Here is information on kinship and society regarding the basic terminology and structures. This will help you understand the more about the nuclear family and how it pertains to our society. Take a look at our other valuable resources on different areas of sociology as you familiarize yourself more with these topics.
Kinship structures are one of the most fundamental tools of anthropological research, and are basic material in Anthropology 101 classes the world over. While present industrialized and post-industrial societies have weaker kinship structures, the nuclear family is still considered the standard for child rearing and organizing the consumption of goods. In non-industrial societies, kinship systems function as political, economic, and religious units.
The first way to organize kinship is through descent. Descent can be cognatic, or traceable through both parents, as in contemporary Spanish and Latin American society. It can be matrilineal, and traced exclusively through the mother, or patrilineal, and traced exclusively through the father. We can also separate kinship systems by what terms are used for various members of the family. A familiar example might be that we use one term (cousin) for the children of aunts and uncles in English, but in French, there are two terms (cousin and cousine) to refer to male and female cousins. This is a fairly minor difference; in the Dani language of New Guinea, the same word is used for “father” and “father’s brother.” Lastly, there are strong differences in types of marriage between cultures. Marriages can be arranged or non-arranged, monogamous or polygamous, occasionally same-sexed, and with a plethora of different obligations between spouses and various in-laws, household organizations, and notions of the domestic. Despite this seeming infinity of variations, human societies tend to conform to a few basic structures. We’re going to elaborate the major kinship and domestic systems that exist in the world, and provide some links for further research.
The first common kinship system is known as the “Sudanese system.” There are separate terms for brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, fathers’ brothers and mothers’ brothers, fathers’ sisters and mothers’ sisters. Furthermore, there are separate names for the male and female children of these different siblings of parents. Hence there are eight different words for different kinds of cousin. So where an English speaker would say “cousin,” a person raised in a Sudanese kinship system would have to use a word that means “father’s sister’s daughter.” The Hawaiian system only separates by generation and sex. Hence, the words for fathers and uncles are the same, as are the words for mothers and sisters, brothers and male cousins, and sisters and female cousins. The Eskimo system is the closest system there is to the modern English language. Words corresponding to “brother,” “sister,” “father,” “mother,” “aunt,” and “uncle” are used. The only difference is that separate words are used for male and female cousins.
A more complex kinship structure is found in the Iroquois system. The same terms are used for “father” and “father’s brother,” and for “mother” and “mother’s sister.” However, fathers’ sisters and mothers’ brothers both have different terms. Accordingly, the children of fathers’ brothers and mothers’ sisters are referred to as “brothers” and “sisters.” A separate term is used for the male children of fathers’ sisters and female children of mothers’ brothers, while another separate term is used for the female children of the same people. Similar to the Iroquois system is the Omaha system. The only difference is with the children of mothers’ brothers. Mothers’ brothers’ sons are referred to using the same term as the mothers’ brothers themselves. Mothers’ brothers’ daughters, peculiarly, use the same term as mothers. The Omaha system is indicative of a strongly patrilineal society. Mirroring the Omaha system is the Crow system. It is again similar to the Iroquois system, except the difference with fathers’ sisters’ children. Fathers’ sisters and fathers’ sisters’ daughters employ the same term, and fathers’ sisters’ sons are referred to as “fathers.” This indicates a strongly matrilineal society.
Household organization is extremely variable. We should stress that the following systems are generally considered ideal rather than actual. Variances frequently occur, and systems change over time as societies evolve and relocate. The system that young Americans are probably most familiar with is the neolocal system, in which both spouses leave their families and start a new nuclear family together. A similar variant is the virilocal system, in which the wife moves to her husband’s home. The opposite is the uxorilocal system, in which the husband moves to his wife’s home. These systems are halfway between neolocal and more traditional patrilocal and matrilocal systems. As a rule, neolocal societies are common when mobility is important, as in nomadic societies, or as in the contemporary world of the globalized industrial economy. In a patrilocal system, the wife moves in with the husband’s family, and in a matrilocal system, the husband moves in with the wife’s family. These two patterns are the most common among non-industrial societies the world over. In ambilocal systems, the married couple chooses whether to move in with the husband’s family or wife’s family. So-called matrifocal systems exist where, due to economic conditions, women and children form the core of the family unit while adult males are generally not present. These are rarely the cores of traditional societies, but the products of poverty. In the slum settlements of Latin America, a matrifocal system could be said to exist today.
Avunculocal systems are more complex, and require two moves. They start as virilocal systems, but after reaching maturity, male children move in with their mother’s brother. Last, there is the natalocal system, in which the married couple doesn’t move in together. Rather, each spouse continues to stay with his or her own parents. The children are generally raised by the mother’s family. In some cases, such as among the Nayar of India, fatherhood almost ceased to exist. Rather, the children were raised by women and their brothers.
Three in-depth studies on kinship:
Some examples of kinship structures among various groups–
Some more general portals for anthropological reading: