Kinship- Meaning, Classification, Terminology, Usages, Significance

Definition and Meaning of Kinship:

All societies have to solve a number of fundamental needs related to the production and reproduction of human life. Domestic groups developed historically as an answer to these needs. Within the framework of these domestic groups, many activities take place: cooperation for obtaining food, socialization, sexual activity, procurement of shelter, and so on. The traditional simple societies studied by anthropology are kin-based i.e., the articulating principle of social organization is kinship. Generally speaking, kinship refers to relationships based on descent and marriage. The affinal kin is related to each other through martial relationships only whereas the consanguineal kin is related to each other through blood ties. In determining the consanguineal kin, social recognition is more important than a biological relationship as found among African and Polynesian societies. A universal example of the overriding nature of social recognition is the practice of adoption in many societies. Therefore Levy Strauss says, “it is an arbitrary system of ideas. Adopted sons and daughters are also regarded as kin although they have no blood relation of any kind”. Kinship includes relationships through blood and relationship through marriage that links individuals in a web of rights and obligations; to the kinds of groups formed in a society on the basis of kinship and to the system of terms used to classify different types of kins. Kinship relations consists of the interacting roles customarily ascribed by the people to the different status of relationships. The term used to designate various kin is called kinship term and the whole is called the system of kinship terminology. In preliterate societies, kinship connections play an important role in many areas of social life and determine the behavior of an individual accordingly. It varies from the kind of access an individual gets to productive resources to the political alliance with other groups. In different stages of life cycles, kinship has an important bearing on an individual to carry on his activities. According to the rules of descent which connect the individuals to a particular set of kin and ignore one of the two lines of descent are called unilineal kin groups which may be patrilineal or matrilineal. Those kin traced through the father is termed paternal or agnates, and those traced through the mother, maternal or uterine kin. If a common ancestor is a binder among a people, they are called cognates. The kins who are related to each other through direct descent are called lineal kin. The kins who branch from the mainline descent are called collateral kins. But the societies which recognize kinship with both the parent’s family of origin, are called bilateral kin groups. In double descent, an individual affiliates for some purposes with a group of matrilineal kin and for other purposes with a group of patrilineal kin. Thus kinship is a part of social structure. By a kinship system, Radcliffe Brown means, “a network of social relations of the kind just defined, which thus constitutes part of the total network of social relations” which he calls social structure. In the words of Radcliffe Brown, “thus a kinship system, as prefer so to call it, is the first place a system of dyadic relations between person and person in a community, the behavior of any two persons in any of these relations being regulated in some way, and to a greater or less extent, by social usage”. In its kinship network, the rights and duties of relative to one another are defined by social usage.

Classification of Kin:

(1) Kinship on the Degree of Relationship:

On the basis of the degree of relationship, kin may be classified into primary, secondary, tertiary relatives, and so on-

  • Primary Kin- are those who are related to ego directly. The nuclear family is constituted by the primary kin usually. Primary kins may be again consanguineal primary kin or affinal primary kin. The primary consanguineal kin is related to the ego directly by blood relation. For example- the father, mother, brother, and sister are the primary consanguineal kin of the ego. But the relationship between husband and wife is established directly by marital relationship and they are primary affinal kin of each other.
  • Secondary kin- are those who are related to ego through primary kin, themselves being primary kin of ego’s primary kin. Again secondary kins may be consanguineal secondary kin or affinal secondary kin depending upon the nature of the relationship. For example- the ego’s father’s brother, father’s brother, father’s father, and father’s mother are the ego’s secondary consanguineal kin, and the wife’s bother is the ego’s affinal secondary kin.
  • Tertiary kin- are the kin who are secondary kin of primary kin or the primary kin of secondary kin of ego. Again the tertiary kin may be consanguineal tertiary kin like the father’s brother’s son or affinal tertiary kin like the wife’s brother’s son. Tertiary kins are relatively distant in their relationship and take little part in their life.

(2) Kin on the basis of Consanguineal and Affinal Relationship:

Consanguineal kin is one who is related through blood ties such as father, mother, brother, sister, son, and daughter.

Affinal kin is one who is related through marriage such as a spouse, the spouse’s parents, and the spouse’s siblings.

