World Cultures General Glossary
Kinship

General Glossary
Culture
   Kinship-based societies organize human communities based on real, biological relationships among the members of that community. These biological relationships are both vertical and lateral.

   Vertical kinship relationships are based on lines of descent; vertical lines of descent are relationships between ancestors and descendants. You are related to your mother and father in a vertical kinship relationship—they your ancestor and you are their descendant. These vertical kinship relationships are the most important and are the basis on which all kinship societies organize themselves.

   Vertical kinship relationships are reckoned either through one's mother or one's father or both. While almost all human cultures recognize an individual's relationship to both one's mother and father and their relations, almost all societies determine that one line of descent is vastly more important than the other. In European countries, for instance, one reckons descent through the father—individuals take the name of their father rather than their mother.

   When kinship is reckoned through the paternal line it is called a patrilineal or agnatic line of descent; individuals relate themselves to their father, their father's father, and all the kinship relationships of that father. In European-derived cultures, kinship descent is always patrilineal. When kinship is reckoned through the maternal line it is called a matrilineal or uterine line of descent. When both one's patrilineal and matrilineal lines of descent are equally important, kinship descent is bilateral descent. An individual in a bilateral descent group calculates their descent through both their father and mother. When your descent is reckoned either through the mother's line or the father's line, depending on your own gender, but not through both, then the kinship descent is duolineal or bilineal.

   Horizontal kinship relationships, that is, your relationship to other members of the community who are not your ancestors or descendants, get their values from the vertical kinship relations. For instance, the relationship between a brother and a sister is a horizontal kinship relationship—this relationship gets its values ("brother" and "sister") because the two individuals share the same immediate parents. In a kinship-based society, individual members are very knowledgable of the their ancestry and how each other member of the society relates to them through ancestry.

   Marriage, of course, adds an additional problem to this set-up. When a community does not allow marriage with members outside of the community, this is called endogamous marriage patterns. Endogamous marriage means that individuals are marrying their relatives in some way and so the lines of descent remain fairly pristine. When a community marries only members outside the community, this is called exogamous marraige patterns. Such communities incorporate the one spouse into the other spouse's community, depending on which family the married couple settles down with.

   Individual married couples and nuclear families almost never settle by themselves, but they move in with or next to one of the spouse's family. In exogamous marriage cultures, then one spouse must move out of their kinship-based community and move to the other spouse's community. If a society demands that the wife move in with the husband's family or move to the husband's community, that is a patrilocal, or "father-located" kinship society. If the husband must move in with the wife's family or community, that is a matrilocal, or "mother-located" kinship community.

   All societies involve some level of authority. Kinship societies closely ally that authority with kinship relations. If authority in a family group lies with the women of the family, that society is called a matriarchal, or "mother ruler" society; if authority in a family group lies with the men of the family, that is a patriarchal ("father ruler") society.

   These three aspects of kinship—matrilineal versus patrilineal, matrilocal versus patrilocal, and matriarchal versus patriarchal—do not fit uniformly together. Some kinship-based cultures are matrilineal, patriarchal, and matrilocal. Some are patrilineal, matriarchal, and patrilocal. Some are bilateral, matriarchal, and combined matrilocality with patrilocality.

   One of the most important aspects of social organization is that human social organization becomes a cultural arch-metaphor for understanding the rest of the world, both materially and spiritually. In other words, cultures tend to believe that the material and non-material worlds are organized exactly the way their own society is organized. Urbanized cultures, with abstract social organizations, tend to construe the relationships inhering in the material and non-material worlds as also abstract. Kinship-based societies, however, tend to regard the material and non-material world to be organized around kinship systems. That is, they see the entire world around them as a series of vertical and horizontal kinship relationships. The relationship of the divine to the human would be a relationship between a mother and her children (or a father and his children). This insight is perhaps the greatest aid in understanding the world view of kinship-based cultures.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

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1993, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97