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  Kinship (derived from Old Norse kyn, ‘produce’), in anthropology, refers to a system of social relations. It is the bedrock of all societies derived from descent and marriage relations, and kinship terms, behaviours, duties and organization vary greatly between different communities. Studies of these differences have formed a defining part of anthropology ever since the discipline emerged in the 19th century.

The first systematic account of kinship was provided by Lewis Henry Morgan in 1871. Morgan considered kinship terms in various societies and attempted to link their differences to the patterns of social organizations. He was particularly concerned with why certain native American peoples used terms such as ‘father’ and ‘mother’ for people other than their biological father and mother. His conclusion was that it represented a kinship system in which relationships through descent were not distinguished from relationships through marriage, so that a mother\'s brother, sister and their children were treated in the same way as the person\'s father, mother and siblings respectively.

Morgan\'s terminological studies on kinship initiated numerous other interpretations and critiques. In 1913, Bronislaw Malinowski shifted the focus away from what he described as ‘kinship algebra’, to concentrate on kinship\'s part in integrating society. The family was considered as the ‘initial situation’ which fulfilled individual needs as well as being a building block for the functioning of societies.

In 1949, Claude Lévi-Strauss considered kinship terms and systems of attitudes, not according to what function they performed in society, but how they could be interpreted to illuminate structures of the mind. He applied linguistic theories to kinship systems and extended earlier assumptions of the elementary kinship unit as composed of husband, wife and children to include the wife\'s brother. Thereby, brothers that gave away women in marriage systems were also included as part of the primary kinship atom. The circulation of women between wife-giver (the brother) and wife-taker (the husband) was compared to the exchange of words. Marriage was therefore considered as the elementary feature of kinship solidarity rather than relationships through blood descent.

For a considerable amount of time afterwards, debate raged between those advocating theories of descent as the primary feature of kinship systems and those alliance theories that favoured marriage as the more significant factor in establishing solidarity within society.

Another perspective on kinship relations considered the extents to which they are premised on moral duties and obligations. Meyer Fortes, from his study of the Tallensi people in Ghana, called this factor the ‘moral amity of kinship’. Most people grow up in families, and therefore conceive relations of kin as an elementary organizing principle of their world. For instance, we may see family resemblances and relationships in plants and animals. Kinship may also be extended to other social relations, as is apparent with adoption, religious brotherhoods, and the use of words like ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ to members of political movements based on common backgrounds and goals.

Some social theorists have noted the political and economic self-interests of members related to each other by kin. From this perspective, the moral aspects of kinship are stripped to their material foundations. Others have considered the way the wider political and economic climate moulds the character of the family. For instance, in capitalist societies, the domestic family is ideally considered as the hearth for sentiments and mutual assistance. This acts as the counterpart to the wider market economy in which people tend to act in their own self-interest.

Numerous anthropological accounts have reported on the variations of kinship terms and organizations. Whereas, in a Western context, no distinction is made between relations through the father (patrilineal) and mother (matrilineal) as is apparent with uncle and aunt, other societies (for example in India) have separate terms for each line of descent. Even the supposition that the family of wife, husband and siblings is the basic unit of all societies has fallen short of accounting for all societies. A common distinction has been to call this type of kinship organization as the nuclear family and household units which comprise a wider network of kin, the extended family. DA RK

See also community; culture; economic anthropology; ethnicity; exchange; gender; marriage; norms; role; socialization; society; status; structuralism.Further reading M. Anderson (ed.), Sociology of the Family; , C.C. Harris (ed.), The Family: An Introduction; , Roger Keesing, Cultural Anthropology.



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