acceptable? Kinship (nonkinship ties also play a smaller role).  Kinship plays an important role in many other aspects of our lives but the ones above are some of the more obvious ways. 

Kinship refers to the relationships that are based on blood or contract (like marriage).  There are three commonly recognized types of kin:
  • Consanguenial (by blood)
  • Affinal (by contract like marriage or adoption)
  • Fictive (people we assume or view as related to us by they aren't, like a close family friend; these people are family members by agreement, either spoken or unspoken)
These three types of kin are found in every society and form the basis for kinship.  In the US, consanguenial kin tend to be viewed as the most important and it should be noted that this is not the case in most cultures.  Societies then organize themselves into kinship layers.  Within one kinship there is the descent group, within that is the lineage (line of descent from a common ancestor) and within that are individual families (whether these families include extended relatives or just the nucleus of two parents and the children depends on the society).  The founder of a descent group is usually characterized by a totem in traditional societies and in the genealogy I've done, it seems like the founder of a descent group here in the US is the person who immigrated here and was the first in the family to settle here.

Throughout the world there are different kinship systems and here in the US we live by the Eskimo System (named for the group that best exemplifies the system).  It is actually a kinship system most forager cultures use because it is a system based around following the money or resources.  In Eskimo societies, like in the US, families consist of a parent or parents and their children (and occasionally grandparents).  Cousins and aunts and uncles are considered extended family and not close kin.  People in this system move around a lot because they cannot afford to stay in one place (unless that place satisfies all their needs).  It is because of this constant movement that there is a stronger distinction between immediate and extended family.  Say you get a job offer on the other side of the county.  Would you take all your aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents, in-laws, etc. with you?  Probably not.  Would you take your young children and your partner with you?  Probably. 

All kinship systems fulfill two important functions for the well-being of a society.  First, kinship provides a vertical function.  By that, it binds many people together from multiple generations.  Tradition, education, property and ideologies rely on kinship to be passed down more than anything else.  The oldest form of insurance is also based in kinship.  Think about it, if your home burns down and you have no family or kinship ties, who will help you re-build and give you shelter?  Kinship also forces people to enter into alliances (usually through marriage or the birth of a child) with other kinship groups, this creates solidarity within the society as a whole and is an example of horizontal kinship.  An example of this is King Sobhuza II of Swaziland.  He solidified his entire kingdom by taking a wife from every nonroyal lineage in the country.

There is a ton more on kinship out there and what I've written is just the tip of the iceberg.  I encourage all genealogists and those interested in family history to look into this area of anthropology because I think it gives a lot of food for thought and understanding when it comes to our ancestors and how our family dynamics, past and present, play out.

1 comment:

  1. For more on this subject, check out "Communities of Kinship" by Carolyn Earle Billingsley.


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