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Reprinted here with permission of AFGS member

Jeanne Chakraborty

This is part of her lecture outline for teaching that topic

All societies have a kinship system. This is a universal behavior. A universal behavior is anything that exists in all societies in the world, whether they are simple or complex societies. Universal behaviors include: religion, marriage, music, art, language, etc. We learn a lot about a culture by studying its kinship system. Kinship terms reflect many things, such as the type of family they live in, their rule of residence, their rule of descent and other aspects of their social organization.

The two functions of kinship systems are 1) to provide continuity between generations and 2) define the group of people who can depend on each other for mutual help. In traditional societies, kinship is the basis of their social organization, whereas in industrial societies, we organize ourselves according to class, common interests, type of employment or career. These factors are as important, or more important, to us than kinship. Westerners often have their deepest bonds and friendships with people they are not at all related to, rather than with their relatives. This is due in large part to our mobility. We move away from our family to pursue our careers or sometimes just because we prefer another climate. In non-industrial societies, people are very much tied to the land and are not mobile. They remain with or near their kin all their lives, especially the men.

Six basic kinship systems exist in the world: the Omaha system, the Crow system, the Iroquois system, the Hawaiian system, the Sudanese system and the Eskimo system. Although they are named after American Indians or countries, most of these systems are utilized in societies all over the world and are not limited to the group for which they were named. Each society follows one basic kinship system, borrowing little or nothing from the others.

The Omaha System is based on patrilineal descent. If you were a child growing up in this system, you would call your father and all his brothers by the same term. Instead of calling your fatherís brothers ďuncle,Ē you would call them all father. This is because your father and his brothers are all approximately the same age; therefore, they are all in the same generation of your patrilineal kin group. Being in the same generation, they have equal authority over you and you must show them all the same respect. Another reason for giving them so much respect is that your fatherís brothers probably live near you since in societies having patrilineal descent, brothers tend to stay together in the same area. When males marry, their brides move in with them. However, your fatherís father is not in the same generation as your father, so he would have his own term that recognizes him as a grandfather. Also, your fatherís brotherís sons would all be in your own generation, so they would have a term equal to cousin.

On the other hand, persons from your motherís patrilineage are not as important to you, according to the Omaha system, because you take your descent from your fatherís side. Also, your motherís relatives will not even be living nearby since theyíve all moved away to go live with their husbands. Because they are not as important, you group them differently. Your mother and her sisters will have the same term, but so will all the other females on your motherís patrilineal side. In other words, your motherís brotherís daughter will have the same term as your mother and her sisters regardless of the fact that they belong to different generations.

The Crow System is used by matrilineal societies. Itís the mirror image of the Omaha system. Here the motherís lineage gets the priority and respect, so kinship terms are distinguished by generation on the motherís side, but not on the fatherís side. If you grow up in a matrilineal society, most likely it will be your motherís brother who will discipline and train you more than your biological father. A womanís brother will have more authority over her children than their father has. Marriages in matrilineal societies are always exogamous.

The Iroquois System is unique and used by very few societies in the world. Among the Iroquois, women control the economy and inherit the land, so in that respect they are matrilineal. Women inherit the land because fertile land is associated with a womanís fertility, in their view. But only men have political power. Only males can be chiefs and rulers so in that respect, they practice patriarchal rule. They use the Omaha system for distinguishing their fatherís brothers and motherís sisters, but have a whole other set of rules for distinguishing cousins and other relatives.

The Hawaiian System is the most simple. It is flexible and does not exclude either side. You get to choose your line of descent, whereas if you are born in a patrilineal or matrilineal society, you have no choice. In the Hawaiian System, all relatives who are of the same sex and in the same generation have the same term. Your female cousins would have the same term as your sister.

The Sudanese System is totally different from all the others. It doesnít classify you according to your sex or generation. It classifies you according to your status in the society or your occupation. These societies are usually patrilineal, but the societies are very complex politically with class stratification and occupational specialization.

Our kinship system is called the Eskimo System. Itís used by many industrial societies. In our system, all cousins are lumped under the general term ďcousinĒ regardless of their sex or whether they are on your fatherís side or motherís side. No other relatives in your family will have the same terms that are used for members of your immediate (nuclear) family, i.e. you donít call anyone else ďfatherĒ except your real father. Other kinship systems lump them together.

Our system makes a sharp distinction between lineal and collateral relatives. We distinguish between our parents and our aunts and uncles, and between our cousins and our brothers and sisters. Other groups donít make such distinctions. Our system is a bilateral system, which means that your motherís brother is called your uncle and your fatherís brother is also called your uncle. An uncle is simply called uncle, regardless of which side of the family he comes from or regardless of his age. An uncle is still called an uncle even if he related to us only by marriage and is not our biological uncle. Other societies distinguish an uncle from the motherís side, as opposed to an uncle from the fatherís side. Some societies only recognize blood relatives and do not recognize relatives by marriage. Either you are a blood relative or you are not a relative at all.

With our system, we have no clear cut-off point for calling someone a relative. We go to the second and third cousins and we say they are ďtwice removed, or ďfive times removed.Ē We calculate cousinhood and relatedness to such lengths, that we need formulas and tables to do it. Other societies make a clean cut off early on.

Our system does not distinguish cross cousins from parallel cousins. Itís not important for us to keep special tract of our cousins because we donít marry them. But in the Middle East, it is very important to distinguish cross cousins from parallel cousins because they practice cousin marriages. A marriage to your cousin is automatically an endogamous marriage, meaning that you are marrying within your group. Another difference with us is that once you are a relative, you are always a relative. Even after death or divorce, we basically use the same terms. When divorced, we refer to our former spouse as an x-husband or x-wife. We also say deceased husband or deceased mother. The original bond is never dissolved.

Cousin marriages, and also levirate marriages, are Biblical. Youíll find these practices among the ancient Hebrews in the Old Testament in Leviticus and Numbers. To make sure that land and herds remained in the family, cousin marriages of all types were allowed, but there was a preference for patrilineal parallel-cousin marriages. Thatís where the children of two brothers married each other. Sometimes even uncles and nieces married, but it was forbidden for aunts and nephews to marry. There were parallel-cousin marriages, cross-cousin marriages and bilateral-cross-cousin marriages. Sometimes two men who are cross-cousins would marry each otherís sister. Jack and Joe are cross cousins, because Jackís mother and Joeís father are brother-sister. When they marry each otherís sister, they end up with a whopping double cross-cousin marriage called a bilateral cross-cousin marriage. The two husbands and their wives are all genetically related to each other on their fatherís side as well as their motherís side.

Your line of descent is your lineage. A clan is a collection of lineages.

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