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A clan—alternatively called a sib or gens—is a kind of kin group whose members claim a shared identity and certain rights based upon descent from a common ancestor. Clans are usually found in societies with descent systems based on only one lineage—descent is figured only through the male line (producing patriclans)or female line (producing matriclans).They have, however, also been reported from some societies with cognatic descent systems, in which descent may be traced through alternating generations, via either male or female connections. Clans usually contain a number of lineages; that is, groups whose members trace descent from a common ancestor through known genealogical links. Clan members will often rank internal lineages according to their seniority, with the lineages believed to be closest in direct descent from the clan's founder ranked highest. Such rankings are reached through consensus because clan members usually do not know or need to know the actual genealogical connections between the earliest remembered ancestors of each lineage and the apical, or first known, founder of the clan as a whole. In short, the clan is an extension of the lineage: it is a corporate kin group whose members define themselves by reference to their believed, but not demonstrated, common descent from a historically remote ancestral founder (Holly 1994).

The clan systems of different societies vary tremendously in terms of typical size and patterns of residence. In some small-scale cultures, all members of a clan may reside together to form a single community. More often, however, the lineages that make up a clan, which tend to be the land-holding units, reside in several locations. This was the case in precontact times for the Tsimshean nation on the north coast of British Columbia prior to contact, for instance, where a typical village included lineages belonging to two or more of the four clans named for the eagle, raven, wolf, and killer whale (Garfield 1939).

Clan membership in pre-Revolutionary southeastern China was notably extensive. All married men with their wives belonged to a tsu, a landholding patrilineage that worshipped together in a temple in which was stored the names of all members of the descent group, past and present. As a tsu expanded, members moved to new territories and set up new temples. A copy of the original genealogy would be stored there and a new one begun. As the original tsu expanded and dispersed, members continued to regard all those bearing the same surname as members of one exogamous clan (that is, a group of relatives from which one cannot choose a spouse). In rural China, the tsu lineage remained the key unit of kinship (Freedman 1958). As Chinese migrated to North America, however, they drew on wider clan identities to form mutual help associations. In a similar way, people of Scottish descent who are now dispersed across the globe maintain ties to their homeland by identifying with one or another of the Highland clans, each represented by distinctive tartans.

Clans thus provide members with a sense of identity. The founding ancestor often provides a key symbol for the group. Stories may be told of his or her exploits, and the name may be venerated. Members of clans in many small-scale cultures attribute a sacred quality to founding ancestors. In Aboriginal Australia, Melanesia, and Native North America, clan members often associate their founding ancestor with various natural phenomena— plants, animals, places, and so forth. These totems in turn stand as emblems of group identity and are treated with reverence. They are often associated with particular territories and landforms that the ancestor is believed to have created. They should not be eaten or damaged, and they often form key symbols in clan rituals (Lévi-Strauss 1963).

Clans form a common type of "corporate kin group" with legal and political functions in many cultures in which kinship forms a prominent element of social organization (Keesing 1975). Clans tend to be exogamous in small-scale cultures (and even some very large ones, as observed with traditional rural China). Because marriages must take place across clan lines, clan elders often play a key role in arranging marriages and associated exchanges. Although rights to land and other tangible assets tend to rest with lineages, members of clans may be drawn in to resolve disputes over inheritance. Clan members may appeal to clan solidarity to deal with special circumstances including organizing ceremonial exchanges, defending themselves against enemies or launching their own attacks on others, forming special work parties when a large project needs to be accomplished, and protecting common interests as when, for instance, individual members seek to sell lands to foreigners or undertake some other controversial measure such as inviting in foreign missionaries.

See also: KINSHIP


Freedman, M. (1958). Lineage Organization in Southeastern China. London: Athlone Press.

Garfield, V. E. (1939). "Tsimshian Clan and Society." University of Washington Publications in Anthropology 7:167–340.

Holy, L. (1996). Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London: Pluto Press.

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

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). Totemism. Boston: Beacon Press.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families