Chapters 14 (351-363) & 12 (287-299; 304-308): Kinship and Other Methods of Grouping


The closest and most intense relationships often involve people who consider themselves linked by kinship (a network of relatives who possess certain rights and obligations). All cultures have ideas about what kinship is, terms for kin members and rules for correct behavior among kin. The rules can be formal or informal. From infancy, people learn about their culture’s kinship system (ideas about who are kin and what kinds of behavior kinship relationships involve). Kinship systems become so ingrained that they are often seen as natural, rather than cultural.


Kinship is linked with economic systems. What type of economic system a culture has affects personality development, child rearing patterns, and marriage options. In small, non-industrial cultures (foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, agriculture), kinship is the primary principle that organizes people into groups. It ensures the group’s continuity by arranging marriages, maintains social order by setting rules and sanctions, and provides for the basic needs of members by ordering production, consumption and exchange. In large, industrial societies, kinship exists, but other forms of social organization draw people together, regulate them and provide for their needs.


Early work on kinship focused on who was related to whom and in what way. An anthropologist would ask people what they called individuals related to them or what were permissible kinship practices. Others asked people to name all of their relatives, to explain how they were related and what they were called. From this information, they constructed a kinship diagram, a visual way of showing the kinship relationships of an individual (the ego). In contrast is a genealogy, which begins with the earliest ancestors and then works its way down to the present.


There are three ways in which kinship relations are defined: descent, sharing and marriage (see chpt. 12). Descent is the tracing of kinship through birth and relations with a parent or parents. Descent creates a line of people from whom a person is descended. Unilineal systems recognize descent through only one parent. In bilineal systems, a child is related by descent to both.


Unilineal descent systems are the most common form of descent and are found in societies with a fixed resource base such as farmland or herds, where people have a sense of ownership. Inheritance rules that regulate the transmission of property through only a single line of descent keep the resource base from being split up. There are two main patterns of unilineal descent.

Bilateral descent traces kinship from all ancestors regardless of gender or side of the family. Family groups are often nuclear. Marital residence is usually neolocal, living away from the residence of both the bride’s and groom’s parents. Inheritance is allocated equally among all offspring. Bilateral descent is found with the highest frequency among foraging and industrial societies. Because both modes of production rely on a flexible gender division of labor, where males and females contribute equally, many think that is why they are associated with bilateral descent. Ambilineal descent is a rare form of descent where both parents are recognized but an individual is allowed to choose which descent group to be more closely affiliated with.


Many cultures define kinship more by acts of sharing and support than on who is biologically descended from whom. These relationships may be informal or formal (adoption) and include ritually formalized kinship such as godparents and blood brothers.


In societies that are large and stratified, and where kinship and family no longer are the primary basis around which groups can form, social groups form around class, ethnicity, gender, age, occupation, race and common interests. In these large and complex societies, these groups are the basis for social organization.

Gender - The division of labor along gender lines in a society has a large influence on gender roles and gender grouping. In some cultures, men's and women’s labor roles are rigidly segregated and their social lives tend to follow suit. In other cultures, with looser gender labor roles, males and females might belong to the same social groups. This division can lead to gender inequalities.

Age grouping also exists in all societies and varies according to the mode of production. Age grouping simply refers to how a culture organizes its people based on age and assigns them privileges and obligations. While the way in which cultures divide up the human lifespan differs, all cultures make distinctions between immature, mature and older people.

Common-interest associations are groups of people who join together based on common interests, activities, values, beliefs, or objectives. They are a hallmark of urban, industrialized societies in which people often live among strangers. These groups allow for them to achieve common goals and build a sense of membership and belonging. The groups often also fulfill some of the roles that kin might have done in the past, such as socializing new immigrants, providing comfort or even learning a language. Such associations might include churches, dance clubs, political parties, socialist movements, environmental groups, and support groups.

Social stratification refers to differences in wealth or power that create hierarchical (ranked) groups in a society. Stratified groups are unequal to one another based on power, wealth, welfare, education and access to resources. Social stratification arose with agriculture and sedentism, as people were no longer living in egalitarian (equal) groups and some accumulated surpluses.