Kinship: Themes and Variations

Anthropologists are interested in the comparative study of kinship for the purposes of discovering universal patterns and the variable forms that they assume in specific societies. We are widely divided as to which if any features can be viewed as invariant and why regularities and variations occur. On one side, sociobiologists take a reductionist position and see all family institutions as conforming to a basic plan which reflects human biological and evolutionary necessities. On the other, relativists, such as David Schneider, maintain that kinship has no intrinsic relationship to biology and is unlimited in its possible forms. I will assume a middle ground and maintain that kinship is constructed from a set of categories, groups, relationships, and behaviours based upon culturally determined beliefs and values concerning human biology and reproduction. Accordingly, an underlying common framework is present but is substantially modified by culture and ideology. Furthermore, the variations on the themes are considerably more interesting and instructive than the tenuous universals.

Universal features of kinship systems that have been proposed include the following:

  1. A lengthy infant maturation period that requires a major commitment from one and usually both parents to nurture and educate dependent children,
  2. The presence of a marital bond that creates an enduring and socially regulated sexual and domestic relationship between two or more people,
  3. A division of labor based on gender,
  4. A prohibition on intercourse and marriage between close kin, which creates a widely articulated network of relationships between individuals related by marriage.

These postulated universals are subject to extreme ranges of variation which often challenge the validity of any generalizations. For example the extension of kinship ties and the binding of individuals into kinship relationships assumes a basic theory of sex and birth. However, cultures have different views about the "facts" of life and the meaning of marriage, parentage, and birth. The Trobriand Islanders maintain that the sex act has nothing to do with a child's birth, which is the result of impregnation by the mother's ancestral totemic spirit. Accordingly kinship is determined only according to links through females in a matrilineal system. Fathers and people linked through males are technically not relatives at all, although they may assume important social roles and relationship. Similarly, the Yanomamo group people into localized patrilineages, whose members regularly marry into the same groups generation after generation. Therefore a man's wife and mother usually belong to the same lineage, creating a situation where mothers are considered as in-laws (affinal relatives) rather than biological (consanguineous) kin.

An different perspective is taken by long standing Catholic views on consanguinity and affinity. Marriage is seen as a literal union of the husband and wife, who become "one flesh" as a consequence of the wedding sacrament. The resulting network of people linked by marriage become more than mere affines; they are transformed into kin in both spirit and substance. Consequently, canon regulations, impose incest prohibitions are applied to a range of a person's spouse's relatives, which has varied over time but at one period included distant affinal cousins. In addition to this regulation, the Church applies standards of kinship to an individual's baptismal sponsors, or godparents, who are unrelated to the child by birth or marriage but who have entered into kinship through a shared sacrement. Anthropologists term this relationship fictive kinship, but this is an inaccurate designation for Catholic practice, which at one time prohibited marriage not only between godparents and godchildren, but also between a godparent and a sponsored child's parent (i.e. coparents) and between otherwise unrelated godchildren of the same godparents on the basis of shared substance.

Another example of the development of strong ties on the basis of fictive kinship is provided by the "namesake kin" system of the San peoples of the Kalahari desert. They believe that everyone who bares the same name is the descendent of a common ancestor, even when genealogical connections are not documented. Residence rights and incest prohibitions are frequently extended solely on the basis of people's names.

© 1995 Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Last updated: September 2003