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Systems of Kinship

Systems of Kinship

Kinship is the most universal and basic of all human relationships and is based on ties of blood, marriage, or adoption. The kinship system refers to a set of persons recognized as relatives, either, by virtue of a blood relationship technically called consanguinity, or by virtue of a marriage relationship, that is through what is called affinal or conjugal relationship.

Kingship Bonds

Relationships that develop based on the social acknowledgment of biological bonds prioritize social recognition over biological connections. This emphasis on social recognition carries two significant implications:

  • If biological link is not socially recognised, then not kinship tie. Ex. role of husband in the matrilineal Nayar families; in Trobriander society childbirth occurs when spirit of ancestors enters the body, thus no role for father-figure.
  • No biological link but if socially recognised, then kinship tie. Ex. anda in Mongol society (blood-brothers by ceremony); adopted child etc.
    Representing kinship ties with a matrix:

SexualityHusband-wifeCo-husbands/wivesRelations of affinity.
Brother-brotherBrother-sisterSister-sisterRelations of consanguinity.
Lineal. Based on direct descent.Collaterals. Based on indirect descent.

Social biological connections can be categorized into two primary types: those rooted in sexual relationships and those founded on descent. Consequently, kinship encompasses both affinal and consanguineous relations, and there can be instances of overlap between the two. For example, an affine of consanguine might be a sister’s husband, while a consanguine of affine could be a wife’s brother. When these connections are acknowledged within society, they pave the way for the formation of kin groups.

One specific type of kin group arises from the social acknowledgment of biological descent, known as the descent group. Once socially recognized, it serves as the foundation for the transmission of:

  • Group membership. Ex. surname.
  • Offices. Ex. king’s son is prince.
  • Property. Ex. law of inheritance.

This transmission adheres to established social norms, which dictate how recognition and inheritance are granted. These norms allow for either the male or female line of descent to be prioritized, depending on cultural customs and traditions. When inheritance is restricted to just one line, whether it be the male or female line, this is referred to as unilineal descent. Unilineal descent can be categorized into two main types:

  • Patrilineal- Prominent in North India.
  • Matrilineal –
    • Seen in South India – Nairs, Bunts, Jujans.
    • North-Eastern India – Garo, Khasi, Jaintiya.


Members of these groups claim a shared lineage tracing back to a common, albeit legendary, ancestor. However, it is often impossible to substantiate these genealogical connections with the mythical progenitor. These groups are typically organized based on a single line of descent, as exemplified by the Ahir clan. When these clans further subdivide into smaller units, they are referred to as lineages. Another instance of such clans is observed in Gotra groups.


These groups can trace their origins back to a verified common ancestor, with well-established links to this forebear. For example, the lineage of the sons of Begraj Ahir of Mandlana can be directly linked to their patriarch. Across the globe, patrilineal clans and lineages are more prevalent, whereas matrilineal counterparts, though existent, are relatively rare occurrences.

  • AGNATES: individuals connected through patrilineal descent.
  • UTERINES: individuals connected through matrilineal descent.
  • KINDREDS: individuals connected through bilateral descent.

Non Unilinear Descent

Bilateral Descent

Both sides of the parents are recognised symmetrically and equally. (This is the direction of current change in modern industrial societies)

Bilineal (double unilineal) Groups

Both sides are recognized but asymmetrically. Ex. yako tribe in Nigeria; movable property inherited from father and immovable from mother.

Ambilinear Groups

Both sides are recognised but choice left to the individual. Ex. Samoa islands.

Parallel Descent

Son inherits from father and daughter from mother. Ex. Red Indian tribes of Brazil.

NOTE: Except for bilateral descent, all others of this kind are rare.

The role of descent groups is more important in simpler societies where specialised institutions have not developed to take over functions of the extended kin group as in the industrial society. Out of clan and lineage, lineage is the more functional group. Clan is accounted for during marriages and other major life events (birth, death etc.), but it is not of everyday significance.

