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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family

Like aunt, uncle is not a universal kinship term. In Hawaii, for example, there is no uncle term because mothers' and fathers' brothers are included in the same category as father (Keesing 1975). Generally, however, uncle refers to a mother's brother, a father's brother, or the husband of one's aunt. In English-speaking countries, all of these relatives are lumped together under one term, uncle. Neither English nor French distinguishes between the father's sister's husband (a relative by marriage) and the father's brother (a blood relative). Both are uncles (Segalen 1986).

In contrast, the kinship terminology in many non-English-speaking Western societies distinguishes between consanguineal (biological) and affinal (marital) uncles. In Denmark and Norway, for example, morbror refers to a mother's brother (and usually also to the husband of the mother's sister) while farbror refers to the father's brother (as well as the husband of the father's sister). Although affinal ties can be broken (as through divorce), consanguineal ties are rarely severed.

In many nonindustrial societies, maternal and paternal uncles typically play a critical kinship role. In patrilineal kinship systems—like China and Korea—where descent and inheritance are vested in males, the father's oldest brother has the authority and responsibility to make decisions affecting the household during the father's absence or after his death (Choi 2000; Lee 1997). In other patrilineal societies, such as the Tswana in Africa, a mother's brother must be consulted in all matters affecting his sister's children. He helps with food, clothes, and other gifts at all their rites of passage; acts as mediator when disputes arise between father and son; and has veto power when the children's marriages are arranged (Schapera 1950).

In matrilineal systems, the men belong to their mother's social group. Although the father begets children, the mother's brother plays an important role in everyday activities. Among some North American Indian tribes (such as the Hopi, Sho-shone, and Iroquois) and the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, there is a strong bond between brothers and sisters because the children of the sisters are the men's heirs and successors. If, especially, there is a good deal of personal wealth, the mother's brother's power over his maternal nephews is likely to be quite strong (Fox 1967; Weiner 1988). In other matrilineal systems, such as the Ashanti and Bantu in central Africa, the mother's brother has a variety of rights and responsibilities: correcting and otherwise disciplining his sisters' children; helping his maternal nephews by paying for their schooling, setting them up in business, or giving them headships; intervening in the selection of a marital partner; and demanding financial assistance, when necessary (Fortes 1950; Richards 1950).


Choi, S. H. (2000). "Land is Thicker than Blood: Revisiting 'Kinship Paternalism' in a Peasant Village in South Korea." Journal of Anthropological Research 56:349–363.

Fortes, M. (1950). "Kinship and Marriage among the Ashanti." In African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, ed. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fox, R. (1967). Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Keesing, R. (1975). Kin Groups and Social Structure. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Richards, A. I. (1950). "Some Types of Family Structure amongst the Central Bantu." In African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, ed. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schapera, I. (1950). "Kinship and Marriage among the Tswana." In African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, ed. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde. New York: Oxford University Press.

Segalen, M. (1986). Historical Anthropology of the Family. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weiner, A. B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Other Resources

Lee, G. Y. (1997). "Hmong World View and Social Structure." In Lao Study Review. Available at http://www. global.lao.net.


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