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Fictive Kinship

The social universe established by kinship cannot be defined solely in terms of biology and marriage alone. Indeed, kinship establishes the base, but not the totality, of what individuals think of as family. The roles that family plays in a society are not complete without the inclusion of fictive kin relationships. They are fictive in the sense that these ties have a basis different from bonds of blood and marriage, not in the sense that these relationships are any less important. In many societies, fictive ties are as important as or more important than comparable relationships created by blood, marriage, or adoption.

Briefly defined, fictive kinship involves the extension of kinship obligations and relationships to individuals specifically not otherwise included in the kinship universe. Godparenthood (or coparenthood), in its many manifestations, is the most commonly cited illustration, but there are numerous other examples. In many societies, people have "aunts" or "uncles" who are merely their parents' closest friends. Members of religious movements may refer to each other as "brother" or "sister" while observing the rules and prohibitions attached to those statuses. Crime networks and youth gangs employ kinship bonds and ideas of "blood brotherhood" as organizing principles. Nontraditional family forms such as gay and lesbian unions may be defined in traditional kinship terms.

Nonetheless, all fictive kin relationships have one element in common: They are defined by criteria distinct from those establishing blood or marriage relationships. Fictive relationships may mimic the ties they copy, but they are defined in their own terms. These terms may have a religious or economic component, be predicated on existing social networks, or manipulate reality to fill gaps in real kinship networks. Fictive relationships serve to broaden mutual support networks, create a sense of community, and enhance social control. In essence, fictive kin ties elaborate social networks and regularize interactions with people otherwise outside the boundaries of family. Unlike true kinship bonds, fictive kin ties are usually voluntary and require the consent of both parties in establishing the bond. The idea that you cannot pick your relatives does not apply to fictive kin.

The concept of godparenthood (sometimes referred to as coparenthood) is certainly the best documented example of a fictive kin relationship. Compadrazgo, as it occurs throughout Mexico and Latin America, is an elaboration of the Catholic concept of baptismal sponsorship blended with precolonial religious beliefs. However, it is less a relationship between godparents and godchild than a tie between the parents and the godparents. By linking nonrelated families, compadrazgo extends formalized social networks. Individuals often seek to establish ties with wealthier families, establishing a sponsorship and providing the possibility of upward social mobility for the child (Foster 1967; Kemper 1982). Similar relationships exist in many other societies, including dharma atmyo in Bangladesh (Sarker 1980), kumstvo in the former Yugoslavia (Halpern 1967; Hammel 1968), and kivrelik in Turkey (Magnarella and Turkdogan 1973).

Another common form of fictive kinship involves the extension of brotherhood roles and obligations between unrelated males of the same generation. Among the Azande in Africa, for example, the concept of blood brotherhood was well established (Evans-Pritchard 1963). In its strictest sense, blood brotherhood ties are sealed by ingestion or some other "mixing" of each other's blood, but this need not always be the case. Among the Serbs in Europe, for example, blood brotherhoods (pobratimstvo) were traditionally established when a person was seriously ill or believed himself to be near death. The ceremony, performed at a grave site, involved no exchange of blood. Pobratim were supposed to behave toward one another as brothers for life, and their children were prohibited from marrying each other (Halpern 1967). Other forms of less rigid brotherhood extension are also common and are better described as partnerships. Among the Netsilik of North America, such partnerships (niqaitorvigit) defined an elaborate pattern of sharing relationships. These sharing relationships were a permanent way of distributing meat and helped spread the risk generated by unpredictable food resources (Balikci 1970).

Many important social relationships are established through marriage. In some instances, a tie established through marriage may be crucial to inheritance (providing continuity to a descent group) or maintenance of social bonds. In cases where families do not have children to marry, fictive marriage may serve as a substitute. Among the Kwakiutl of North America, status was passed from grandfather to grandson through the son-in-law. A man without daughters might "marry" a son to another man to create this important link. If he had no children, the marriage tie might be created to a body part as, for example, a marriage between a son-in-law and his father-in-law's leg (Boas 1897). The Nuer of North Africa "marry" a woman to a man who has died without producing heirs (ghost marriage). The woman is actually married to the ghost through a living male relative, and any children resulting from the bond belong to the ghost father and inherit his property (Evans-Pritchard 1951). Another traditional form of fictive marriage existed among the American Plains Indians in the institution of the berdache. In the berdache, a man might assume both the dress and the role of a woman, often "marrying" another man.

In postindustrial societies, it is possible to argue that fictive kinship ties have taken on increased importance. Social and geographic mobility, soaring divorce rates, and nontraditional family forms have produced social networks based more on voluntary ties than on traditional bonds of blood and marriage. There is, for example, a growing body of literature describing the importance of fictive kin ties in U.S. African-American urban communities and their effects on everything from child care to educational achievement (Fordham 1986; Johnson and Barer 1990). Some researchers have gone so far as to describe ethnicity as being an elaborated form of fictive kinship (Yelvington and Bentley 1991). At the same time, nontraditional families, such as gay or lesbian couples in which children may have two fathers or mothers, can also be characterized as having elements of fictive kinship. Gerontologists and social workers have also emphasized the importance of fictive kin networks to medical treatment and mental health as individuals seek to fill gaps in their existing support networks (Gubrium and Buckholdt 1982; Wentowski 1981).


Balikci, A. (1970). The Netsilik Eskimo. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press.

Boas, F. (1897). Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. U.S. National Museum Annual Report, 1895. Washington, DC.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1951). Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1963). Essays in Social Anthropology. New York: Free Press.

Fordham, S. (1986). "Black Students' School Success: Coping with the 'Burden of "Acting White."'" Urban Review 18:176–206.

Foster, G. M. (1967). Tzintzuntzan: Mexican Peasants in a Changing World. Boston: Little, Brown.

Gubrium, J. F., and Buckholdt, D. R. (1982). "Fictive Family: Everyday Usage, Analytic, and Human Service Considerations." American Anthropologist 84:878–885.

Halpern, J. M. (1967). A Serbian Village. New York: Harper & Row.

Hammel, E. A. (1968). Alternative Social Structures and Ritual Relations in the Balkans. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Johnson, C. L., and Barer, B. M. (1990). "Families and Networks Among Older Inner-City Blacks." Gerontologist 30:726–733.

Kemper, R. V. (1982). "The Compadrazgo in Urban Mexico." Anthropological Quarterly 55:17–30.

Magnarella, P. J., and Turkdogan, O. (1973). "Descent, Affinity, and Ritual Relations in Eastern Turkey." American Anthropologist 75:1626–1633.

Sarker, P. C. (1980). "Dharma-Atmyo: Fictive Kin Relationship in Rural Bangladesh." Eastern Anthropologist 33:55–61.

Sofola, J. A. (1983). "The Onyenualagu (Godparent) in Traditional and Modern African Communities: Implications for Juvenile Delinquency." Journal of Black Studies 14:21–70.

Wentowski, G. J. (1981). "Reciprocity and the Coping Strategies of Older People: Cultural Dimensions of Network Building." Gerontologist 21:600–609.

Yelvington, K. A., and Bentley, G. C. (1991). "Ethnicity as Practice? A Comment on Bentley." Comparative Studies in Society and History 33:158–168.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family