Functions of Lineage

  • Economic cooperation. Land allocated to lineages in societies where private property doesn’t exist.
  • Religious functions. Have local deities. (Clan: totem; lineage: Kul Devi/Devta)
  • Political functions. Intra-caste disputes resolved by lineage panchayats.
  • Social functions attributed to lineage depending on the nature of the clan. Ex. tax collection privileges in case of some warrior clans. Leads to development of social capital of the lineage.
    Thus, lineage roles are an important part of simple societies. But in modern societies their importance is declining. These roles experience disintegration as:
  • Economic activity separated from kinship groups.
  • State develops for political problems.
  • Religious importance declines due to personalisation of religion.

Social Capital: Elinor Ostrom’s definition of social capital encompasses the collective set of norms, regulations, and anticipations regarding the ways in which groups of individuals engage in recurring activities.

  1. Social capital does not wear out with use, rather with disuse.
  2. Social capital is not easy to measure or observe
  3. Social capital is hard to construct through external interventions
  4. National and regional governments affect the kind of social capital available to pursue long term developmental goals.

Putnam and Nanetti define social capital as encompassing networks, norms, and societal convictions that emerge from processes distinct from direct investment activities. Conversely, organized crime syndicates rely on social capital as the cornerstone of their organizational structure. Cartels cultivate social capital in their endeavors to maintain industry control, ultimately seeking higher profits than would otherwise be attainable. In contrast, an authoritarian state built upon military command and the use of coercive measures erodes various forms of social capital while strengthening its own.

Marriage / Affinal Relations

These relationships emerge when society formally acknowledges human sexuality through the institution of marriage. While all societies have established mechanisms for recognizing sexuality, this practice is diminishing in modern industrialized societies. Although marriage is a prevalent institution, its precise definition proves challenging due to the myriad of norms surrounding it. A minimal definition can be articulated as follows: “Marriage is a socially recognized arrangement that confers specific rights upon individuals or groups, encompassing both kinship and domestic privileges.”

Kinship rights can be subdivided as:

  • Sexual rights.
  • Rights in genetricem and uxorem. (right to bear and beget; the husband’s ownership of the offspring)Domestic rights are in relation to cooperation household/residential group management.
    Based on the way these rights are conferred we can classify types of marriages as:

Straight life monogamy entails no provision for divorce or remarriage, as observed, for instance, among Hindu women.

A classic illustration of non-fraternal polyandry can be found among the Nairs in Kerala. Following the marriage ceremony known as Jali, the husband departs and does not cohabit with his wife. The wife has the option to enter into relationships with up to 12 co-husbands, referred to as Sambandham relations, with children being raised under the care of the maternal uncle.

In contrast, Tibetans practice a form of fraternal polyandry, as referenced in the Mahabharata.

Polygyny is prevalent in numerous tribes across northeastern and central India, as well as among Hindu upper castes and Muslims. The highest incidence is observed among tribal communities, followed by upper caste Hindus, and lastly, among Muslims.

Claude Levi-Strauss views marriages as essentially an exchange of women among groups. Broadly there are two types of exchange principles:

  • Exchanges within kinship systems exhibit distinct patterns of reciprocity. In Southern Kinship systems, exchanges are characterized by immediacy and symmetry, while in Northern kinship systems, they are marked by delayed reciprocity.
  • Within certain cultural contexts, exchanges take on a generalized and asymmetrical nature, devoid of reciprocity. For instance, in North India, a pronounced division exists between those who give wives and those who receive wives, leading to such exchanges that lack any reciprocity.

Marriages can additionally be categorized as preferential unions, where specific individuals are favored over others. For example, in South India, cross-cousin marriages are a notable practice. These marriages involve cousins who are positioned as tertiary collateral relatives, with two individuals separating them. Another prevalent example of preferential unions in South India is the uncle-niece exchange.

Another classification is on the basis of levirate/surrogate marriages.

  • Levirate. Woman is expected to marry her deceased husband’s younger brother.
  • Surrogate. Man is expected to marry the younger sister of his decease wife.
    Marriage governed by rules of residence.
  • Virilocal. Woman follows man to his household.
  • Uxorilocal. Man follows woman to her household.

NOTE: It’s important to note that while matrilineal societies do exist, they are relatively uncommon. Matrilineality does not necessarily imply the absence of male authority; rather, in these societies, men typically oversee property management. However, the distinctive feature is that the transfer of property and lineage occurs through the female lineage. Consequently, one could argue that even in matrilineal societies, patriarchal elements persist. For instance, this dynamic is observable in societies like the Tchambouli tribe in Polynesia (as studied by Margaret Mead) and among the Minangkabu people of Sumatra.