(3) Kin on the basis of descent and shared descent:

Lineal kin is one who is related by a direct line of descent such as father, father’s son, and son’s son.

Collateral kin is one who is related indirectly through the mediation of another relative such as the father’s brother, mother’s sister, father’s sister, mother’s brother, father’s brother’s children, mother’s sister’s children, and so on.

Kinship Terminology:

“A linguistic guide in a human society that serves to define how far and in what ways the biological network of an individual extends, both ideally and in practice is called Kinship terminology” (Rhys Williams).

  • L.H.Morgan made a significant contribution to the study of kinship. He found two broad categories of kinship terms- the classificatory and descriptive systems of kinship terms in different societies of the world. Under the classificatory system, the various kins are included in one category and are referred to try the same term such as uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, etc. The descriptive term of kinship emphasizes the speaker’s exact relation towards a particular person, whom she or he is addressing. For example- ‘Father’ in the English language is a descriptive term. Under this system, one term refers to only one relation.
  • River says that kinship terminology used in society may reflect its prevailing kind of family, its rule of residence and its rule of descent, and other aspects of its social organization.
  • Lowie introduced a system for classifying kinship terminologies according to merging or bifurcation of the parental level of kinsmen. This results in a four-class system; generational, lineal, bifurcate merging, and bifurcate collateral.
  • There are six types of kinship classification systems defined by anthropologists like Murdock. They are Hawaiian, Eskimo, Iroquois, Omaha, Crow, and Sudanese. Each reflects the particular kinship group that is most important in society. Use of the criterion of merging and particularizing of siblings, cross cousins and parallel cousins produce more refined results than analysis of the parental generations terminology alone.

The Hawaiian System:

All relatives of the same sex and generation are referred to by the same name. Terms for siblings and cousins are the same, terms for mothers and aunts are the same, and terms for fathers and uncles are the same. For example- father, father’s brother, and mother’s brother are referred to by the same kinship term.

The Eskimo System:

Also called a lineal system. It emphasizes the nuclear family by specifically identifying the mother, father, brother, and sister. While merging all male cousins, female cousins, uncles, and aunts under one term for each of the categories. In other words, while from the standpoint of the male ego, there is a different name for a sister than for a female cousin, all female cousins are lumped together.

The Iroquois System:

Father and father’s brother are referred to by a single term, as are mother and mother’s sister. However, the father’s sister and mother’s brother are given different names from those given to the father and mother respectively. The same rule applies to the relatives in ego’s generation- parallel cousins (persons who are children of same-sex siblings) are classified with siblings, but not with cross-cousins (persons who are children of opposite-sexed siblings).

The Crow System:

This is a mode of kinship terms associated with matrilineal descent (descent reckoned through the female line). Father’s sister and father’s sister’s daughter are called by the same name; mother and mother’s sister are merged under another, while father and father’s brother are merged under a third. Parallel cousins are equated, respectively with brothers and sisters.

The Omaha System:

It is the patrilineal variant of the crow system. Thus the line of mother’s patrilineal kin equated across generations.

The Sudanese System:

This system has separate terms for each type of cousin, for siblings, and for aunts, nieces, nephews, and uncles. The most extremely descriptive terminological systems are sometimes called the Sudanese System. This type is just the opposite of the Hawaiian system. Most groups using this system tend to be patrilineal and sometimes ambilineal.

An interesting point about the geographical distribution of these systems is that Eskimo terminologies occur at both ends of the evolutionary spectrum: hunting-gathering societies and industrial ones. The reason is probably the centrality of the nuclear family in both types of society. Pastoralism and agriculture, on the other hand, offer a great variety of kinship terminologies, emphasizing either the patrilineal or the matrilineal side. The main reason why anthropologists are interested in how different societies classify their kin is simply that there is a definite relationship between the way people classify others and the way they behave towards them. Separating the father’s kin from the mother’s kin is a clear sign that society regards these two groups of relatives differently. As we know, in some cases of prescriptive or preferential marriage, a given kin term denotes a prospective marriage partner. In other cases, the kin term does not reveal the expected behavior towards that relative but is only an indication.

