Society & Us

Society & Us: Kinship

Kinship refers to the social relationships that derive from blood ties (real or imagined) and from marriage.  It is a universal phenomenon that takes highly variable cultural forms, and in almost all societies plays a major part in the socialization of individuals and in the maintenance of social groups.


In small-scale societies kinship ties may be so extensive and so important as to constitute the entire social system. However, in modern societies, kinship plays only a small part in the social system. Indeed, because it offends against egalitarian principles, undue favoritism to kin is often scorned and in some sectors specifically outlawed.


The modern study of kinship can be traced back to mid-19th-century interests in comparative legal institutions and philology. In the late 19th century, however, the cross-cultural comparison of kinship institutions became the particular province of anthropology.

If the study of kinship was defined largely by anthropologists, it is equally true that anthropology as an academic discipline was itself defined by kinship. Until the last decades of the 20th century, for example, kinship was regarded as the core of British social anthropology, and no thorough ethnographic study could overlook the central importance of kinship in the functioning of so-called stateless, nonindustrial, or traditional societies.

 Stuti Das, India

Click to access the other articles in the “Society & Us” series: 


  • Bruce, Steve, and Steven Yearley. The Sage Dictionary of Sociology. London: SAGE Publications, 2006. Print.
  • Carsten, Janet. “Kinship.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 15 Oct. 2008. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.

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1 reply »

  1. The concept of “system of kinship” tended to dominate anthropological studies of kinship in the early h century. Kinship systems as defined in anthropological texts and ethnographies were seen as constituted by patterns of behavior and attitudes in relation to the differences in terminology, listed above, for referring to relationships as well as for addressing others. Many anthropologists went so far as to see, in these patterns of kinship, strong relations between kinship categories and patterns of marriage, including forms of marriage, restrictions on marriage, and cultural concepts of the boundaries of incest. A great deal of inference was necessarily involved in such constructions as to “systems” of kinship, and attempts to construct systemic patterns and reconstruct kinship evolutionary histories on these bases were largely invalidated in later work. However, anthropologist Dwight Read later argued that the way in which kinship categories are defined by individual researchers are substantially inconsistent.


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