The institution of the family within society encompasses both affinitive and consanguine relationships. It is a ubiquitous social structure, yet its diversity across cultures makes it challenging to provide a comprehensive definition.

George Murdock, in his research spanning 250 societies worldwide, identified a fundamental familial unit that he deemed to be universal—the elementary family. He described this as a social group defined by the following characteristics:

  • Common residence,
  • Economic cooperation, and
  • Reproduction.

George Murdock’s definition of the elementary family includes a social unit comprising at least two adults of both genders engaged in socially sanctioned sexual relationships, as well as the offspring born to or adopted by these cohabiting adults.

Critics pointed out limitations in Murdock’s definition, particularly when applied to the southern USA, where a substantial African-American population resides. In this context, approximately 50% of families did not conform to the described model, as fathers were frequently absent. This divergence was attributed to historical factors such as the legacy of slavery, West African polygynous traditions, and economic hardships. Consequently, it was argued that Murdock’s definition encapsulated only one specific family model rather than representing the universal concept of family.

NOTE I: A husband-wife couple without children is called a conjugal family.

NOTE II: The atom of kinship is the mother-child bond.

Types of Family

  • Family by polygamous marriage. The women usually maintain separate kitchens and households with the husband-father moving between them.
  • Lineally extended family. Three generations living in the same house.
  • Laterally extended family. Siblings living in the same house. May be brothers in a lineally extended family after father has died or brother-sister as in the Nair tradition. Most families are both lineally and laterally extended.
  • Classic extended family. With all siblings living together (with their wives in case of brothers) under the father. A variation of this exists in England/France, due to primogeniture. The eldest son continues living with the father, while younger siblings break off and start new household, but maintain close contacts.
    NOTE: Khasi tribes in Meghalaya maintain matrilineal ultimogeniture i.e. the youngest daughter inherits. Namboodiri Brahmins in Kerala followed primogeniture.

Functions of Family

George Murdock identified 3 traditional functions of the family:

  • Sexual gratification and socially approved reproduction.
  • Economic cooperation.
  • Education.

Parsons said that family has two indispensable functions:

  • Primary socialisation.
  • Adult personality stabilisation.
  • Family is the only place in the industrial society where individual is valued intrinsically.
  • Relations are emotionally gratifying and this leads to adult personality stabilisation.

Engels in his Origins of Family, Private Property and State said that:

  • Family comes with private property (which is controlled by men).
  • To transfer wealth to the next generation, paternity confidence needed.
  • Marriage develops as a means to control women’s sexuality and labour.
  • Women do unlimited work in the family. Capitalists get free labour.
  • Keeps the male breadwinner more docile as he cannot risk his wife and child.
  • The wife also acts as an emotional sponge for the frustrated/alienated man, thereby reducing his revolutionary tendencies and the capitalist rests secure.

Criticism of Family

Critique of Murdock.

  • With the advent of public education, education is now no longer the sole purview of the family except for primary socialisation.
  • Peter Wilmott says economic cooperation has been reduced to consumption, the role of family as a producer is on the decline with the decline of the agricultural economy.
  • Wells & Vogel found that emotionally disturbed children were victims of family. The children were scapegoated by parents for their own troubles. Functional for the parents and dysfunctional for the kids.
  • RD Laing: often family is a place of politics. It becomes a gangland/factional feud place and the victims are children.
  • Jessie Bernard said that Parsons’ adult personality stabilisation is nothing but male personality stabilisation. She conducted a study to show that:
  • psychic disorders increased in women post marriage and decreased in men.
  • Also men’s career jumped after marriage, while women’s took a step back.

Structure of Family

Most common in industrial society, also found in pre-agrarian societies.In agrarian societies due to cycle of dev of family, extended families emerge.Generally found in agrarian societies, where pooling of labour helps.
Bilateral descent.Unilineal descent (mostly patrilineal).
Conjugal bond important.Conjugal bond subordinated to consanguine bonds.
Personal choice in mate selection.Marriage is seen as alliance of families.
Public Display of Affection encouraged.PDA prohibited. Joking and avoidance relations.
Women have greater equality. (Though still not complete equality)Authoritarian with mostly male supremacy.
Joint roles and women active in labour market.DoL based on sex. Compulsory domesticity for women.

