Overview

 
Photo of a mother and her two children in Papua New Guinea
  Mother and children
  in Papua New Guinea


Kinship click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced refers to the culturally defined relationships between individuals who are commonly thought of as having family ties.   All societies use kinship as a basis for forming social groups and for classifying people.  However, there is a great amount of variability in kinship rules and patterns around the world.  In order to understand social interaction, attitudes, and motivations in most societies, it is essential to know how their kinship systems function.

In many societies, kinship is the most important social organizing principle along with gender click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and age.   Kinship also provides a means for transmitting status and property from generation to generation.  It is not a mere coincidence that inheritance rights usually are based on the closeness of kinship links.

 
Photo of a North American family eating breakfast together 
North American family   

Kinship connections are in turn based on two categories of bonds: those created by marriage and those that result from descent click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, which is socially recognized links between ancestors and descendants.

Your husband or wife, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law are all kinsmen related to you through marriage.  They have an affinity click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced bond with you and are your affines click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced or affinal relatives.  In contrast, people who have socially recognized biological links to you, such as your mother, father, grandparents, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, and cousins, are your consanguines click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced or consanguinal relatives.  They have a consanguinity click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced relationship with you.

 

Photo of a Masai Elder with his children in Kenya

 Masai Elder with  his children in
 Kenya

The word "consanguinity" comes from Latin roots meaning "with the blood."  It is a term that came into use during earlier times in Europe when it was commonly thought that blood is passed between parents and children during conception and that this is how they receive their genetic characteristics.  This is not true, despite that fact that we still talk about "blood relatives."  The actual genetic material that we inherit consists of microscopic DNA molecules within sperm and ova.  These contain the genes that determine what we are like genetically.

Occasionally, a third category of bond, referred to as fictive kinship click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, is used to create links to people who otherwise would not be kinsmen.  This can be an expedient for dealing with irregular circumstances or even a mere social courtesy.  Godparenthood and the adoption of children are examples of fictive relationships in European cultures.  Godparenting has been particularly important in Latin America where friends voluntarily create lasting ties of shared responsibility for their children--they become respected compadres click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (co-fathers) or comadres  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (co-mothers).

It is important to remember that people often use different kin terms when addressing someone directly in contrast to when they are referring to them in a conversation with someone else.  In North America today, for instance, it is common for people to call their mother "mom" when talking to her but to use the more formal "mother" when talking about her.  In this case, "mom" is a term of address and "mother" is a term of reference.

 

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, June 27, 2006.
Copyright 1997-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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