Unit 2: Apes & Humans

Kinship Terminology Systems

Before you start this lesson, be sure you have read, and have available to you, pp. 185-190 in Lenkeit. Kinship terminology can reveal many things about the culture, including its descent system, and provides other clues as to the role of kinship in that culture. Since kinship groups are critical groups in horticultural and pastoral societies, it is vital to understand kin groups.

Kinship terminology is simply the way people classify kin, the categories they create, and the terms they use. It turns out that humans in various cultures use only a few systems of classification (although many languages). These systems of classification recognize (or don't recognize) certain possible categories. This can provide many clues regarding the values of the culture and the role of kinship in that culture.

In this as in looking at descent systems, the emphasis is on what anthropologists call consanguineal kin. Consanguineal kin (or consanguines) are relatives related "by blood" (to use the common but inaccurate English term), meaning those people with whom you share known common ancestors, however distant. Affinal kin, or affines, are relatives by marriage or your in-laws; if the marriage ends, they are no longer affines.

You will need to know the basis of three terminology systems: the Inuit (Eskimo) or lineal system, the Hawaiian or generational system, and the Iroquois system (the major variant of a bifurcate merging system.) As you look at these three systems, remember that each term indicates a status with respect to Ego. Ego calls people the same term if he or she expects similar behavior--a similar role--from them, and/or is expected to behave in a similar way to them. Calling people by the same kin term (the "uncle" term in English) also means that Ego considers them to be equally related. [Of course exactly what the appropriate role is for a specific kin status will differ from one culture to another.]

Possible Categories to Recognize

Though we do not usually think about it, the term we choose (that our culture has chosen for us) for a particular category of kin recognizes, or ignores, certain attributes of the person, or of how we trace relationship to that person. These categories are as follows:

  • Sex: Most cultures, in the term that must be chosen to refer to a relative, force you to distinguish the sex of the relative. In almost every single case, the kin term will let the listener know what sex the relative is: if I write about my aunt, you know I am talking about a female. As you look at the three charts in the text, note that sex is almost always recognized. One exception is in our own system: at the level of cousins, we do not distinguish between males and females in the kin term "cousin". This might easily generate a question: how important are people we call cousins? What is their role in relationship to us? What do we expect of them? What would we do for them? The same, or more or less than a brother or sister?
  • Lineal vs. Collateral relatives. A lineal relative is someone from whom your are directly descended, or who is directly descended from you (e.g. your lineal relatives would be your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, as well as your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren). Lineal relatives also include your siblings. Collateral relatives are the remainder of your consanguineal relatives, the relatives that are "off to the side" or "secondary" in importance. The chart below indicate some of Ego's lineal vs. collateral relatives. (Ego is the black triangle in the lower center; we are looking at the chart from Ego's perspective.)

Since the Inuit or Eskimo terminology system always distinguishes ego's lineal as opposed to collateral relatives, it is commonly referred to in anthropology as the lineal system. Check this system in the text; it should look familiar to you as the United States is one of cultures, and English one of the languages, which has this system.

  • Generation: All the terminology systems recognize generation. When you apply a kin term to someone (as in English cousin or uncle) you are forced to indicate whether the person is in the same generation as you, or the generation below you, or above you. While all terminology systems do this, in the Hawaiian System the generation difference is the primary classification criteria, and it is more commonly known as the Generational System. In this system, all the men of the generation above Ego are given the same kin term, as are all women , and this is continued in all generations. The generational system does not distinguish between lineal and collateral relatives (for example brothers and sisters--lineal--as opposed to cousins--collateral). That does not mean that the 18% of the world's cultures who use the generational system can't tell the difference, but only that the distinction so critical in our culture is not so critical in theirs.
  • Sex of the Relative Through Whom the Relationship is Traced: In all the variants of the systems known as bifurcate merging (of which the Iroquois system is one variant), the important criteria in classification is the sex of the person through whom the relationship is traced. For ease of reference,I am supplying you with a partial representation of the Iroquois system.

Iroquois System (a version of Bifurcate Merging System)

What you need to note is that Ego is concerned not only with the sex of the relative and the generation of the relative, but the sex of the relative (or relatives) through whom he is tracing the relationship. On the diagram above, this is clearly represented at the level of first cousins. The fact that Ego gives some of his first cousins the 5/6 terms, and others he calls by different terms (the 7/8) is entirely due to the sex of the relatives he has to "trace" through to get to the cousins. In the case of the cousins Ego calls 5/6, he goes through relatives of the same sex. That is, Ego's mother's sisters' kids (mother and her sisters are the same sex) are called 5/6, and father's brothers' kids (father and brothers are the same sex) are also called 5/6. In anthropological terminology, the people Ego calls 5/6 are Ego's parallel cousins. (The reason why Ego should call some of his first cousins the same kin term as his brother and sister is something for a later lesson, but the assumption would be that Ego expects the same role from his parallel cousins as he does from his actual brother and sister.)

The other first cousins (the 7/8 terms) are Ego's cross cousins. In cross cousins, the parent through whom the relationship is traced must be the opposite sex of the sibling: that is, father's sisters' kids and mother's brothers' kids are cross cousins. Concern over the sex of the people through whom the relationship is traced is found at all generations in bifurcate merging systems. This is the most common of all terminology systems.

  • Relative age: For many cultures, the relative age of kin within one category is an important part of classification, and hence in the roles people are expected to assume. In some cultures, Ego would have a different kin term for his father's older brother than he would for his father's younger brother. Ego would call his older sister one kin term, and his younger sister another kin term. These differences can occur within any of the three major types of kinship terminology systems.
  • Gender of Ego: In very rare instances (fortunately for the ethnographer very rare!) a culture will require one set of kin terms to be used if Ego is a male, and another set to be used if Ego is a female.
  • Alive vs. Dead: In other very rare instances, a culture will require Ego to use one kin term for a particular relative when he or she is alive, and a different term when the relative is dead. (This is different from the Yanomamo refusal to use the personal name of a deceased relative, since the change applies to a kin term, such as the English term "father".)

Again, it is important to realize that calling relatives the same kin term probably means that the same role is expected of everyone called that term. Exactly what that role is vs a vs ego will probably vary from one culture to another.