Pre-industrial societies were dominated by extended families for a number of reasons:

  • Agriculture is labour intensive. Makes sense to keep labour pool large.
  • Skills simple. Family transmits occupational skills.
  • Life expectancy is short. Death rates high due to inadequate nutrition and medical technology, thus bereaved members can fall back on extended family.
  • No welfare state. Family only institution to look after old/sick.Extended family was ideal for pre-industrial societies. With industrialization domestic unit was no longer the economic unit. Cultural patterns in conflict with idea of extended family.
Systems of Kinship

The nuclear family structure is well-suited to the dynamics of social and geographic mobility, both of which are hallmark features of industrial society. As a result, the nuclear family aligns structurally with the demands of industrialized societies. It’s worth noting that in India, following the Green Revolution, nuclear families have seen a significant increase in prevalence.

According to Parsons, the nuclear family is structurally isolated, maintaining kinship ties primarily with immediate family members. W.J. Goode also observed a trend toward the nuclearization of the family, indicating a shift in family structures over time.

  • Structural differentiation leads to the role of family being highly specialised.
  • With industrialisation many roles of the family overtaken by other institutions.
  • Social positions are achieved and not based on descent. Leads to role-bargaining in kinship ties i.e. kinship ties maintained to maximise self-interest. Intrinsic worth of kinship on the decline.
  • Allows for greater social and geographical mobility.
  • Education system and media ideology (cereal-box family) promote nuclear family.
  • Goode’s theory led to a number of empirical studies.
  • Peter Laslett. Conducted a historical study in England over 300 years (1550s-1820s). He found that most families were nuclear families, and similar trends were found in France, Netherlands and Scandinavian countries. He concluded that only 10% of the families were extended. (May have been due to low life expectancy + family development cycle + stem family in primogeniture cultures)

Development Cycle of the family

Stage Theory. This table shows one example of how a “stage” theory might categorize the phases a family goes through.

Family TypeChildren
Marriage FamilyChildless
Procreation FamilyChildren ages 0 to 2.5
Preschooler FamilyChildren ages 2.5 to 6
School-age FamilyChildren ages 6-13
Teenage FamilyChildren ages 13-20
Launching FamilyChildren begin to leave home
Empty Nest Family“Empty nest”; adult children have left home

Elizabeth Roberts observed that during the early stages of industrialization, there was a notable increase in the prevalence of extended families. Given the long working hours for men, frequent unemployment, and the absence of a welfare state, extended families often collaborated to raise children and manage households. This trend is resurfacing in the modern era, particularly as both parents are frequently employed.

Interestingly, it has been observed that households tend to become nuclear more frequently than families. While a household refers to a residential group, a family pertains to a kinship group. However, these households, even when nuclear in structure, often maintain close kinship relations, thus preserving the essence of the family. This phenomenon holds true for both working-class communities, as demonstrated in the Bethnal Green Study, and middle-class households, as observed in the Woodfort Study.

Willmott & Young. Conducted studies in Bethnal Green and Woodford.

  1. Industrialisation has not led to nuclear families.
  2. Found frequent contact with kin outside nuclear family.
  3. Access to automobiles and telephones (and now internet) have connected people even transnationally.
  4. Old parents move in to babysit children. The study also found that 75% of sample had sought help outside the nuclear family.
  • Social attitude survey in 1995 in Britain found that:
    • 70% nuclear families maintained links with extended family when they lived nearby.
    • 50% maintained links even when they lived far away.
    • 60% had taken financial aid from extended kin group.It would be an oversimplification to say that industrialisation leads to development of nuclear families. The direction of change is from extended to modified extended families not nuclear families. In the 21st century, nuclear families are breaking down. What is emerging is a pluralisation of forms. For ex:
    • Symmetrical nuclear family (Mother-father, son-wife).
    • Reconstituted nuclear family (2nd marriage; my kid, your kid, our kid).
    • Single parent nuclear family (mostly single moms and child).
    • Live-in relation nuclear family (40% of kids born in USA in 2004 from live-in relationships).
    • Commune families (Israeli Kibbutzim).
    • Same sex partner families etc.

