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kinship, relationship by blood (consanguinity) or marriage (affinity) between persons; also, in anthropology and sociology, a system of rules, based on such relationships, governing descent, inheritance, marriage, extramarital sexual relations, and sometimes residence. All societies recognize consanguineal and affinal ties between individuals, but there is great divergence in the manner of reckoning descent and relationship. Kinship patterns are so specific and elaborate that they constitute an important and independent field of anthropological and sociological investigation. In many societies the concept of kinship extends beyond family ties, which vary in breadth and inclusiveness, to less precisely defined groupings such as the clan, where consanguinity is often hypothetical if not actually mythological. As a rule, however, these groups maintain incest taboos as strict as those for close biological relatives.


See R. Fox, Kinship and Marriage (1967); I. Buchler and H. A. Selby, Kinship and Social Organization (1968); B. Farber, Comparative Kinship Systems (1968); J. R. Goody, Comparative Studies in Kinship (1969).

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In ANTHROPOLOGY the social relationships and LINEAGE groups characterized by, and bound together through, a system of well-defined customs, rights and obligations. Kin relationships may derive either from descent or may be established through affinity. In so-called ‘simple societies’, the most important STATUSES are those defined predominantly in terms of kinship and, consequently, anthropologists have directed a great deal of attention to the structure and meaning attached both to kinship and to kinship nomenclature. Many early anthropologists (e.g. MORGAN, 1870) contended that a link could be established between types of kinship nomenclature systems and the stage of evolutionary development reached by a particular society. More recently, anthropological studies have cast doubt on this approach.

In sociology, kinship has been given less priority as, in the main, modern industrialized societies are not so influenced by kinship systems. Sociologists have tended to focus attention on the functions, role and structure of the FAMILY, rather than on wider kin networks. D. Gittens (1985) has questioned the existence of any one identifiable FAMILY form and has suggested that sociologists should be concerned with ‘families’ rather than ‘the family’. Feminist sociologists have noted the important role played by women in maintaining and sustaining kin networks. Women are identified as ‘kin keepers’.

Studies of kinship are concerned with the structure of relationships within the domestic domain and the way these relate to socioeconomic and political spheres. Kinship is considered by many theorists to constitute the primary bond between people, and the one most resistant to change. The anthropologist Meyer Fortes (1969) maintained that ties of kinship are particularly binding, creating (for the most part) inescapable claims and obligations. In general terms, students of kinship systems are concerned with three main areas:

  1. modes of DESCENT and INHERITANCE;
  2. forms of MARRIAGE and the associated rules of residence;
  3. the regulation of SEXUALITY through INCEST TABOOS.

Whilst kinship systems appear to be a universal feature of social organization, Goody (amongst others) has stressed that major differences exist between societies in terms of specific kinship characteristics. Goody notes that major differences exist between societies in terms of inheritance systems. In Eurasian societies, diverging inheritance is common. This is a form of bilateral inheritance where property goes to children of both sexes. Such a system is largely absent in Africa. Inheritance may occur inter vivos at marriage, as in the dowry system, or on the death of the property holder – mortis causa. Goody also notes that in many Eurasian societies women inherit male property, although there are various restrictions on the type of property and the amount. For instance, under Salic law women cannot inherit land, and under Muslim law they are restricted to half the property. In some Eurasian societies women do not inherit property on the death of the holder, but on marriage, in the form of a dowry. Dowry systems vary, being either direct or indirect, as in the case of BRIDEPRICE or bridewealth. In Africa, dowry systems tend to occur only in those societies, either Muslim or Christian, which have come under the influence of Mediterranean law and custom.

Where this influence is absent, property transferred at marriage takes the form of bridewealth. In this case, the property tends to be transferred between the male kin of the groom and that of the bride. Goody suggests that African societies are largely characterized by what he calls ‘homogeneous inheritance’. In this case, a man's property is transferred exclusively to members of his own clan or lineage. The property passes down to members of the same sex irrespective of the system of descent.

Much of the work on kinship is concerned with the structure of descent systems and forms of marriage. The major types of descent are PATRILINEAL, MATRILINEAL, DOUBLE and BILATERAL DESCENT. Goody notes that the existence of different descent systems does not necessarily coincide with major economic differences between societies. G. P. Murdock (1949) regarded the institution of marriage as a universal feature of society. He contended that marriage exists ‘when the economic and sexual functions are united into one relationship’. Murdock believed that marriage necessarily involved residential cohabitation and provided the basis for the NUCLEAR FAMILY. He has been challenged by numerous theorists, e.g. Goody (1971). Furthermore, marriage is not necessarily characterized by the union of heterosexual partners. The Nuer, Cheyenne and Azande all endorsed ‘homosexual’ marriage under certain circumstances. ‘Ghost’ marriages were practised amongst the Nuer and in traditional Chinese society.

In many societies the choice of marriage partner is prescribed or proscribed by law. Endogamous marriage prescribes that marriage shall take place within certain specified groups. Exogamous marriage only permits marriage outside specified groups.

In most societies social and/or legal norms prescribe the number of spouses allowed to any one woman or man. In general, marriage systems are either polygamous or monogamous. Group marriage is virtually unknown. Polygamous marriage takes two major forms: POLYGYNY, in which a man is permitted to have more than one wife, and POLYANDRY, in which a woman is permitted to have more than one husband. Polyandry is a relatively rare phenomenon. Monogamy, where the individual is allowed only one spouse, is the most common form of marriage. The work of LÉVI-STRAUSS (1949) suggests that a system of exchange forms the basis to the rules of marriage.

All human societies formulate rules to govern and restrict sexual relations between certain kinds of relative. An incestuous relationship is one which violates these taboos. Whilst INCEST TABOOS discouraging sexual relations among those defined as primary relatives are virtually universal, the precise nature of these taboos varies from culture to culture. One of the consequences of incest taboos is that CONJUGAL families cannot be independent or self-sufficient in the selection of sexual partners.

Marriage usually requires that one or both members of the couple must be relocated. Kinship rules of residence vary. In PATRILOCAL systems the bride is normally expected to move to, or near, the parental home of the groom. This is the most common form of residence. MATRILOCAL residence requires that the groom moves to, or near, the parental home of the bride. Neolocal residence requires that the couple establish a domicile separate from either parental home; avunculocal residence that the couple establish a home in or near the dwelling of the groom's maternal uncle. Bilocal residence allows the establishment of a home with either parent. see also EXTENDED FAMILY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000