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Descent, Kinship Terminology, Residence Rules

All human beings are connected to others by blood or marriage. Connections between people that are traced by blood are known as consanguineal relationships. Relationships based upon marriage or cohabitation between collaterals (people treated as the same generation) are affinal relationships. These connections are described by genealogies and/or academic kinship charts, which trace the consanguineal and affinal relationships among individuals. Theoretically, the kinds of relationships that these charts and genealogies describe are the same for all individuals in all cultures—that is, any person can in principle trace a relationship to a spouse, children, children's children, parents, parents' siblings, the spouses and children of parents' siblings, and so on. However, people in different societies customarily calculate genealogical connections differently, recognizing some kinds of relationships and ignoring others. The culturally determined genealogies turn objective relationships of blood and marriage between people into kinship. In no culture are all genealogical relationships recognized as kin relations. All people have kin relations about whom they know nothing, and everyone knows of relatives who have no importance in their lives. Genealogical relationships that have no social significance, either because the individuals whom they designate are unknown or because they are known but ignored, are not kin in the social sense. Genealogical ties that a culture chooses to recognize are what constitute an individual's kin.

Kinship relations have routinely captured the attention of students of human culture. This is especially true of anthropologists, whose major focus has traditionally been upon kin-based societies. Kinship, once a primary focus of cultural anthropology, has faded in centrality since the 1970s as many traditional societies have been drawn into the world system. The significance of kin relations begins to diminish only in large societies with mobile populations and money-based economies. By contrast, kin relations in most nonindustrial cultures underlie such critical domains as place of residence, inheritance customs, religious obligations, political power, economic relations, domestic life, and choice of spouse. People across cultures are more likely to turn to kin than to nonkin for help and are more likely to give aid and comfort to kin than to nonkin (Broude 1994).

If kin relations are the result of the selective interpretation of genealogies by cultures, how do societies accomplish this transformation of biological fact into social reality? The transformation is achieved in part by the way in which a particular culture establishes recognized kin groups and in part by the way in which a society comes to label relatives with respect to some target person. Recognized kin groups are established by and reflected in what are called descent rules. The labeling of relatives is described by a culture's kinship terminology. Further, in all societies, human beings often reside near or with kin. Different cultures, however, follow different rules regarding which kin will live with whom. The three major elements of kinship are rules of descent, kinship terminology, and residence rules. The incest taboo, rules governing marriage choice, and family structure are also important (Fox 1967).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family