AM Shah – Changes in the Indian Family

  1. Assumption of inevitable trend from large and complex to small and simple families is faulty.
  2. The assumption of large households in pre-independence India is based on a confusion between household and family.
  3. Residential unity is higher in the upper castes.
  4. Sanskritisation of lower castes tends to increase number of relationships in a household.
  5. Westernisation tends to decrease the same.

Death of the Family – David Cooper

  1. Family is the social institution most resistant to change.
  2. Family is an ideological conditioning device to maintain the western imperialistic worldview.
  3. Family traps members in their roles and restricts their ability to be more than the role.
  4. Family uses guilt and emotional over control to dominate it’s members.
  5. Solutions: communal child rearing. Kibbutzim example.
  6. Solution: increased number of lovers and partners.

Patriarchy & Sexual Division Of Labour

Patriarchy: Men dominate women sexually and control their labour.Sexual

Division of Labour: Social arrangement whereby social roles are assigned based on gender. Men are usually bread-winners and women are confined to the domestic sphere (leads to compulsory social exclusion). SDoL creates inequality.

Domestic roles are private and isolating roles, leading to forced seclusion for women. They deprive women of both social and economic rewards. This in turn creates dependence on men and thus, leads to exploitation and dis-empowerment of women. Over time this has led to the institutionalisation of patriarchy. In the end, women are commodified (made into objects of sexual gratification).
4th wave feminism is highlighting the institutionalised patriarchy in society. Ex. me too movement.

Systems of Kinship

The issue of the Sexual Division of Labor (DoL) remains a subject of ongoing debate within the field of sociology. Advocates for various perspectives, including those commonly associated with meninists and feminists, hold differing views on this matter.

It’s essential to distinguish between sex, a biological concept that classifies individuals as male, female, or trans, and gender, a social concept that dictates the appropriate societal behaviors associated with one’s sex or gender identity.

Sociobiology is one approach that attempts to explain the Sexual Division of Labor by grounding it in biology. It’s important to note that these perspectives are indicative and not necessarily causally linked. The core assertion here is that biological differences play a role in necessitating the division of labor along sexual lines.

  • Men and women differ in terms of hormones. The testosterone in men makes them more aggressive as compared to the oestrogen and progesterone found in women. This results in differences in personality, giving us SDoL.
  • Brain lateralisation: men have a well developed right hemisphere, leading to better visuo-spatial skills and tunnel vision. Women have a well developed left brain resulting in better verbal skills. Biological difference leads to social difference.
  • Difference in hormones. Men once matured are sperm factories, leading to a promiscuous nature and visual orientation. Women have a limited number of eggs before reaching menopause and are qualitatively oriented and look for stability.

According to the research of Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger, Homo sapiens emerged around 2 million years ago, followed by the appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens approximately 70,000 years ago. For a significant portion of our history, we functioned primarily as hunter-gatherers. During this time, gender roles in child-rearing led to men adopting the role of hunters and women as gatherers. This division of labor contributed to the development of greater muscularity in men and a reduction in the average size of women.

On the other hand, George Murdock’s findings suggest that, due to inherent physical differences, the Social Division of Labor (SDoL) has proven to be the most effective means of organizing social life. In his extensive study of 250 societies, he discovered that SDoL was present in 224 of them, making it nearly universal in its prevalence across various human societies.

Robin Fox- There are 4 basic requirements for any kin group which has resulted in 85% of societies being patriarchal, lineal, and local. They are: (as these condition are changing, patriarchy being challenged)

  1. Adult women who bear children.
  2. Men who impregnate them.
  3. Mother role incapacitates women. Men manage property.
  4. Avoid incest. (So as to stabilise family, apart from biological reasons)

According to Parsons, the Social Division of Labor (SDoL) is considered the most functional way to organize social life. He emphasizes the significant role of expressive females in the development of stable human personalities. Women play a crucial role in teaching emotions during primary socialization and continue to provide essential emotional support during the process of adult personality stabilization.