Kinship Usages or Kinship Behavior:

Kin behavior refers to the kind of relationships that are existing and or are stipulated between relatives. The family forms the basis for certain primary relationships. The relationships established in the family group are affected by generation, relative age, and by similarities or differences of sex. Those members of the parental generation who are in a position of respect authority are entitled to obedience and respect; others may share intimacy without super or subordination. Mutual affection, loyalty, and support are expected of brothers and sisters, although often there are restrictions on behavior between brothers and sisters after puberty.

Kinship Usage is repetitive behavior and regular. It is standardized behavior and it confirms a pattern. It is an established recurrent action.

The patterns of behavior and usages that prevail between relatives define their relationships and as such as an integral part of the kinship system.

Kinship usages are as follows:

(1) Avoidance- All societies observe avoidance in one form or the other between the relations brought through affinity. Mutual avoidance between the son-in-law or daughter-in-law and one or both parents-in-law is a common phenomenon. Avoidance may include the one for physical contact and/or familiarity. Son-in-law and mother-in-law avoidance are most common in matrilineal societies in Africa. An explanation among the Nyoro is that the son-in-law must clearly express his sense of gratitude and indebtedness towards the lineage members of his bride by being submissive before them. Nyoro feels that the matter of affinal relations is a sensitive one and should be handled carefully.

(2) Joking relationship- Joking is kinship behavior that involves informality and familiarity in the behavior of relatives. The persons involved in joking are grandparents and grandchildren, a man and his wife’s younger sister, a woman and her husband’s younger brother, and a man and his maternal uncle (Hopi, Trobriand). Joking occurs between like sex or cross-sex. It indicates equality, inequality, and reciprocity, privileged familiarity, or extreme license. It may be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Joking may be expressed in different ways-

  • Exchange of abuse and banter, obscene and vulgar references to sex, damage to each other’s property, ridicule, and so on.
  • Tarahumara of Northern Mexico jokes in terms of rough-housing, genital snatching, and other sorts of sexual horseplay.

(3) Teknonymy- When two relations do not address each other directly but through a third person or a symbol, the usage is known as teknonymy. The practice is very common in India where women generally do not utter the names of their husbands or elderly relations.

(4) Avunculate- It refers to the special relationship that persists in some societies between a man and his mother’s brother. This usage is found in a matriarchal system in which prominence is given to the maternal uncle in the life of his nephews and nieces.

(5) Deference- Showing respect to elders by using some respectful terminology is termed as deference. This is indicated by the terms used by the junior members while addressing the senior members. The husband is highly respected by the wife. The father and mother are also highly respected by their children.

(6) Amitate- The usage of amitate gives a special role to the father’s sister. Here, the father’s sister is given more respect than the mother. Among Todas, the child gets the name not through its parents but through the father’s sister. Naming the child is her privilege.

(7) Couvade- The usage of couvades prevalent among the Khasi and the Todas tribes makes the husband lead the life of an invalid along with his wife whenever she gives birth to a child. He refrains from active work, takes a diet, and observes some taboos which are observed by his wife. According to Malinowski, the usage of couvade contributes to a strong marital bond between the husband and wife.

Significance of Kinship:

W. R. H. Rivers has mentioned while describing the importance of kinship terms, that they refer to those social functions for which they are used. Rivers put it as “Kinship is the social recognition of biological ties.” According to some anthropologists, the use of classificatory terms is made because of certain similarities found among the group of people who are designed by those terms. According to Kroeber, names of kinship terms are given to people only to distinguish them from one another and there is no deep significance in them. Hoebel says that kinship terms consist of the interacting roles customarily ascribed by a people to the different statuses of relationships. Lowie describes Kinship as a “rod on which a person learns throughout his life”. The kinship terms offer a great bond of unity and are of considerable social value among the preliterate societies especially. Some anthropologists say that for the individual, such systems function most importantly as a means of defining his or her primary group membership and legitimating his or her access to strategic goods such as land and the rights to a particular status. For the community, kinship provides the structural basis for the corporate action of its component groupings as these provide for the allocation of productive goods for distribution, for the assignment and transmission of status, for waging war, and for keeping the peace.

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