John Bowlby’s research suggests that juvenile delinquents often lacked an intimate relationship with their mothers during childhood. He posits that intimacy with the mother is linked to increased sensitivity to pain and suffering.

Anne Oakley challenges George Murdock’s perspective, pointing out that in many societies, women engage in physically strenuous tasks. She dismisses the notion of post-partum dependence and argues that women are just as flexible and adaptable as men, providing examples to support her argument.

  1. Lumbering in Siberia.
  2. Indonesian tribeswomen return to agriculture 3-4 days after giving birth.
  3. Israeli army/Kurdish Peshmerga have a large number of women & are very effective.
  4. Indian construction labour has a large proportion of women in the workforce.

Anne Oakley raises a critical question regarding the necessity of enforcing compulsory domesticity as a means of providing emotional support. She argues that working women often dedicate quality time to their children, while full-time mothers might become frustrated, potentially leading to the inadvertent infliction of physical or psychological violence upon their children.

Margaret Mead. In her study of Samoan tribes found that:

  • Studied primitive cultures in order to find ways of living that were no longer practiced in west.
  • In some tribes both men and women were nurturing, while in some both men and women were aggressive.
  • Said that gender roles are not natural but socially defined.
  • Tchambouli – women as power brokers instead of men.
  • Arrapesh – peaceful tribe that did not have a concept of aggressive males.
    Shulamith Firestone. Radical feminist and Marxist. Criticised Marx for ignoring the most fundamental inequality, sexual inequality. Gender exploitation is the most enduring form of social stratification, leads to development of sexual class system.
  1. Admits that the mother role incapacitates women for some time, this leads to dependence on men and thus exploitation. A power psychology develops in men.
  2. However, birth control has given greater freedom to women.
  3. Equality will result only with the abolition of the mother role. Technology can help.Her critics say that she hasn’t advocated freedom from mother role, rather freedom from womanhood itself. (That’s sexist!)(Still gotta be aware of the false dichotomy of choice)
    Kate Millet. In her book Sexual Politics, she says that all unequal power relations involve politics, this is patriarchy. Patriarchy is the most pervasive ideology in human society, it is more pervasive than class and most enduring.

Factors causing patriarchy:

  1. Biological. Mother role.
  2. Ideological. Like Socialisation, roles imposed since childhood by society.
  3. Educational. Women were denied education, a free-minded woman is a social peril.
  4. Religious. Father in heaven in Abrahamic religions. Manusmriti in Hinduism says that women should always be subordinated to men.
  5. Family. To ensure legitimacy of offspring, women forced into subservient role.
  6. Internalization of Patriarchy. Long existence has caused internalisation. In a typical mother-in-law and daughter-in-law feud they are both acting as agents of patriarchy.

Silvia Walby

Patriarchy is imp for understanding gender inequality. Structural aspects:

  1. Male domination in paid employment.
  2. Patriarchal domination in family. Termed as private patriarchy.
  3. Patriarchal culture. Femininity defined in male terms.
  4. Control over female sexuality.
  5. Men use violence for controlling women.
  6. State supports patriarchy.She admits that with rise of feminism, 50% of the labour pool is women, but most women are still in the secondary labour market. The rise of single mother families shows the decline of patriarchy. Judiciary hardly has any women.

Another feminist argued that the most common role for women is that of a secretary, which encompasses the responsibilities of a maid, mother, and mistress all within a single role.

It’s worth noting, as Fletcher suggests (Note 1), that nuclear families are increasingly facing challenges as modern society places greater expectations on marriage. This heightened demand for satisfaction in relationships often contributes to a higher divorce rate as individuals continue to seek more fulfilling partnerships.

Note 2: Additionally, kinship ties frequently serve as a means to recruit managers for family businesses. In terms of Davis and Moore’s theory of social stratification, this dynamic may encounter conflicts in technically oriented positions, but it generally functions effectively, as exemplified in Indian corporate culture with its “Lala companies”.

Solution for Sexual Division of Labour

  • Radical Feminist. Total abolition of gender based roles and traditional parenting. Encourage professional parenting (womb renting). (Recent surrogacy law)
  • Liberal Feminist. Advocate joint roles for men and women.

Read Also: How to Write Answer in Sociology Optional for UPSC CSE?

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